Opening: 'Feminist Art Then and Now'

MARY ABBE | Updated 1/30/2013

New exhibits celebrate 40 years of feminist art and ideas.

Anna DeCoster's dynamic image of a thrashing swimmer.
Provided photo

When the word "feminist" comes up, it's possible in 2013 to shrug and murmur dismissively, "Whatever was that about?"

We have after all come a long way, baby, from a time when women's career options were largely defined by nursing, typing or teaching. Women routinely do everything now -- run companies, courts, jackhammers, space shuttles, even museums. So why is a spate of feminist exhibitions, talks, film screenings and other events now opening in the Twin Cities?

The activities celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota and its offshoot WARM gallery, organizations that were huge contributors to the national dialogue about women's roles and options in art. Exhibitions involving more than 100 local and national women are being staged at Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota and Robbin Gallery in Robbinsdale. Part reunion and part nostalgia trip, the events are driven by a deeper motivation.

"The older people have a fervent desire to pass on to another generation, not what we did but that we did it; this is a house we built," said Joyce Lyon, a founding member of WARM and associate professor of art who co-organized the Nash show.

Recalling a time when local art colleges had no female faculty members, art history books ignored women, and museums and galleries were male turf, she said that young women today need to understand the stakes in the contemporary art -- and political -- scene.

"Young people today assume that things they have were always there, and we know they weren't," Lyon said. "Not every victory is secure."

From the start, WARM was a place where women could tell their stories, support one another's ambitions, dream big dreams and test new ideas about art. Some pushed for acceptance of previously ignored subjects, especially female experiences like menstruation or childbirth. Others championed materials (fabric, ceramics) and crafts (lace-making, tapestry) that the art establishment had long trivialized as "women's work." Others launched new organizations and promoted new ideas about sex and gender.

The Nash Gallery show will span the decades, featuring pieces from the '70s, recent work and a contextualizing timeline. It will be organized thematically along such topics as the body, identity and political oppression. National stars among the 72 featured talents include Chicago painter Ellen Lanyon, New York sculptor Nancy Azara, multimedia provocateur Judy Chicago and New York painter/filmmaker Howardena Pindell.

"Feminism brought into the mainstream a lot of materials and issues that were then picked up by men," said Nash director Howard Oransky.

WARM, too, has changed over the years. Founded in 1973 as a networking organization, it ran a cooperative gallery in Minneapolis' Warehouse District from 1976 to 1991. Its mentorship program has flourished since 1982 and typically provides support for about 30 women at a time. In keeping with its evolving role as a service organization, it changed its name to Women's Art Resources of Minnesota in 2010.

Beginning Feb. 6, Robbin Gallery (4915 42nd Av. N., Robbinsdale, www.robbingallery.org) will feature work by 37 current members of WARM. Some have been involved almost since its founding while others joined recently as protégées.

"Everyone joins WARM for slightly different reasons," said Robyn Hendrix, 30, a Carleton College graduate who is the youngest member of the organization's board. "We offer good opportunities for women who are looking for a community of artists, or who might be changing directions and want to establish a support network.

"I think feminism is still extremely relevant," she added, "especially in the past year when women's bodies were under political attack and we're still being objectified in 90 percent of the media representations people see every day. We still need an artistic voice like WARM to counteract that."