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Mirror Mirror

[whitespace] artwork Express Yourself: Postmodern artist Yayoi Kusama's Blue Coat, 1967, confronts dressed-up sexuality and the body.


SF MOMA's trendy take on women and surrealism

By Danya Ruttenburg

Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it!

Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!'
--Lewis Carroll

You've got to have a healthy suspension of disbelief to attend SF MOMA's "Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation." The show's validity hangs upon complete acceptance of the curator's thesis: male Surrealists, she argues, have traditionally explored the nature of external reality, while women--from the 1920s through today--have turned their gaze inward, questioning the reality of the self and the body. Yes, it's a trendy feminist postmodern postulation (or, worse, a Jeanette Winterson novel), and for every work selected to "prove" it there's an omission that would have blown the premise to pieces. Further, it's not unreasonable to argue that showing prewar Surrealism alongside contemporary work is like mixing apples and roast beef, or even that the pieces selected for the body politic may dangerously suggest to those-who-don't-have-the-full-picture that all "women's art is," by nature or nurture, "like this."

If you're in a contentious mood, the show could really piss you off. However, choosing to take the show on its own terms does allow for some yummy food for thought. The viewer is unmistakably requested to think, question and interrogate--a request which is, sadly, unusual for art in this city. Despite the show's annoying po-mo chutzpah, its thesis generally holds up well within the boundaries of the gallery space.

"Mirror Images" takes us over a strange corporeal, sexual, medical and psychological landscape where the boundaries between body and soul have blurred beyond recognition. Everything of the artists' hidden lives--the complex, the disquieting, the fantastic and the gross--seeps out from the inside, and everything from the outside sinks in. Some pieces offer breasts covered in protective thorns, or a cotton torso cut and restitched, bejeweled at neck and crotch. Others, like Yayoi Kusama's Self-Portrait (1972), bring us inside the flesh to see bugs, snow and butterflies set against a grisly pink. The body is a prime playground for metaphor, and these brilliant women--almost without exception, every artist represented is stellar--skillfully invert the obvious to reveal what's really going on.

One of the most striking aspects of the exhibit is, in this context, just how feminist the early Surrealist stuff appears, and just how surreal were some of the feminist artists of the last 20 years. Dorothea Tanning, for example, was married to Max Ernst and very much enraptured with the European Surrealist Guys of the 1930s; though her work, like theirs, offers a dreamlike spin on everyday objects, the underlying content is different. Beautiful Girl depicts a ghostlike woman behind a jail of wooden slats, inscribed upon which are words like "brideness" and "skylike": sweet expectations of feminine behavior. Tanning's contemporaries looked at how we use language to label the world (Magritte's Ceci n'es pas un pipe explained the difference between a pipe and a picture of a pipe); she used language to show how it labels us. Pretty cutting-edge stuff for 1945.


Janine Antoni is cooler than you.


On the other side of the coin there's Ana Mendieta, whose photos/installations of a woman's figure etched in sand evoke ancient goddesses, a return to the Earth and the ghostly chalk outlines of disappeared bodies--and have often been read as highly political. In the show's context, however, the Silueta series (1976) invites us to look for the artist's inner map; the landscape becomes the woman herself, the imprint reads like a wound upon the beach's flesh. These days, surrealism is almost taken for granted; it's just another tool, like abstraction or realism, that an artist can use in her attempt to communicate. This show invites us to step back and notice its presence, to really ponder what can be said with altered (or uncovered) reality that cannot be expressed any other way. Is Mendieta's work concerned with "challenging the nature of reality," or simply expressing it with metaphor? I'm not sure. But "Mirror Images" offers a nice space for us to consider the question.

The show isn't arranged chronologically; rather, the works are grouped to show us artistic influence in action. These often blatant connections are, perhaps, the strongest argument for the curator's "women surrealists are like this" thesis; an artist naturally shares obsessions with those who have inspired her. Next to Cindy Sherman's chilling film stills (1984-85) of women--caught in the eerie moment after some unnamed, hideous action--are smaller, less overt photos from the 1920s and '30s by Claude Cahun. It's clear that Sherman learned much from Cahun's haunting, cinematic use of women in masquerade, acting out fantasies disguised as reality--or the other way around. By exploding the scale of her work (while Cahun's photos are small, Sherman's are gigantic) and adding bright, luminous color, however, the younger woman's work assaults; we're drawn into her twisted reality, like it or not.

Similarly, Kusama's Silver on Earth (1991) affixes a dress to a backdrop of breasts that call directly to those of Louise Bourgeois' Torso, Self Portrait (1963-64). The difference? Kusama's knockers are spray-painted silver. Rather than the assertion of naked genitalia as a part of the human condition--for which Bourgeois (and some of her peers) were known--Kusama's piece speaks to the ways in which women's sexuality gets dressed up, girlie-style, in our culture.

The contemporary artists clearly grappled with the legacy of twisted reality and flesh/spirit ambiguity; a generation after feminism's ascent, there seems an attempt to reintegrate. There's a woman vomiting up a barrage of body parts, as if to purge generations of embittered mirror-gazing. There's an X-ray of a brain with a fetus curled up in it, prompting endless questions about creativity and the maternal intellect. There are, actually, too many spectacular pieces to do all--or any--of them justice.

Which is, in the end, why you should see the show. Buying into the total concept is not a prerequisite for thinking, for seeing, for having your socks blown off by a century's worth of extraordinary talent and genuine vision. The curatorial bent is useful enough to start us thinking about the surreal nature of the self; the works themselves speak volumes. They pull you in to the other side of the looking glass where reality is topsy-turvy and nothing is what it appears to be. Or perhaps where things look exactly as they should.

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From the February 15, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.