Gleaming acrylic fingernails glued into reptilian forms that emerge from the wall; barnacles and ceramic teeth encrusted in life-size human figures in decay; female anatomy rendered in neon light and boxing gloves; cement seeping through lace and paint; haunting words about the present overlaid on imagery of the past: surface tension abounds in this exploration of contemporary feminist art.
The affirmation of the self as subject and the prevalence of craft-based practices such as sewing, weaving, embroidery, and applique in 21st-century art is a legacy of the feminist art of the 1970s. Artists like Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Howardina Pindell, Faith Wilding, and others merged art and activism, elevating everyday materials, methods, and experiences to challenge conventional notions about how and why and where art is created and consumed. Today, artists like Stephanie Hirsch, Lesley Dill, and Margarita Cabrera employ decorative or domestic art to reveal intersections between the personal and the political. Cabrera’s Vocho—a life-size Volkswagen, sewn in vinyl with seams and threads exposed—examines the relationship between the US and Mexico through the lens of labor, industry, and immigration.
Female identity and experience is often the subject of Frances Goodman’s vibrant multi-media investigations, as she uses everyday materials to explore and expose female representation and consumerism. Zanele Muholi confronts both personal experience and socio-political stereotyping in her larger-than life self-portraits, while Gaela Erwin’s pastel likeness of her mother could be dual portrait, a potential encounter with age and mortality. Michele Pred’s mirrors combine the symbol for the female gender with captions that render the viewer “Feminist,” “Equal,” or “Powerful,” offering a passive yet potent transformation of the audience-subject’s self-image.
The inventive use of language, whether printed, projected, or recorded animates works by Carrie Mae Weems, Jenny Holzer, and Nina Katchadourian, introducing unexpected voices into both art and history that resonate as private and public at once. Weems and Holzer use text to interrogate power through self-expression, creating new narratives for cultural and political resistance, while Katchadourian voices the frustrations of everyday life while inserting her artistic identity into the male-dominated history of portraiture.
Expanding beyond the individual experience to a shared one, Vibha Galhotra and Alison Saar evoke Classical mythology mixed with grim reality to create culturally critical work addressing shared global concerns, connecting past and present adversities resulting from the intersection of environmental destruction and social inequality. The dual power of water to destroy and preserve is evident in Monica Cook’s dazzling Phosphene, a life-sized sculpture of a couple crashing through layers of glass. Reflecting the influence of feminist art, Cook’s work utilizes materials high and low to realize a vision of what the body knows: that beauty and decay, creation and destruction, are inextricably linked.
Long subject to patriarchal control, the female body knows pain and power. Zoe Buckman invokes this visceral knowledge in Champ, a sculpture of female reproductive organs made with neon light and white boxing gloves. Embellished with materials from bridal gowns and veils, boxing gloves are the central element in Buckman’s series, Let Her Rave, which responds to 19th-century poet John Keats’s expression of male dominance in “Ode to Melancholy.” Buckman’s combination of traditionally feminine materials with boxing gloves is both an assertion of feminist power and an invitation to join the fight.
Investigating identity, consumer culture, ecology, history, mythology, and power, the art featured in The Future is Female illuminates both the consequences and the persistence of the struggle for equality: much progress is needed before Saya Woolfalk’s fantasy of a harmonious universe created by her female Empathics reflects lived reality.
Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director
“The Future is Female” first appeared during the 1970s on a t-shirt designed for the first women’s bookstore in New York City. Over the last two years, the phrase has re-emerged on clothing, social media, and various other platforms.
Holland Cotter, “The Art of Feminism as it First Took Shape,” The New York Times, March 9, 2007.
Tami Katz Freiman, “Frances Goodman Nails Her Colors to the Mast,” in Rapaciously Yours, exhibition catalog, Richard Taittenger Gallery, New York, NY, 2015.
Lucy Lippard, The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art. New York: The New Press, 1995.