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When Female Artists Were Storming the Gates

April 15, 2011

In “!Women Art Revolution,” Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new documentary about the female artists of the 1970s and ’80s who fought to break through into the male-dominated American art world, a film crew asks people outside the Whitney Museum in New York in 2008 and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2009 if they can name three female artists.

No one can.

Demonstrating how little museumgoers know about female artists, this scene is one of many in Ms. Hershman Leeson’s documentary that shows why she, a San Francisco-based feminist artist and filmmaker, wanted to make the film.

“We’re not talking about a piece of history that had been erased. It hadn’t been written about in the first place,” said Ms. Hershman Leeson, whose works are in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

Ms. Hershman Leeson’s work is usually very experimental. But with “!Women Art Revolution,” she decided to go more mainstream.

“I was worried that people would think that a documentary about feminist art history would be too angry and weird,” she said, “so I decided to make it enticing in order to reach a lot of people. I didn’t want it to be so experimental that people wouldn’t understand it.”

Already the movie has earned the distinction of being presented at the Berlin, Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals. And reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have generated buzz ahead of the June general release by Zeitgeist Films.

“Showing a film at all three festivals is exceptional,” said Sean Uyehara, a programmer at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which is presenting the documentary on April 23 and 25. “People think it’s important to show.”

Ms. Hershman Leeson is known for her esoteric projects. For nine years in the 1970s she lived as her blonde-wig-wearing alter ego, Roberta Breitmore; she repurposed a pantsuit by Jean Patou, the French fashion designer, for a 2008 exhibition at the de Young Museum; and in the early 1980s she created one of the world’s first interactive laser discs.

Her films have also been offbeat. A quirky exploration of biogenetic reproduction, “Teknolust” (2002) features kimono-wearing clones (all played by Tilda Swinton) drinking sperm-infused tea and trying to buy doughnuts, using condoms for currency. “Strange Culture,” Ms. Hershman Leeson’s 2007 documentary about bioterrorism accusations surrounding the artist Steve Kurtz, mixes real-life interviews with surreal reconstructions of Mr. Kurtz’s story.

“!Women Art Revolution” tells of a raucous, rule-breaking era when female artists, in order to get their message across, protested outside museums and created outlandish performance pieces often involving nudity. But the documentary is basically traditional, with a straightforward, chronological structure. It tells the stories of major figureheads in the feminist art movement like Judy Chicago, Nancy Spero and the Guerrilla Girls collective through a blend of archival footage, artist commentaries gathered by the filmmaker over 35 years and narration by Ms. Hershman Leeson.

Carrie Brownstein, the vocalist and guitarist of the now-defunct indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney, provides the soulful soundtrack.

When Ms. Hershman Leeson does break out of the standard third-person narration in the film and speaks candidly about her own struggles as an artist — a collector once returned one of her pieces after he discovered she is a woman, for example — the effect creates a feeling of intimacy and shared experience.

“Lynn’s approach to the material is much more strategic than in her other work,” said B. Ruby Rich, a feminist film critic. “She’s concerned with restoring the feminist art movement to visibility.”

“!Women Art Revolution” goes further than other films about the feminist art movement — like Chiara Clemente’s “Our City Dreams” (2008) and Joan Braderman’s “The Heretics” (2009) — in its efforts to engage audiences beyond the movie screen.

There is an accompanying comic book by Spain Rodriguez, the renowned underground artist, and videos, transcripts and biographies of artists in the documentary are available online on a dedicated section of the Stanford University Library Web site (Ms. Hershman Leeson sold her archive to the university in 2004).

The project is also deeply interactive. The “RAW/WAR” Web site enables contemporary artists to add their own stories and images to a growing archive. The site currently features nearly 400 works by more than 230 artists.

Now, things seem to be changing for female artists — somewhat. In 2010, for the first time, the Whitney Biennial featured more female artists than men. And exhibitions of feminist art, like “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (2007), are proliferating.

But “!Women Art Revolution” is a call to the next generation of female artists to keep forging ahead.

“We had the great fortune to emerge as artists when there was a feminist wave sweeping the country,” said Joyce Kozloff, an artist featured in the film.

“The courage of that history gives tremendous impetus for creating a future,” Ms. Hershman Leeson said. “The women in the film invoke the message that artists should remain vigilant.”



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