Mary Beth Edelson
The Mckinney Avenue Contemporary
Mary Beth Edelson, Loving Justice (Gena Rowlands), 1983–93; silk screen, transfer, oil paint gesso, acrylic paint, pencil, watercolor, gauche, ink, fringe and fabric; 12 x 10 inches; courtesy the artist and The McKinney Avenue Contemporary; photo by Fernando Rojas
(background) Collage Wall: History 1971–2010, 1972–ongoing; (foreground) Double Marlene Dietrich, Here’s to the Boys in the Navy, 1992, 2010; chiffon and mixed collage images backed with muslin fabric; courtesy the artist and The McKinney Avenue Contemporary; photo by Fernando Rojas
What’s the relevance of Women’s Lib today? This question arises when viewing The McKinney Avenue Contemporary’s recent exhibition of the work of Mary Beth Edelson, a pioneer of ’70s American feminist art. In 2010 Newsweek claimed that only one in four women consider themselves feminists, blaming divisiveness within the women’s liberation movement and the ’80s conservative backlash with ushering in the “postfeminist” era. By reviving the power of community and the history of women’s achievements, Edelson challenges viewers to confront the F word.
Edelson’s exhibition, There is Never Only One Game in Town and Other Stories, poses this challenge by reconfiguring nostalgic images of women in site-specific installations, a collaborative video projection and mixed-media photomontages. A doubled likeness of Marlene Dietrich in the sailor garb she donned for Seven Sinners (1940), imprinted on chiffon and suspended from the ceiling, accompanies two walls of small-scale collages featuring Hollywood beauties—femmes fatales from the 1940s–70s and Judy Garland as Dorothy. The installation Collage Wall: History 1971–2010 populates much of the remaining wall space with intricate, black-and-white cutouts of the key players of the ’70s feminist art movement intermingled with pasted floral and animal motifs, images of ancient goddesses and fertility symbols. Elsewhere, Edelson venerates seven feminists in her Hannah Höch-like Cameo collages (1986): Louise [Bourgeois], Ana [Mendieta] and Nancy [Spero] ascend toward the ceiling in apotheosis. Throughout, Edelson combines fetishized but deadly film goddesses with the “stars” of activist collectives, testifying to gender stereotypes yet also calling for young women to re-unite, following the lessons of their feminist foremothers.
In her writings Edelson dates her dedication to “dismantling the master’s house with women’s tools” to the ’70s, when she combined photographs of her own nude body with drawings of the Goddess, an incarnation of female spirituality. Traces of these images appear as cutouts on the Collage Wall and in other works in the form of eclectic female deities such as the pre-Greco Baubo and the ancient Irish Sheela-na-Gig, who flagrantly exposes her genitals while smiling wilily at her viewer. Sheela's presence points to the persisting importance of the Goddess in Edelson’s work but also to its strongest quality: humor. Sheela is a trickster, flaunting her sexuality yet laughing at herself for it. For Edelson, humor transgresses male-dominated language systems—laughter becomes women’s best provocation.
Laughing helps viewers appreciate the ardent feminist message of Pink Peggy: Thinking the Unthinkable (1996), a collage featuring B-movie star Peggy Castle wielding dual handguns. One earnestly reads the psychoanalytic interpretation of the femme fatale penned directly onto the work; yet one also laughs at the absurdity of the double-packing, peignoir-wearing glamour girl. Likewise, in the Judy Garland series the wit of Dorothy’s big serigraphed head atop teeny cartoon-like bodies tempers the solemnity of the handwritten text, which provides questions and multiple-choice responses referencing perennial female concerns, such as the shame of menstruation. Viewers tally their points (as in a Cosmo quiz) to determine if they are worthy of the feminist moniker. Does second-wave feminism seduce today’s young viewers or will it remain the F word? Take the test to find out.
Catherine Caesar is an art historian specializing in American art of the 1960s and ’70s, and Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Dallas.