In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of feminist artists who wore gorilla masks to shield their true identities, created a billboard-size poster that asked: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
Against a screaming yellow background, a reproduction of Ingres’ famous reclining “Odalisque” wearing a snarling simian mask answered with some startling statistics:
“Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.”
Nearly 30 years later, things haven’t changed all that much. There are a few more women artists in the collection and the percentage of female nudes has gone down a bit as more male nudes have been put on view, partly as a result of a Guerrilla Girls’ “weenie watch” that addressed that disparity.
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“Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond” at Verge Center for the Arts documents the important past and ongoing works of the provocative activist artists whose projects range from critiques of art world corruption and inequities here and around the globe to sexism in ancient times and today’s film industry.
The dominance of billionaire art collectors in determining which artists get into museum collections is one of the subjects they take up. In a 2008 letter addressed to prominent collector Eli Broad and posted at the L.A. County Museum of Art, which then housed the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the Guerrilla Girls chided Broad for the insignificant number of women and artists of color in the Broad collection (194 artists, 96 percent white, 87 percent male) and the number on view in his mini-museum at LACMA (30 artists, 97 percent white, 86 percent male).
(Nine years later, Broad has his own museum in L.A. and one hopes he has made strides in rectifying the situation as the Guerrilla Girls, with tongues-in-cheeks, lovingly asked.)
Things are as bad or worse in parts of Europe. In Ireland’s National Gallery, 95 percent of the artists are male; in Venice’s major museums, of the more than 1,300 artworks on view, fewer than 40 are by women. A lurid poster with a still from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” in which Marcello Mastroianni straddles a woman on her hands and knees, asks:
“Where are the women artists of Venice?”
The answer: “Underneath the men” refers to the fact that many works by women artists are in storage in museum basements.
Hollywood is the target of “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” who is depicted as white and male – like most of the winners. Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has won a Best Director Oscar, for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009. As of 2012, 94 percent of the writing awards had gone to men and only 3 percent of the acting awards had gone to people of color.
You’d think with those kinds statistics on view, the show would be a real downer, but it isn’t. It’s funny and smart and makes you glad the Guerrilla Girls are still “not ready to make nice.”
The show includes fascinating ephemera in the form of the group’s favorite “love letters and hate mail,” behind-the-scenes photos, anecdotes about their “actions,” and an interactive installation of a chalkboard on which viewers can contribute their own complaints about the status of women in the art world and beyond today.
There’s even a photo-op with cutouts of two of the Gorilla Girls, who go by the names of famous women artists, such as Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz.
My favorite piece was a poster of a brick wall with graffiti that denigrates women through quotes from famous men through the ages. It tells you a lot about how we got where we are. From Confucius (“One hundred women are not worth a single testicle”) to Old Blue Eyes (“A well-balanced girl is the one who has an empty head and a full sweater”), they are so outrageous I found myself laughing out loud, albeit ruefully, and vowing to try to channel my anger in equally creative directions.
Not Ready To Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond
Where: Verge Center for the Arts, 625 S St.
When: Through Oct. 22. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.