"We wanted to have a women's show that wasn't polite or nice, one that expressed angry attitudes."
"You know, a lot of women's art is very decorative and aesthetic."
"This is not just giving women a voice, but it's using art as a way of taking a stand."
"We wanted it to be threatening."
"We want people to be upset."
"And to realize that there's all kinds of hostility coming from women that's going to take all kinds of forms."
Those are voices of women from the SisterSerpents collective, a feminist art/action group that's been plastering parts of the city with posters and stickers for the past nine months. Here they're talking about "Rattle Your Rage," an art exhibit they've organized at Chicago Filmmakers. And one thing can be guaranteed: people who view the show will be jolted. Many will be upset.
Almost as soon as you enter, you're confronted with the "fetus wall," an area festooned with large pictures of fetuses that have been altered to exhibit spiky teeth and sinister eyes; one has a cigarette dangling from its lips, and some hold American flags. A backdrop is provided by the SisterSerpents' Fuck a Fetus poster, with which the wall is papered. Headlined "For all you folks who consider a fetus more valuable than a woman," the 19-by-24-inch poster depicts a fairly mature fetus on a black background amid mocking admonitions: "Have a fetus cook for you"--"Have a fetus affair"--"Go to a fetus house to ease your sexual frustration." Large lettering on the wall spells it out: "Down With Fetal Supremacy."
One member of the group, in a sort of official statement, explains: "Our poster points to the current fanaticism we call fetus worship, which preposterously elevates a fertilized egg to the status of 'unborn child' and relegates women to the role of parasitical host." So much for the Penny Pullens of America. She's one of those featured, as a matter of fact, in the show's gallery of Wanted Misogynists, along with John Wayne, the Statue of Liberty, Gary Dotson, Cardinal O'Connor of course, and Jim McMahon. There are also God (and Adam) from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, Nancy Reagan, Barbie (the doll), Andrew Dice Clay, JFK, Zeus, Clint Eastwood . . .
Other pieces in the show also give some jolts. Off With Their Heads: Revenge for Rape, by Maria Epes, is a small multimedia assemblage that shows, on a piece of slate, three somewhat abstract figures on their knees, hands bound, penises out on a block in front of them, with the heads of said organs cut off. Another piece by the same artist, Misandrony, depicts a man tied spread-eagled on a branch. "If you look out into the world and see what men really do in every culture, exceptions excluded," Epes says in an accompanying statement, "I ask, how could women not develop a hatred of men?"
Artist's statements, explaining and commenting on the work, accompany almost all the pieces in the show, which come not only from Chicago but from New York, San Francisco, Florida, Cleveland, and so on. Nor is everything grim. Some of the participants use humor to make their points. In Boner, for instance, by Ashley Owens, a numbered bone ("an archaeological reference," she explains) cast in bronze sticks up at a suggestive angle from the base in which it's anchored. In Pirate Jennys Run Amok, an oil painting by Jeramy Turner, women "man" a pirate ship in the shape of a large pink pudgy male.
Others--notably two monoprints by Mary Ellen Croteau--comment not directly on society but on the world of art. Her nicely altered versions of famed pictures by Balthus and Tom Wesselmann are, she says, intended to demonstrate their underlying "patriarchal assumptions."
The many other works vary vastly in artistic style and means of expression. There are also great variations (to my eye, at any rate) in aesthetic quality: some are quite striking artistically, others not particularly. The common denominator is the message and the tone: outrage at the oppression of women expressed with great fervor and militancy. The theme is reinforced by the great variety of posters, newspaper clippings, and slogans interspersed with the artwork. There are columns by "Dear Abby" and leftist commentator Alexander Cockburn, along with replies by SisterSerpents. There's a replica of a billboard put up as part of a project coordinated by Randolph Street Gallery but partially censored by the printer, here restored to its original conception: there's blood on the coat hangers featured. "Women Will Not Be Tolerant Any Longer" is spelled out on another wall, and under the letters are snakes saying things like "Whistling, hissing and woofing at women are forms of rape."
It is, in other words, and unabashedly, a propagandistic art show. Formalism, nuance, and ambiguity are out; a militant political content reigns supreme. The purpose, the collective says, is "to liberate women and threaten misogynist men."
The same theme will be evoked in a film and panel discussion at the show's opening, organized around the topic of women's expression of violence against oppression, through art and in reality. The film, R.W. Fassbinder's Bremer Freiheit ("Freedom in Bremen"), recounts the story of a woman who poisoned 15 people, and the panel includes Leslie Brown, an Illinois woman who served seven years for the contract killing of her husband. Other panelists are Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, feminist artist Jeramy Turner, and Lynne Warren, associate curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art. "We're going to discuss the movie, we're going to discuss the show, and we're going to discuss Leslie--what the implications of a life like hers are," notes one of the event's organizers.
Rage and violence pervade the show. But members of SisterSerpents say these shouldn't necessarily be taken personally. "When an artist depicts someone being castrated, they're probably not talking about their boyfriend or husband, if they have one. They're talking about--"
"Power. Taking it."
"Yeah, they're talking about this as a symbol. And I think women are very aware that that's what they're talking about. Men take it personally--that's their problem."
"Showing violent acts against men--that's a necessity. . . . Because women need to take revenge, on some level."
"It's not individuals we hate, it's more the patriarchal system. If you want to talk in generalities--yeah, we are male-hating, for what is the male system?"
"Rattle Your Rage" will show in Chicago through March 31, after which it moves to the New York gallery ABC No Rio. The exhibit's opening is today, March 16, from 5 to 7 PM. Bremer Freiheit will be shown at 7:30, and the panel discussion will begin at 9. All events are free and take place at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont. For further information call 281-8788.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.