Can Mediocre Art Serve a Good Cause?

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Going to a museum to see a permanent collection or temporary exhibition I expect to see good as well as great artworks inevitably mixed with decidedly lesser ones which are needed to complete the story and illustrate a point of view. After all, great and good artworks are by definition in limited supply, while mediocre and merely competent works are always plentiful.

This is definitely the case with the ambitious, sprawling exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, titled WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, where a large number of merely competent works unfortunately dilute this important show. WACK! deals with the infinitely complex and tangled issue of the influence and importance of feminism in shaping art and culture during the late 1960's and 1970's. The exhibition mixes familiar and unfamiliar names of approximately 120 artists from around the world and succeeds in conveying a sense of liberation and breaking of boundaries with which the feminist movement contributed so mightily to the overall vitality of modern and contemporary art. Painting and sculpture, traditionally associated with male domination and the establishment, are given in this show a supporting role, while graphic works and photography, along with installation and performance art, are front and center.

Some works with their graphic depiction of nudity, both male and female, will undoubtedly make you flinch due to the more than generous quota of violence and pornography they contain. Other body-centered works, aimed at consciousness raising, pack enough heat to make "your bra, if you're wearing one...spontaneously combust," and here I quote New York Times' Roberta Smith in her witty review of the Global Feminisms exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum.

My problem with WACK! is not that it forces me to contemplate the long history of oppression that my gender contributed to the scarcity of great female artists until recently. I wish that curator Cornelia Butler, who labored for ten years putting this exhibition together, had succeeded in telling the story of feminism without relying on so much mediocre art. At the entrance to the exhibition, as the overture to what could be a grand operatic production, hangs a gigantic, vagina-shaped, red fiber sculpture by Magdalena Abakanowicz which simply overwhelms you with its monumental authority and sensuality. Unfortunately, not many artworks in this exhibition rise to the same level. Museum curators sometimes feel that the importance of the exhibition's subject warrants the inclusion of substandard artworks, but I find it self-defeating and somewhat disrespectful to the audience. Call me an idealist, but I believe that going to an art museum, we are entitled to encounter nothing less than good quality artwork. After all, would you allow a supermarket to sell a product beyond its expiration date?

I have a similar sentiment toward the LACMA exhibition, The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890 – 1950, which focuses on the importance of the art of the West in shaping the history of American modernism, traditionally defined only by what was happening in New York. This traveling exhibition, organized by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, simply depressed me by drowning a few good works, such as the exceptional Georgia O'Keefe Black Cross with Stars and Blue, in a sea of mediocre and banal art. Compounded with its unimaginative installation inside a series of small, claustrophobic galleries painted in gloomy colors, this exhibition is a snooze, especially in comparison with its adventurous and imaginative predecessor, Magritte and Contemporary Art.

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution
On view through July 16, 2007
The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA 

They Are Artists Who Are Women, Hear Them Roar
By Roberta Smith of the New York Times

The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890 – 1950
On view through June 3, 2007

Banner image: Sylvia Sleigh, Alice Neel