Any tree surgeon or art historian will tell you that to understand the leaves, you have to examine the roots. There’s no way to discuss the work of inter-disciplinary, multi-media artist Faith Wilding without talking about history, and in light of Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries, her traveling retrospective currently on view at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena and Imago Femina, an exhibition of 1978 watercolors at the Loudhailer Gallery in Culver City, there is no point in trying. Spanning more than forty years, hers is a body of work, that shapes, as much as it is shaped by, its contemporary moment.
Wilding’s retrospective presents together for the first time pieces from her extensive and influential body of work, as well as videos, documents, and publications detailing her long and ongoing career as an artist, author, educator, and celebrated feminist trailblazer. She was a founding member of the Feminist Art Program, the first of its kind in the United States, which began in Fresno in 1970 and moved to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (Cal Arts) a year later.
Employing the media-savvy theatricality of feminism’s Second Wave, the women of the Feminist Art Program made art out of revisionist histories and re-imagined narratives, mapping their own limitless territory. Working off-campus in order to resist the influence and expectations of men, Wilding’s early work nevertheless shows the influence of post-studio, site-specific, and performance-based work being made at the time by women and men alike.
By the early 1970s, Minimalism had become as redundant as Pop and Abstract Expressionism before it. Emerging artists were defying categorization and asserting their egalitarian values in new forms that included the body itself. Vito Acconci, in New York, was masturbating in the gallery (Seedbed, 1971), and in Los Angeles Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm (Shoot, 1971). To say the least, such work was confrontational to the way art was (and is) typically marketed and consumed.
For the Feminist Art Program’s first project, instructors Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, students, including Wilding and Mira Schor, and invited artists, refurbished a deserted Hollywood mansion and created Womanhouse (1972), a collaborative installation that also served as a space for performance and feminist consciousness-raising. It attracted critical praise and thousands of visitors, and is arguably the project for which Wilding is best known.
The influential magnitude of Womanhouse cannot be overstated. During the month-long installation, Wilding created Crocheted Environment, which is exactly what it sounds like only creepier. She also performed Waiting, a heartbreaking fifteen-minute monologue written from the point of view of a woman who has squandered her potential and wasted her life. Wilding was also a performer in Judy Chicago’s absurdist Cock and Cunt Play. The performances and installations of Womanhouse complicated the distinction between “art” and “craft” and viciously critiqued the otherness associated with outdated ideas of a woman’s place and her work. Hollywood was an apt location for such invective, being as it is a prime locus of power, wealth, and (literal) projections of gender stereotypes.
Wilding received her MFA from Cal Arts in 1973. It was a fertile period for the school, turning out a number of graduates that went on to long, lucrative careers, including David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Ross Bleckner. But obviously Faith Wilding wasn’t born in a California art school. The roots of her work go deeper.
Born in Paraguay in 1943, she grew up on a Christian commune steeped in religious patriarchy and rigid gender assignments. In the lush, tropical environment, she learned a variety of sewing, crafting, and handiwork skills that would manifest years later in her artwork. In 1961, she emigrated to the United States to train to be a teacher, which is exactly what happened. However, her journey was totally unprecedented. She got involved in civil rights and social justice causes and eventually made her way to Fresno, California where she began working with other forward-thinking women to form feminist consciousness-raising groups and the Feminist Art Program.
“Consciousness” was a 1970s buzzword referring to the total sum of cultural and biological input that informs one’s world-view. Consciousness-raising involved people meeting in groups organized along the lines of common experience- of faith, place, sex, gender, ethnicity, drug preference, or some combination thereof- and defining themselves, their relationships and goals in their own terms.
As far as the Women’s Movement was concerned, all that consciousness-raising was clearly working and feminism was becoming mainstream. Magazines marketed to women like Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and the Ladies Home Journal took up the mantle and sitcoms like the wildly popular Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), made the idea of women defining for themselves the terms of their independence palatable to middle-America.
In 1972, the year of Womanhouse, the Equal Rights Amendment, which read in part that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex,” passed Congress with bilateral support, (but ultimately failed to be ratified), and Title IX of the 1972 Education Act banned sex discrimination in any program that accepted federal money. In 1973, Billie Jean King beat self-avowed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the highly-publicized “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, and the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade guaranteed women the right to choose an abortion. In the American 1970s, women were at last having their moment.
And here in the young 21st Century, Faith Wilding is at last having hers. Mercifully, there are no cocks or cunts on display in Imago Femina, Wilding’s show at the Loudhailer Gallery, on view until October 24, 2015. Blending abstraction and representation, the works are polite, orderly, and only remotely abject, unlike some of her later 2D work, such as Wall of Wounds (1996) and the more gynecological examples from Embryoworld (1997-98), which are a bit more gnarly. Just the same, the feminist principles and histories that have been the foundation of her career are apparent.
Based on illustrations by 11th century herbalists, the Imago Femina series features ascending rays of colors, climbing spirals, and twisted young buds poised to unfurl. They are all elegantly rendered to draw a connection between botany and human physiology. Feminists, as well as Terence McKenna fans and ayahuasca enthusiasts, will be delighted.
The strongest works display a balance of formal and associative devices- movement and stillness, geometry and biology. The repeated curves and spirals found, but less often marveled over, in leaves and clam shells convey evolution, growth, and potential. These forms struggle for integration with hard-edged backgrounds, borders, and frames-within-frames. Given Wilding’s body of work and progression of thought, it is easy to read these devices as representative of the diametric realms of feminine and masculine.
Imago Femina #13 makes particularly sophisticated use of the opposition analogies in the work. The relationship between the organic forms, at once resembling flowers, shells, nerve endings, and skulls yield to wary harmony with the right angles and hard-edged incisions in the pictorial space. The effect is reminiscent of the cutting, clipping, inserting, and modifying of collage.
Wilding shows her facility with visual rhythms and directing the eye in Imago Femina #19. Tendrils, radiating from an ocular ring, link, as if holding hands, through the dark striped background. Like a framed picture of some graphic pollination ritual on a papered wall, the composition alludes to design and decor, and from there it’s a short trip to the thorny territory of Women’s Issues. In my notes I wrote, “Voyeur on mushrooms.” So, there’s another marginalized demographic with whom this work is likely to resonate!
One of the few subtitled works in the show is Imago Femina #22 (My Heart Shell Breaks Open). The work is unique among the others for having a literal representational and narrative scheme. We understand the thing that looks like a shell to be the Heart Shell of the title, a metaphor that’s easy to grasp. By reason of that established language system, the thing sprouting upward from the Heart Shell is a leaf that surrealistically vaporizes into bands of color before it fully forms. And there the metaphor gets more personal and mysterious.
Faith Wilding’s body of work, in all its variety, by turns heavy and ephemeral, unites the personal and the political, the aesthetic and the theoretical. In her Imago Femina series in particular, the struggle to reconcile the natural and the manmade (gender specificity intended), is articulated in languages from medieval science to contemporary science-fiction. As in the 1978 film Alien, failed technological promise frames the growth of an exterminating angel, or in this case, alien other.
The Loudhailer Gallery is located at 2648 La Cienega Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034.