The Deconstructive Impulse at Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston

[uds-billboard name=”CAMH”]The exhibition The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991, currently on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, recently won the award for “Best Thematic Museum Show Nationally” from the International Association of Art Critics. The show is an important survey of work by female artists. And yet, though many of the included artists, such as Adrian Piper or Carrie Mae Weems, are by now well known in some art history surveys, they are still rarely exhibited as part of major museums’ permanent collections.

As the catalogue for The Deconstructive Impulse and the wall text in the exhibition make clear, deconstruction was a larger trend in contemporary art not exclusively practiced by women. By using continental theoretical discourse as a framing device, the curators somewhat elide the issue of feminism, but gender is still foregrounded by the curators and the works themselves. Deconstruction, the exhibition argues, was not a gender neutral undertaking but rather, as a tool for critiquing the conventions of culture, it could be used to take aim at all class, race and gender assumptions on which cultural representations are often based.

Barbara Kruger. “Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook),” 1985. Black-and-white photograph, 138×60. Collection of Peter Norton Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery © Barbara Kruger

The artists’ appropriation of the mechanisms, structures, or forms of mass media are especially effective at undermining a seemingly unified idea of representation. The first image a visitor to the exhibition sees is Laurie Simmons’ photograph Walking House (1989), which uses Surrealist techniques to juxtapose a model of a suburban home atop a model mannequin’s fabulously long legs. The difficulty of this balancing act is revealed by the shadow of the high-heeled pumps worn by (or fused with?) the legs, their almost tentative, even delicate, contrapposto stance, and the tilting angle at which the house precariously leans. The medium of photography enhances the artificiality embodied by these plastic idealizations, both of home and woman, as it further mediates the image as a representation–one that asks us to reconsider the unnatural conflation, even suffocation, of female identity with domestic life.

On a wall to the left of Simmons’ work, Lynn Hershmann’s series Phantom Limb picks up on these themes. In the photograph TV Legs (1990), Simmons’ house is replaced by a television monitor, only slightly askew, which displays a pair of heavily made-up eyes beneath arched eyebrows. Between the monitor and what now appear to be real legs is a short see-through skirt. Hershmann’s work–and her decision to work serially–speaks even more directly to the mass-reproduced sexism inherent in media depictions of women. These works and many more on display spotlight the power dynamics involved in the act of viewing itself, thus implicating the viewer in a way that makes the exhibition of these works central to their premise.

Dara Birnbaum’s video work Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79) appropriates what ostensibly might be considered an icon of female power–the comic book character Wonder Woman–and re-edits the live-action television show (which aired from 1975-1979) to demonstrate the overt gender stereotypes at play in making a female superhero palatable for prime time. As Birnbaum reveals, actress Lynda Carter is stuck endlessly spinning in circles in an attempt to transform into Wonder Woman. Once she is transformed (through a violent explosion), her flowing hair, busty corset, spangled underwear and knee-high boots make clear that Wonder Woman’s power derives in no small part from her sexuality.

Other artists represented include Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper, Jenny Holzer, Martha Rosler, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Hannah Wilke (who currently has a small gallery devoted to her work in MoMA’s new re-installation of its permanent collection undertaken by its first female chief curator, Ann Temkin).

Despite such mainstream inclusions, much of what the Guerilla Girls pointed out in 1988 still holds true almost a quarter-century later. In The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988), an ironic list that illuminates the sexism of the art world, the second so-called advantage is “not having to be in shows with men.” For all its virtues, The Deconstructive Impulse repeats the all-female formula that inadvertently segregates women from the art historical canon. The show focuses on the period ranging from 1973 to 1991, yet the issues that these artists “deconstruct” are hardly historically bounded–they remain, unfortunately, all too contemporary.


The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991 was on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston January 21 – April 15, 2012.
Previous installaments included: Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, January 15 – April 3, 2011 and Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, August 25 – December 5, 2011.

The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991, edited by Nancy Princenthal; with essays by Tom McDonough, Griselda Pollock, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Kristine Stiles. New York: Prestel Publishing, 2011.

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