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Girls gone wild

Art and Feminism lifts a beleaguered movement up by its bra straps

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Like other retro '70s fare -- bellbottoms, rose-tinted aviator glasses and funk -- feminism may be ripe for a comeback.

Art and Feminism, a 304-page, bountifully illustrated, coffee-table-toppling tome is just the kind of publication that could make feminism as hip as those other resurrected '70s phenomena. Published by the cutting-edge Phaidon Press, Art and Feminism is the culmination of three years of research and a lifetime as a girl on planet Earth for its editor, Helena Reckitt.

A transplanted Londoner and former head of talks at that city's renowned Institute of Contemporary Arts, Reckitt has been education director at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center for the past three years and taught a course on feminist art this past fall at Emory University. At the Contemporary, Reckitt has imported an international who's-who of maverick women artists and thinkers below the Mason-Dixon line, including Nicole Eisenman, Annie Sprinkle, Mira Schor, Carolee Schneemann and Coco Fusco, many of whom are featured in the pages of Art and Feminism.

The product of a mother-centric household and a same-sex education, Reckitt attributes her own budding feminism to leaving the cozy womb of a girl-power home where, she says, "I always had a feeling of female superiority."

"Going to university was a real shock," she confides in her plummy accent. "I went to [Oxford University], which was predominately male, and the women were really regarded as sex objects." Propelled by her experiences at Oxford and involvement with feminist causes, Reckitt did her part to challenge such lingering prejudice and lit a fire under England's cultural firmament by inviting a steady stream of unruly women to the Institute of Contemporary Arts including Kiki Smith, Helene Cixous, Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler, Mona Hatoum, Barbara Kruger and Andrea Dworkin.

Art and Feminism lifts a beleaguered movement up by its bra straps and manages to make feminism -- of all things -- sexy. Sexy for the strain of defiance, anger, resistance, creativity, humor and overall high spiritedness that the pop cult mythos surrounding feminism has recast into gray, sinister group-think. In the popular imagination, feminism somehow has morphed from the vocabulary of female equality into some nefarious, oppressively lockstep machine, like some perverse hybrid of 1984 and Austin Powers' fembots shooting bullets instead of mother's milk from their steel breasts.

For those ignorant of its history and importance, feminism has become the object of widespread scorn and ridicule, especially for right-wing hysterics like Rush Limbaugh with his marauding "feminazis" and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who claims feminism brainwashed her into a tubal ligation. With so few people coming to the movement's defense, feminism phobia has trickled down to affect even those who are benefiting from it the most today.

"Just because I'm a feminist, why should I have to wear ugly shoes?" asked an Emory student in Reckitt's "Art and Feminism" seminar.

"And I thought, 'Where did you get this from?'" Reckitt recalls. "What have we studied or looked at that made you think you had to present yourself in an unlovely or unglamorous light?"

"I've gone through phases myself of thinking, 'Is feminism really just old news and irrelevant?'" Reckitt concedes. "And then, sure enough, something happens to me where I'm totally patronized, or feel very marginalized, or I'm nervous to talk about having a girlfriend in certain company, and I realize, no, it's still there. It's just not as overt as it was for previous generations."

Part of Reckitt's mission while editing the book was to debunk the misguided view of feminism's frumpiness and irrelevance to modern women's lives.

"I wanted the book to represent feminism as something that could be many things, including funny, subversive, sexy, beautiful. I really wanted to try and chip away at some of those residual prejudices that feminist work was all really preachy, or really dry and didactic and miserable. To me feminism is more about pleasure and excitement and female subversion."

Like other Phaidon publications, Art and Feminism's smart, urbane packaging elevates a concept many still associate solely with armpit hair and bra burning, to its proper butt-kicking, take-no-prisoners status in art history. How else to approach work like German artist Valie Export's 1969 project where she entered a Munich porn theater wearing a pair of crotchless jeans and a gun and invited men to do what they would. The men were unified in their response to Export's provocation. They bolted. In 1973, Laurie Anderson turned a device traditionally associated with the objectification of women back on itself, snapping photos of the various men who street harassed her in New York in "Fully Automated Nikon." In 1974, artist Marina Abramovic's investigation of women as acted-upon objects took on a sinister tone when Abramovic offered a Naples art gallery audience a table of implements -- a gun, a bullet, needles, scissors, knives, a rose, perfume and grapes -- with the invitation, "There are 72 objects on the table that can be used on me as desired. I am the object." Some audience members eventually halted the performance when after six hours they began to fear for the cut-and-bleeding artist's safety.

These risk-taking feminist artists who defined the movement's early days acted out in a defiant, unruly, often incendiary way that laid the foundation for every Karen Finley, Holly Hughes and Eve Ansler to follow. Feminist art has been as radical and risky as any happening or radical fringe art movement from the Dadaists to the performance art excesses of Chris Burden or Vito Acconci, and Reckitt is hellbent to prove it within the current rage-free climate.

Asked if, compared to the out-there artists of the '60s and '70s, feminist art has lost its nerve, Reckitt is unconvinced. "I don't think that's true. But I think that because we're in different times, there's maybe less of a sense of urgency about what feminist artists are doing today."

But as much as feminism has struggled against mainstream perceptions, feminist art has coped with the institutional prejudices of the art world, from both men and women. Art activist groups like the Guerrilla Girls have not only illuminated the measly representation of women artists in major museums and galleries, but women artists themselves have been reluctant to align themselves with feminism or call their work feminist.

"Gender bullshit still exists. But I don't think very many artists are making work from a purely feminist position these days," Reckitt admits.

For such F-word-shy women artists, Art and Feminism may prove the biggest shot in the arm and inspirational resource, upsetting the notion that the history of the movement is all art nouveau vaginas and women's history quilts. Instead, there is subversive weirdness aplenty, including Niki de Saint-Phalle's hilarious 1966 sculpture of an enormous woman's torso that transformed a Stockholm gallery into Pee-wee's Playhouse. An image of the exhibition shows a line of patient art lovers -- like tourists at Lady Liberty's skirts -- waiting in line to enter through a vividly painted opening between the sculpture's legs. A spirit of unfettered creativity and soul-baring expression infects work like Saint-Phalle's and the publication as a whole.

Invested with the insubordinate, sophisticated, ironic, music and culture-savvy voice of its editor, Art and Feminism recasts a battle-scarred feminism as a history and a movement worth believing in. Reckitt has dragged what many might consider a moribund notion back into a contemporary art realm where faddishness can often overwhelm significance.

"I hope that younger women looking at it will be excited about the possibilities of feminism and art. But I also hope that it might awaken curiosity about artists from the earlier generation. That it might stimulate fresh research, exhibitions, writing about artists who've been neglected or forgotten or have not received the kind of treatment they would have received -- I predict -- if they had been men."

Art and Feminism. Edited by Helena Reckitt. Survey by Peggy Phelan. Phaidon Press. 304 pages. $69.95. www.phaidon.com

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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