Words stretch. Narrow one moment, capacious the next. Yet language can break, losing semantic integrity. This contingently brilliant show, ‘Straying from the Line’, was an over-extended linguistic gambit. Coherence was sought through a linguistic provocation in which each work was meant to participate: an anti-essentialist reading of feminism. The unifying term was defined as ‘a shared attitude towards art as a field of antagonistic relationships and hierarchical structures that traverse society as a whole.’ In other words, any non-conformist gesture imaginable.
Impactful works by forty-five artists were buoyed by an adeptly un-packed hang. Bodily references – unflinching, novel and refreshingly non-male-gazing – pulsed throughout. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s montaged magazine porn pages – in Partner, Vol. 1, No. 9 February 1980 (1980) – could be convincingly feminist. So could Sarah Lucas, eating a banana and sausage, in her video Sausage Film (1990). Or Heji Shin’s stunning sci-fi gothic photograph Baby 10 (2017), which shows a newborn crowning. The connection was provocative in Martine Syms’s video Lesson LXXV (2017), wherein a face-up monitor shows a black woman’s visage endlessly dripped with white liquid. Syms’s gesture bubbles with difficult, cryptic, racialized meaning. But it also links to powerful feminist strategies, wherein bodily actions become over-determined metaphors for social and psychological oppressions.
Given this complexity – especially in our intersectional age – it was curious that feminism had been chosen as the gathering term. A similar question hung over Nicole Eisenman’s painting Chin Up (2002), which depicts a female-presenting person violently constrained by rope. Jagged and jocular, that picture clashed with its supporting wall. Decoratively textured, the false edifice evidenced an energetic will to rattle conservative display habits.
More conservative still was the show’s selection of artists. It was like an excellent but unsurprising mixtape, collaged from a list of figures all pre-vetted by the critical establishment and market. In two paintings by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., the first letters of famous literary titles are elegantly painted onto book pages: INVISIBLE MAN (after Ralph Ellison) (2008 and 2015) are based on Ellison’s civil rights classic of the same name. We could read Ellison’s title as a feminist double-entendre. But it would be a sketchy interpretation, given the book’s relationship to black struggle, and the complex and problematic relationship between these paintings, their white maker, and that history. And where’s the feminism in Tony Cokes’s text-based video work Face Value (2018), in which Kanye West quotations populate a blue and red grid, like a mechanical, monomaniacal spirit? Even Maria Lassnig’s ethereal painting Einen Hund besitzen (To Own a Dog, 1975), chafes within the designation. Bathed in lemon-lime light, her topless female protagonist hugs a dog. Inarguably, non-sexualized depictions of the female body have been enabled by feminist struggle. But does it benefit Lassnig’s touchingly human work to be inscribed within that term? I suppose proffering this question is itself a success. In the same breath, though, we could generatively question the relative ‘feminism’ of Rosemarie Trockel’s Shutter 2 (2010), a fleshy mound of shiny red ceramic, impressed with a negative grid shape and hung from a corrugated steel backdrop.
Aside from the ongoing liberation of women, feminism has gifted artists and writers with myriad techniques for expressing the self’s relationship to society and politics. It’s to this effect that ‘Straying from the Line’ rightly gestures. But the gesture remains a gesture if not a rationale. The experiment with language doesn’t break ground so much as clear it for a presentation of much very good art.
'Straying from the Line' is on view at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin, until 28 July 2019
Main image: 'Straying from the Line', 2019, exhibition view, Schinkel Pavillon, 2019. Courtesy: Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin; photograph: Andrea Rossetti