The Activist Impulse

Women and Their Work, Austin

Through November 15, 2008
by Claire Ruud

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      Judi Werthein
      Brinco (Jump)
      Installation view
      Courtesy the artist

      View Gallery

      The Activist Impulse brings together five works by five socially engaged artists—Andrea Geyer, Emily Jacir, Kristin Lucas, Valerie Tevere & Angel Nevarez and Judi Werthein. Each of the five works operates both within the public sphere and the art world. In fact, the existence of each of these works within the gallery walls depends on the representation, through text, photographs, videos and other ephemera, of the functions of each project outside those walls, within political territories, government bureaucracy and the channels of mass media. Documentation through text and video notoriously provoke viewer fatigue, but curator Regine Basha’s seamless installation ameliorates any such tendency. The works are few and amply spaced, and a broad corridor built along the north wall of the gallery simultaneously guides the viewer into the space and divides the sizable room into manageable chunks. Moreover, Basha does some heavy lifting with this exhibition, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of Women and Their Work. In the catalogue, she suggests that the show is a “nod” towards the “activist impulse” of the nonprofit’s founders. In fact, The Activist Impulse makes an argument about the legacy of that impulse today: the continued relevance of that impulse is not only in the commitment to women artists, but moreover in its commitment to politically active art practices.

      Jacir’s well-known Where We Come From (2003) opens the exhibition, installed in a long, wide corridor around the corner from the gallery’s main entrance. The series of thirty sets of images and texts unassumingly documents Jacir’s actions as she carried out the requests of Palestinians in territory they were forbidden to enter—requests such as “play soccer with a boy in Haifa” and “hug my mother and kiss her.” I first saw Jacir’s series in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where only a few of the thirty sets of photographs and texts were exhibited. There I, like many others, was captivated by the intimate experience of reconstructing Jacir’s both tender and politically charged actions. At Women and Their Work, the effect is different; Basha has installed all of the images and texts, creating a cumulative impact that rises to a crescendo (or perhaps a decrescendo) at the end of the corridor, where hang two texts representing unaccomplished requests: a family home not found, oranges from a family grove not harvested. These lonesome texts poignantly illustrate the limits of Jacir’s intervention within a system much larger than herself.

      To the left of these two forlorn texts, the gallery opens up into a larger space containing the four other pieces that complete the exhibition. The initial promenade through Where We Come From thus inflects the rest of the work. Opposite the entryway, three televisions play videos of bands performing We Need a Theory to Continue, a protest song by collaborative team Tevere & Nevarez. The setting for these performances is particularly striking: the Austin City Hall Pavilion Stage. In the state capitol of Texas, Tevere and Nevarez have chosen a site of city rather than state government. Their choice invokes a particular local audience—the liberal few clustered within a conservative state. Their lyrics express both the hope and discouragement of a blue dot awash in a red sea.

      Werthein’s Brinco (Jump) (2005), installed beside We Need a Theory to Continue, also has particular relevance here, in a state with one of the largest populations of undocumented workers and a city which has declared itself a “safety zone” where all people are treated equally regardless of immigration status. For Brinco, commissioned for InSite 2005, Werthein designed a pair of sneakers for Mexicans crossing the border into the US, complete with a map on the insole, a flashlight, a compass, a pocket for money and an image Toribio Romo, patron saint of migrants. In Tijuana, Werthein handed out about 500 pairs of these shoes to people planning to cross the border and another 500 pairs were sold at boutiques in San Diego. At Women and Their Work, the shoes are installed on a pedestal, behind which two screens play recordings of news coverage of the project. Brinco pairs beautifully with Jacir’s Where We Come From, both drawing attention to the effects of political borders on physical bodies.

      Geyer’s The Queen of the Artists’ Studios: Audrey Munson is the only work that suffers from its installation. The photographic series representing the piece at Women and Their Work fails to communicate the narrative behind Geyer’s project or her social engagement with a community. In The Queen, Geyer researched 19th century artists’ model and muse Audrey Munson, creating an archive of newspaper clippings, images and testimonials and, from these, she put together a book and the series of photographs. These photographs, which superimpose images from the suffrage movement over images of the statues for which Munson posed, are difficult to decipher, though somewhat bewitching. The archive, which is pivotal to the project, was sorely missed; just a few newspaper clippings could have guided the viewer through the work.

      The Activist Impulse closes with Refresh (2007), a piece in which Lucas petitioned the Superior Court of California to change her name—to change it from Kristin Sue Lucas to Kristin Sue Lucas. Understandably confused, the judge hesitated, but ultimately granted her request. This piece most poignantly embodies the type of activism represented throughout The Activist Impulse: these artists choose social action on a small scale to reveal the effects of large-scale politics on individual bodies. Through their conviction that the personal is political and their intentional presence in the public sphere, these artists extend the legacy of Feminism.

      The gallery’s support for women artists has been unflagging over the past thirty years and remains relevant and necessary. However, through The Activist Impulse, Basha challenges Women and Their Work to think beyond exhibiting women artists and to support socially engaged artistic practices. A timely challenge, as we hold our breath in anticipation of what our country will become on November 4.

      Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.


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