WOMAN AROUND TOWN: Go Guerrilla Girls! Feminism Writ Large

“Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?”  According to the Guerrilla Girls, yeah, kind of. Their supersized billboard goes on to state that less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are females. They gathered the statistics in 2011, in a response to a work done decades ago where they counted less than 3% female artists and 83% of the nudes.  So, has much changed? Also, yeah, kind of.

Just over thirty years ago, the Guerrilla Girls broke conceptual ground, pointing out glaring inequities in the global art market. It all started with a 1984 exhibition at MoMA claiming to be an overview of contemporary art. When it turned out that fewer than 10% of the artists included were women or people of color, the first generation of Guerrilla Girls was born. They claimed that art cannot represent society if it excludes the majority of that society. They woke some people up and scared the hell out of others.  They’re still doing it today.  “Not Ready to Make Nice,” an exhibition of these provocative, political, activist feminist artists just concluded at the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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The Guerrilla Girls presciently suggested dropping an “Estrogen Bomb” on Washington back in the Bush administration.

The Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymous women artists who, rather than being frustrated and angry about how white males dominate the canon of art history, decided to take action. They started with facts. Just how widespread and deeply rooted the inequality in the art world is and has been is the basis of all their work. They’ve pasted stickers, hung posters, carried signs, projected messages onto the sides of museums and given talks, all while wearing rubber gorilla masks. They’re out to redefine the “F” word to Feminism, through searing commentary couched in humor.

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The Guerrilla Girls tout their own heroes in “The Birth of Feminism”

These masked crusaders are contemporary art’s superheroes, fighting for truth, justice and the American way. They vary in number, but over their thirty-plus years,  more than 55 women have donned Guerrilla gear to fight for equal representation and compensation for women and minority artists, to rail against economic inequality, and to raise awareness of environmental dangers like fracking. Some Guerrilla Girls were active for years, some for weeks or months, but all remained anonymous, using the names of great  women artists like Frida Kahlo or Käthe Kollwitz.  It’s both an homage and a defense mechanism. The Guerrilla Girls have all been artists who are trying to make a living in the same system they’re debunking, so they’re courage is as real as the consequences could be to their careers.

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“Not Ready to Make Nice” includes the Guerrilla Girls’ “Anatomically Correct Oscar” that predated the “Oscars So White” movement by more than 10 years.

Zuccaire Gallery director and curator, Karen Levitov, who, herself, has been shaking up the art world in a quiet corner of Long Island, mounted an extraordinary exhibition, bringing major examples of the Guerrilla Girls’ work together. The show gives an idea of the international scope of their activities, including billboards about women’s representation in art institutions from Ireland to Italy and Turkey.  Years before the “Oscars So White” movement emerged, the Guerrilla Girls billboarded Hollywood with their “Anatomically Correct Oscar” on view in the exhibition. It says “He’s white and male, just like the guys who win!  92.8% of the Writing awards have gone to men.  Only 5% of the Acting Awards have gone to people of color.”

Levitov invited the public – which includes, naturally, many of the university’s students – to become part of the discussion with a huge blackboard inviting responses to the Guerrilla Girls or the values they represent. Visitors even got to take home their own Guerrilla Girl work.  Pink erasers marked “Erase Discrimination  – Guerrilla Girls” were given out.

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The Guerrilla Girls started rattling some big cages thirty years ago; the effects are being seen today.

For decades, like many women who work in the art world, I’ve silently uttered, “Thank you, Guerrilla Girls.”  Now I can say it publicly.

Thank you, all Guerilla Girls, past, present and future, for kicking hornets’ nests and fighting for rights. Your efforts have been fruitful.  Today, there are women directors leading the Cooper-Hewitt museum, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Hirshhorn in Washington and the Tate Modern in London, to name a few. The Met Breuer opened its new space with a solo show of a woman, Nasreen Mohamedi, and followed it with another solo show of a woman, Diane Arbus, and when the Whitney Museum reopened, its inaugural show gave women artists pride of place.  The Guerrilla Girls, are part of that, and their works are now eagerly collected by the very institutions they’ve criticized.

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Listed on the Guerrilla Girls’ “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist are “Working without the pressure of success” and “Being assured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine.”

Though the exhibition started in Chicago in 2012, where it was curated by Neysa Page-Lieberman, and the Zuccaire Gallery show has ended, the good news is that the Guerrilla Girls are far from done.  Their artists’ talk at Stony Brook can be viewed online.  You can learn about them at their website,  and find out where they’ll be showing next, book an appearance, or buy one of their works like “Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes.” You’ll be in good company, the Guerilla Girls have shown at and been collected by the Brooklyn Museum; the Art Institute of Chicago; MoMA; the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Art Gallery NSW, Sydney, Australia; and the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Turkey, to name a few. It’s overdue but appropriate appreciation for these rebels with a cause.

All Photos by Adel Gorgy

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