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See this now: “Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris” at Seattle Art Museum

An exhibition of women’s art? In 2012? Isn’t that just the slightest bit … well, anachronistic? Perhaps not: as I write this a Republican presidential ticket that intends to reverse women’s rights to the pre-feminist dark ages is vying neck-and-neck with President Obama, so perhaps the simple statement, “Hey, there are great women artists too!” has unfortunate new pertinence.

It’s also only fair to note that when Elles was staged in Paris, it amounted to a far more startling statement. The Centre Pompidou is one of the most popular tourist attractions in a city that is in turn one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Elles@centrepompidou –at 500 works it was four times the size of the version here in Seattle – entirely filled the permanent exhibition spaces of the Musée National d’Art Moderne for almost two years.

The scale is inevitably smaller here. Still, under the splendid slogan women take over, and making its only north American stopover in Seattle, Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris is a genuine treat.

Sonia Delaunay, “Contrastes simultanés” (1912)

There are two principal reasons for this. First, the range and quality of the work here; and second – and no less important – the intelligence and imagination of the curation and hanging. This becomes immediately obvious in the first room of the show. To one side there’s a group of Sonia Delaunays of various vintage, elsewhere there are three Natalia Gontcharovas that just by themselves could occupy you for the whole couple of hours you’d set apart to see this show. There’s a splendid little Sophie Taueber Arp, and over on another wall is an example of something else this show has going for it – plenty of genuine surprises. I wasn’t aware of Maria-Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) I have to admit, until I came across her lovely picture The optic machine (1937), a multi-colored diamond pattern abstraction.

Marie Laurençin, “Deux Têtes” (1935)

The hanging is more eccentric in the next room, and all the more stimulating for that. Imagine this sequence: The Guerilla Girls, Marie Laurencin, Tamara de Lempicka, photographs by Germaine Krull and (the iconic self portrait by) Claude Cahun, and then Martha Rosler’s sublime Semiotics of the Kitchen.

Martha Rosler, “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975)

Turn slightly further to your right and there’s Suzanne Valadon’s La Chambre Bleue; turn through a further 180˚ and there’s another crucial work of first generation video, Eleanor Antin’s The King.

Suzanne Valadon, "La Chambre Bleue" (1923)

Unexpected juxtapositions and new perceptions as a consequence, that’s a real strength of the show. The gallery dubbed “The Body” presents more inspired curation: (again in the sequence of hanging) there is Eleanor Antin’s Representational Painting video adjacent to Rineke Dijkstra’s Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992, a picture that I have always found unsettling, but which achieves new eloquence in the company of other pieces that consider what happens to a woman when she is looked at.

Rineke Dijkstra, "Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992" (1992)

Then there’s Marlene Dumas’ splendid little Peeing with a Blue Dress on, a Mona Hatoum, and Marina Abramovic’s video version of Art must be Beautiful, Artist must be Beautiful. Next comes Valérie Belin’s mesmerizing “Untitled, no.7”, Zoe Leonard’s equally mesmerizing photographs of a Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman, Cindy Sherman (twice) and a wall full of Tracy Emin’s scribbly monoprints on paper torn from a cheap spiral-bound notebook. I’d never really paid much attention to these before, but the potent blend of sexuality, appearance, and identity flying around the room gives them a new profundity of meaning.

Valérie Belin, "Untitled, no.7" (2003) from the series "Manneqins"

There is, predictably enough, sexual politics all over the work here that dates from the 1960s onwards, and in many ways it’s the context that this gives the earlier work that is another great strength of the show. Perhaps a further indication of the continuing relevance and power of the feminist work can be judged from the number of little

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This exhibition contains mature content

signs that are peppered around the place. Nan Goldin’s excellent heart-breaking slide projection piece Heartbeat gets one of these, and so does a room of four video projectors that features some of the best work in the entire show so far as I’m concerned. In fact, so risky are these pieces regarded – Carolee Schneemann’s Body collage and Meat Joy, Anna Mendieta’s Untitled (Chicken Piece Shot #2) and Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2) and Hannah Wilke’s Through the Large Glass – that the room is curtained off with heavy black drapes at each end. That’s pretty remarkable given that the newest of them (the Wilke) was made thirty six years ago.

The people at SAM are perfectly well aware of the significance of the show that they’ve got here. As part of their expansive celebration they have corralled institutions and organizations all over Seattle to program complimentary work (and at least as often to acknowledge the relevance of the women take over slogan to their existing programming). There’s everything from Pipilotti Rist at the Henry Art Gallery to a show of women photographers from Iran, India, and Afghanistan at Photo Centre NW, to a special display at Cupcake Royale(!).

Most important, SAM has put together their own counterpart show Elles: SAM – Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists. It’s not unkind to point out that the Elles:SAM show is very much overshadowed by the French show upstairs. Still there are some excellent experiences to be had: There are two galleries full of Yayoi Kusama pieces which in other circumstances could well have been offered as a perfectly acceptable solo show.There is a corridor filled with Jenny Holzer’s appropriately entitled Inflammatory Essays – at least one of which, despite being dated 1979-82, seems as if it might be addressed to precisely those people championed by the Republican candidates I mentioned  above:

Jenny Holzer (from) "Inflammatory Essays" (1979-82)

Right next to the Holzer corridor is a gallery given over to Adrian Piper’s 1988 Cornered installation, which was imagined to be every bit as inflammatory as the Holzers when it first appeared and which still seethes with politicized rage. It is marvelous to see it here.

Adrian Piper, "Cornered" (1989)

There’s a whole thoroughfare gallery given over to Joan Mitchell. Mitchell was a wonderful painter (I remember her Last Paintings show at Cheim and Read at the turn of the year) though the six paintings here range from the good to the bad to the indifferent. None of them is as good as the one that’s included in the Paris show upstairs, Untitled  from 1954, which is darker, denser, and way more energetic. There’s also a room full of Helen Frankenthalers – a slightly curious choice given her anti-feminist reputation – but taking the opportunity to have a good hard look at them left me with the rather disconcerting realization that they’re just not very good paintings. Or perhaps it’s more that when you compare her lyrical abstraction with the work of her more socially engaged near-contemporaries, her efforts seem rather beside the point.

There’s heaps more stuff in these two Elles shows that I haven’t even mentioned – a fantastic black Louise Nevelson, possibly the best Lee Bontecou I’ve ever seen, a whole room of electrifying feminism called Genital Panic for the Valie Export piece, a wonderful Georgia O’Keeffe, and a 1942 movie by Germaine Dulac called La Coquille et le Clergyman, which again I am ashamed to admit I knew nothing about. And there’s Les Pensionnaires, Annette Messager’s three vitrine installation of dead birds that is worth the trip to the Pacific northwest on its own.

For those for whom a trip to Seattle during the rainy season is unimaginable however, I would recommend the doorstop of a catalogue. It is based on the Paris staging of this show than on Seattle’s, but it’s all the better for that. There are fantastic illustrations and artists’ statements, a fascinating chronology, and a daunting range of essays around the history, criticism, and theory of women’s art. On the other hand if you don’t travel to the Emerald City you’ll miss one of the most uplifting experiences to be had anywhere just now. Seeing billboards looming over the city bearing the images of Hannah Wilke and Martha Rosler is like some hallucinatory dream come true .


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