Teach your daughters well! Support each other! Shine a light on injustice!
The urgent messages delivered by “Animating the Archives: The Woman’s Building” were not new, but that was part of the point. The exhibition at Avenue 50 Studio, a community gallery in northeast Los Angeles, was a showcase for new works inspired by the history and legacy of the Woman’s Building, a downtown L.A. powerhouse of feminist activity that operated from 1975 to 1991. And even if the issues raised were all too familiar, the artworks offered proof that a new generation of female artists is on the job, with fresh energy.
The 15 participants—some working alone, others in collectives—won fellowships from Metabolic Studio, a nonprofit sponsor of various artistic endeavors, to study the Woman’s Building archives and come up with their own ideas. The eclectic results covered a lot of ground in terms of media, style, and content.
Lisa Diane Wedgeworth, for example, restricted herself to printed words in a hard-hitting piece composed of tote bags stenciled with “Teach Your Daughters Well” and framed snippets of questionable wisdom, such as “Marry a light-skinned man with good hair if he will have you, your children will improve the race” and “Don’t be a cheerleader, play the game.” Hana Ward, the only artist who stuck to pure painting, concentrated on compelling images. Each of her eight 8-by-8-inch canvases depicts a scantily-clad, full-bodied woman interacting with a giant piece of fruit in a bright-colored room. Nicely crafted, sometimes sad, sometimes funny but always intriguingly equivocal, the little paintings pulled viewers up close and gave them something to puzzle over.
In the case of Gladys Rodriguez’s Self-Portrait, a roughly 4-by-4-foot black tapestry, it was the material that grabbed attention: natural and synthetic hair. A tightly woven mat gave way to wiry fringe and a wild bunch of twisted tendrils. Another take on self-portraiture emerged from a workshop led by artist Carolina Ibarra-Mendoza. Asked to identify with a particular plant, thus forging a connection to the earth, each participant portrayed herself in a mixed-media composition of images plucked from nature.
A series of performances accompanied the exhibition and, in some cases, videos or vestiges of the action could be seen in the gallery. The liveliest, by far, was an interactive installation by the anonymous Hackers of Resistance, who use the acronym HORS and call themselves “hacktivists” for feminist causes. Visitors who were up for a little playful hacking, in the interest of social justice, were invited into a weirdly lighted room that looked like a den of computer iniquity.
But inch for inch, the most absorbing work on view was STRIKE/LIGHT, an installation by J. Alex Mathews. Composed of dozens of handmade, individually painted matchboxes spread across the top of a wood table—along with a few photographic images and an arrangement of votive candles and matches—the work sat quietly in one corner of the gallery and may have gone unnoticed by hurried visitors. Given a little time, the tiny boxes presented themselves as artworks, visual poems, or receptacles of memory with the potential of lighting up the world. In the context of an exhibition inspired by a chapter of feminist history, the installation appeared to be an archive in and of itself.