This review was originally published on September 16, 2010.
Quick. Without logging onto the internet or googling on your iPhone, name three female artists. Can you do it? Sure, we all got Frida Kahlo but besides her, can you name three other female artists? I couldn’t and that opening question in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s upsetting, informative and cool documentary “!Women Art Revolution” sets the stage for an important film about the women’s art scene which has never really received its due.
I’ve had several art classes throughout my tenure at various schools and I can only really remember Frida Kahlo being discussed in terms of women artists. Now, either Kahlo had an amazing PR team surrounding her or Hershman Leeson’s doc has blown the roof off yet another boy’s club: the art scene. In the film, Hershman Leeson takes us back to the late 1960s and early 1970s where women’s rights were being discussed and fought for. Feminism was on the rise and women were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Like any oppressed group working towards freedom, the anger felt came out in demonstrations, angry rhetoric, performance pieces and art installations. Hershman Leeson was a part of the feminist art scene and even back in the early stages of it was wise enough to start documenting it through film and, later, video. In essence, this is a film that’s taken 40 years to complete.
Through Hershman Leeson’s exhaustive collection of interviews we meet some of the foremothers of the art scene including Judy Chicago, Rachel Rosenthal, Marcia Tucker and the Guerilla Girls. All of these women (plus many, many more) were pushing the boundaries of art made by women and it’s these stories about blatant sexism, nepotism and general boorish behavior that make “!Women Art Revolution” work as a film. I’m sure if you’re familiar with these women and their work, this film may not do much for you. But I wasn’t familiar with any of the information presented here and I’m now intrigued so I feel the film is a big success. Plus, the film works on an emotional level and I found myself shocked and angered by the unfair tactics of the male dominated art scene of both yesterday and today.
Hershman Leeson paints a picture that isn’t an easy one to complete. If she does it wrong, the film becomes a bunch of people who failed to gain notoriety sitting around bitching about it. But, luckily, Hershman Leeson builds a story of the women’s art revolution and peppers in instances where it’s absolutely clear women artists were being pushed aside. It really becomes frustrating and infuriating how women artists have been, and still are, treated unfairly both in terms of showing their work in galleries or merely educating people about the fact that women artists exist through art classes. Probably the best instance of this occurs in the film where a young, modern female artist is doing work that strongly resembles the work of another female artist from the 1970s. However the ingénue doing the work now doesn’t even know who this other artist is and has never seen her work because it’s just not being taught. That’s just crazy.
“!Women Art Revolution” takes a look at an art scene that was vibrant and well organized by women who were fighting to be heard. Perhaps the then recent Civil Rights activists overshadowed their cause. Maybe male dominated societies’ propensity to make fun of women for burning bras and seeking to discredit feminism kept these women down. But I now know of some truly gifted and amazing female artists out in the world and that’s due to Lynn Hershman Leeson and “!Women Art Revolution.”