Escape Attempts; curated by Kathy Battista; Shulamit Nazarian Gallery, Los Angeles; February 18-April 8, 2017

Review by Anja Foerschner, Getty Research Institute 

Woman Cairo 2010/1431. Susan Hefuna, 2010. Ink on wood, 86.625 x 67 inches. 
©Susan Hefuna and Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman, Chicago. 

“Escape Attempts,” the inaugural exhibition at Shulamit Nazarian gallery’s new Hollywood space, is perfectly conditioned for a charged political climate in which the post-feminist fallacy is being exposed by our government. A continued need to push for women’s rights is critically visible – as are artists’ responses to contemporary gender dynamics.

Curator Dr. Kathy Battista, a distinguished scholar on Feminist art, brings together seven international female artists—Carmen Argote, Susan Hefuna, Cindy Hinant, Alex McQuilkin, Sarah Meyohas, Virginia Overton and Naama Tsabar.  Battista, adopting the title from an essay written by Lucy Lippard, examines the relation of the artists to the legacy of Minimalism. This exhibition presents a contrastive area of feminist art, one that has largely remained overshadowed by the more spectacular and visceral practices of body-based performance art, photography, or video. 

According to Battista, the artists in “Escape Attempts” react to preceding art forms, in this case male-dominated Minimalist Art, differently than canonical feminist artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Judy Chicago, or Catherine Elwes. Where the latter sought to create a clear counter position to male artistic practice, the women in “Escape Attempts” embrace the formalist vocabularies of artists such as Larry Bell or Robert Morris. By appropriating them into their own artistic language they articulate a new and comparable subtle form of feminist expression. 

The works require patience and sensual empathy to uncover their various layers and political content. German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna’s installations, which resemble mashrabiya screens tap an essential matter of feminist art; the question of what is public and private as well as male and female space. Zooming into the beautiful craftsmanship of their delicate grids veils the broad patterns they spell out. Backing away from the piece reveals “Woman”, “Cairo”, “2010”, “1431” embedded in the details. Similarly, Cindy Hinant’s photographic series “Upskirt” asks the viewer to get close in an attempt to discover the dark almost monochromatic images depicting ubiquitous female faces such as Angelina Jolie, Mischa Barton, and Kate Moss. The proximity to the piece causes the viewer to acknowledge themselves as voyeur, and is confronted with issues of privacy and exposure which are problematized by today’s social media mechanisms. This notion is reinforced by Hinant’s sound piece, which features the acoustics of some of the notorious celebrity sex tapes that have found their way into the public sphere in recent years. Paris Hilton’s or Kim Kardashian’s moaning creates uncomfortable questions about self-representation vs. exploitation, narcissism vs. liberation etc., questions that have complicated the feminist discourse for decades. 

“Escape Attempts” broadens the possibility for understanding Feminist Art, which for too long has been conflated with one very specific form of artistic expression and political agenda. Battista accomplishes this by interrogating a different area of art history, Minimalism and including younger artists, from broad geographical areas, who face different challenges and employ different tools in creating art. She thereby introduces the viewer to a variety of artistic expressions, which speak to the idiosyncratic experience of being a woman in current society.

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Anja Foerschner is a Research Specialist at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Originally trained as a visual artist, she holds a Master’s degree in Art Pedagogy, Art History, and Philosophy (2008) and a PhD in art history from Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich (2011). Her research encompasses modern and contemporary art with special emphasis on performance art from Los Angeles and the Balkans, Feminist Art, the human body in contemporary art and culture, and the emotion of disgust in art.