Posts tagged Los Angeles

I had known of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party piece before I moved to Brooklyn, where the installation is now housed permanently at the Brooklyn Museum. But in a classic information age fashion, I had seen The Dinner Party at The Geffen Contemporary at The MOMA in Los Angeles during the WACK! exhibition in 2008 (an exhibition that in many ways influences this periodical regularly) and had read about how important The Dinner Party was, and had learned how flawed first wave feminists were college, so I decided Judy Chicago's work passé. I admit this is a bad habit, even if I can point to it being a combined result of too much information and progress within the feminist "movement."

For those who are unfamiliar, The Dinner Party is an homage to feminist pioneers in the form of a dinner table, shaped as an equilateral triangle to (symbolize equality). Each place setting has a motif that nods to the work of the female being honored with a placemat bearing their names. No two settings are alike, but each one is very intricate.

But the other night I found an installation by Judy Chicago that I had not seen before, and given that women are just starting to talk about their periods in everyday conversation, I thought I'd discuss Judy Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom.

Chicago (born Judith Cohen in 1939) created the first feminist art collective called Feminist Arts Program, or FAP, at Fresno State (CA) in 1971. A year later, they brought the program to the California Institute of Art outside of Los Angeles.

FAP's first piece was a collaborative installation, Womanhouse, was made by various female artists. The installation was a multi-media/performance art piece where each room in an abandoned mansion on Mariposa Street in Hollywood represented different living conditions of home-makers (which lest we forget, was still very much an occupation for women in 1971). Within Womanhouse, The dilapidated house was transformed by 23 women using construction tools for the first time in their lives. As the manifesto for the installation put it, Womanhouse became "the age-old female activity of homemaking... taken to fantasy proportions."

In Womanhouse Chicago created an otherwise sterile bathroom scene with the trashcan overflowing with bloody menstruation pads and a few bloody tampons, blood stains on the tile floor, blood-drenched pads neatly hanging from a clothesline, a heating pad hanging near the toilet, and the shelves covered with sanitary products for mensuration.


Considering how little we discuss periods today, in 1971 this was a subject that was not discussed in public whatsoever, so the shock value, as well as the statement made by this work was immense. 

During the 1970s and through the 80s, women claimed blood as an artistic symbol of femininity and feminism but until this point no one had so overtly and visually discussed menstruation. And given the bloody nature of our cycles, I think a visual representation says a lot more than words can.

Today I can look on Instagram and see thousands of visual representations of menstrual blood, as well as nipples, pubic hair, vaginas, etc. But the timeliness and straightforwardness of Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom has a much greater impact. I'm trying to imagine what society's reaction might have been like in 1972 if photographs of this installation had the ability to be distributed at the rate in which photographs are today while maintaining the shock value of this being the first time something like this hit the public eye.

Now living in "fourth-wave feminism," (oh god, they say it's hashtag feminism) sometimes I look back at first wave feminists and think them silly, but it's because it's easy for a woman my age to forget how fucking oppressed my people were just 40 years ago. I think the use of blood as a symbol of femininity is still powerful because women are depicted as delicate and sweet, but it seemed so easy to me to use the female experience in one's work. I guess it feels naive, but that's because the first feminists were just working out the ideas that I now take for granted.

In the original essay that accompanied Womanhouse, I am struck by one key point:

[At the inception of Feminist Arts Program]...the women students had spent a lot of time talking about their problems as women before they began to do any work. We wondered if those same problems could be dealt with while working on a project.

Female art students often approach artmaking with a personality structure conditioned by an unwillingness to push themselves beyond their limits; a lack of familiarity with tools and artmaking processes; an inability to see themselves as working people; and a general lack of assertiveness and ambition. The aim of the Feminist Art Program is to help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their artmaking out of their experiences as women. Womanhouse seemed to offer the perfect context for this educational process.

What this excerpt suggests is that in general, women in 1971 didn't see themselves in the work field, let alone the art world. I have the hindsight to know celebrated figures like Anni Albers Georgia O'Keeffe, and Eva Hesse, but beyond them, it's hard for me to name off female artists who worked before the 1960s, and yet I'm still shocked to learn this perspective of women in the 70s. 

It doesn't take a scrutinizing genius to infer that Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom came out of frustration, (I just read that the average woman undergoes menstruation over 400 times in her lifetime, and while some females are somehow lucky and experience little issue in their cycles, not even a trans woman, when she experiences the ways in which women are treated as lesser or an object, can ever know the frustrations that female born women go through with their periods), but I can only imagine what kind of frustration women must have felt during this era where we were largely still asked to stay home. Rosy the Riveter got to work during WWII but she quietly went back to childrearing and homemaking "when the boys came home."

The early feminists commonly believed that a woman's body, specifically her vagina, was her source of greatness, which later feminists brushed off as erroneous biological or genetic essentialism. But I am seeing an uptick in modern gender essentialism with the hashtag feminists. Vagina cupcakes for international women's day! Free the nipple... (but then slut shame the shivering club girl in her tube dress, fake eyelashes and cheap stilettos). Today we are all about body positivity and the desexualization of the female body. In some ways, first wave feminists were trying to do the same things, but society hadn't been primed for the discussion. The first wavers hadn't cultivated the dialogue yet, so their ideas seem rudimentary. But out of all the "feminist" artwork I see out there on social media, I can't think of anyone who's rivaled the 'in-your-face-ness' of Judy Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom.


Also, PS Judy Chicago made a piece called Red Flag as a parody of the Red Scare (of which her father was a victim of) in 1971 that was even more in your face.


Courtney Cady, © 2018




Returning home to LA after two years of being away, it's easier to see the changes that are taking place. I lived in this city for eleven years before taking off, so to step back and see it from a new perspective, while at the same time understanding its long history, has been very influential on me. Given that cities in the US are experiencing regeneration after decades of neglect, with the majority who previously preferred suburbs and small towns now showing a preference for the city, every major urban area is going through similar changes. But still, I can't help but to resist some of the change happening in my own city, perhaps because I felt I 'belonged' to the LA that once was.

I mean, I feel so connected to LA that I shed a tear for a few closed shops in my old neighborhood. Seeing a completely vacant storefront of a business that had been around since before I was born really bummed me out. It's like a new type of person has taken over Highland Park, and where I may have been guilty of once being the gentrifier, now I'm pointing the finger at the new people for putting in vintage stores on every block and opening coffee shops where a variety of small businesses once served the community. I feel displaced, not having a sense of home in my own neighborhood, and refusing to support the spike in rent. Regardless, obviously these businesses are serving the new community, otherwise they wouldn't thrive, so maybe it's me who's unable to adapt. In effort to do so however, I asked myself to look at history to see how other people have dealt with this.

Another time LA experienced a huge overhaul was when the freeways were constructed. Neighborhoods were literally cut up. Houses razed. Major streets closed. (And this, actually, was a nation-wide phenomenon as well). Before the late 1970s, suburbs and neighboring counties could only be accessed from the city through major street routes. But once the car took over in the 1950s, LA modeled itself after the success of the first freeway in the world, The Arroy Seco Parkway, which was a small section of what is now California's 110 freeway that connected Los Angeles to neighboring Pasadena. So began a campaign to easily connect the entire city to the outside world that lasted through the late 1970s. As a major side effect of this long construction period, communities were ripped apart, thousands of homes were demolished, and people were displaced. And as one might suspect, a majority of the demolition was of lower income neighborhoods housing minorities. 

Asshole "Mural", 1974. Harry Gamboa Jr. (Featuring the four founding members of Asco).

Towards the end of the freeway construction era in Los Angeles, an artist group of Mexican Americans known as Asco formed, almost in reaction to what was taking place in their neighborhood by Harry Gamboa, Jr., "Gronk" Nicandro, Willie Herrón and Patssi Valdez in Boyle Heights. (Asco means nausea in Spanish). During the freeway construction, Boyle Heights endured the erection of 5 major freeways, with two large interchanges; diving the neighborhood through its center, demolishing thousands of homes and businesses. At the same time, the Vietnam War was taking place, and many residents of Boyle Heights were recruited to join the military. Combine that with the blatant racism against Mexicans in the US during that era, and yeah, Asco had a reason to be pissed.

But what's so great about Asco is that instead of bitching and moaning, they turned their suffering into art. They explored performance art, and brought new takes to old ideas. Playing with the tradition of murals in Mexican culture for example, Asco made live murals with people, and took photographs or recorded their performances. (As seen above). They also adapted traditional Catholic themes, paying homage to their culture, while simultaneously brining awareness to the injustices they collectively endured.

The First Supper After a Major Riot, 1974, Harry Gamboa Jr

My favorite of these performances is seen above. A take on The Last Supper, where the performers are wearing traditional Dia de Los Muertos costumes (in December around Christmas time, however) in the same location where a riot had broken out a few years prior after rubber bullets were shot by police at a group of protestors demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

Two years earlier, Asco had done a similar performance, replacing the Christmas Parade that was revoked as a result of the riot, with a performance parade entitled, Walking Mural, that took the old parade route, only this time it ended at the US Marine Corps recruiting office. Dressed as the Virgen de Guadalupe, a Christmas Tree and the Holy Trinity, the group made a procession with reference to the Stations of the Cross, carrying a large cross with them through the streets, effectively recruiting people in the neighborhood to march onto the military recruiting office to shut it down. If only for a day, Asco was successful in making art meaningful.

Living in the "Entertainment Capital of the World," Asco also did a series of short-lived performances they called No Movies. These performances consisted of costumes and filmic scenes set up for one or two photographs. The intention was to make images that appeared to be film stills, only there was no actual film associated with the images. 

In the early stages of Asco's No Movies, group member, Gamboa, upon realizing the Chicano* artist community was underrepresented at LACMA (the city's only contemporary art museum at the time), approached LACMA's curator to ask him why this was the case. It was reported that the curator's response was, "Chicanos are gang members who don't make fine art," so Asco turned around and played out the stereotype by spray painting their names on the entrances of the museum. In an act of iconoclasm, Gamboa photographed Patssi Valdez posing with the "graffiti." This No Movie was called Spray Paint LACMA, and later became one of their most famous. I found a rather witty description below a slide in, Urban Exile: Collected Writings of Harry Gamboa, Jr, (1998) that said, "All entrances of the museum are spray painted with the names of Herrón, Gamboa and Gronkie, transforming the museum itself into the first work of Chicano art to be exhibited at LACMA."

At a time when Mexicans in America were extremely marginalized, Asco spoke out through performance and imagery to question the status quo. They also disregarded the 'rules' of fine art, paving the way for experimental modes of art, especially with the use of performance, the topics of identity, and the application of still and motion pictures with otherwise fleeting performance work. 

More than 30 years later in 2011, ironically, LACMA hosted a large retrospective of Asco's work, which is where I first learned of them, so I guess their resistance finally paid off. I doubt my resistance against the current wave of displacement in Los Angeles will be quite as effective, considering I'm just writing blog posts about it and turning my frustrations into jewelry pieces and hats, but who knows...

*I chose to only use the word Chicano when it was used by the group itself. I was taught that Chicano is a term used to identify oneself as Mexican American, but with a distinction that 'Chicano' connotes oppression. As this term is interpreted in many ways, I opted to not use it in my own right in effort to stay neutral. 

Courtney Cady © Bagtazo, 2015