Half the sky, and just a bit more of your attention.

May 4, 2010 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY DAMIEN JAMES

Part two of two.

If you haven’t already, you may be wondering by now what this has to do with art, why you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis on an arts weblog? I’ll tell you.

During the community conversation and throughout the reading of Half the Sky, there were several thoughts insisting on my full attention, one of which was how different my world would be minus any single one of the incredible women I’ve known, either personally or exclusively through exposure to whatever their art may be – painting or parenting, writing or teaching, cooking or counseling, making films or music. Each has been essential in some way, small or large, to my evolving understanding of the world I live in, no less my understanding of myself.

How many people would have less full lives if even a few of the women they know went missing or were never known to them at all? How would our own country be diminished intellectually, emotionally, artistically, if a million women were simply gone?

Women like Lynn Hershman Leeson, who, as a female artist trying to assert herself on the male-dominated art scene of the late 1960’s and 70’s, had to review her own work under a pseudonym because critics weren’t giving women artists a single column inch.

Leeson went on to invent what is commonly known as Second Life, to pioneer the use of blue screen technology in film making, to become Emeritus Professor of Digital Art at the University of California, and to have work in many major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Yet there was a time that her work simply didn’t get reviewed.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta's Construction Chart #2, 1975. Dye Transfer Print

What Leeson gave to me, however, was a film she made in 2007 called Strange Culture, a brilliant hybrid of documentary and dramatic re-enactment with a bit of comic book thrown in, which I first saw excerpted on issue four of Wholphin. The films revolves around Steve Kurtz, professor of art at SUNY Buffalo, founding member of Critical Art Ensemble, and exactly the kind of guy you’d like to smoke pot with and talk to about how to fix the world, knowing in advance that whatever lunatic THC-induced long-shots and utopian fantasies you might imagine, Kurtz was quite possibly one of the few people you’d ever know who could make those fantasies real.

When Kurtz’s wife and collaborator of 25 years, Hope, suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack and the police responded to his phone call, what they found and how they reacted turned the next few years of Kurtz’s life into nothing less than a battle with the government for his freedom.

Strange Culture is a time capsule of our subjugated civil rights under an unelected president, a record of our most recent and surreal dark age – which, as we can currently see, will take some time to come out of.

Leeson’s film inspired and enraged me. It introduced me to new ideas, people, problems. It literally influenced the way I live. (Can anyone say that about Avatar?) When I think back to the time before I had seen the film or learned about Leeson, it seems like I was in my own cultural dark age, or at least a bit more naive.

Women like Pamela Michele Johnson, an artist who perfectly illustrated my feelings about our consumer/capitalist society with six-foot tall paintings of Hostess cupcakes with glistening whipped lard centers, stacks of waffles with glowing oceans of syrup pooling in their crisp golden pockets, and toppling towers of ketchup-stained limp hamburgers looking so heavy and giant that you suddenly can’t help but wonder how much of that shit you’ve stuffed down your gullet.

Johnson’s art so poetically paraphrased every thought that I’ve never been able to put eloquently into words about how and what we eat, that I was instantly smitten with the paintings. She often shares people’s responses to the work with me, and I’m continually surprised by how many people view these monoliths as objects of nostalgia, tributes to simpler times, especially since I see them first and foremost as satirical critiques. I can’t help but view those “simpler times” as farces of progress spun into our heads by corporations disguised as clowns and farmers and cute little animals.

Pamela Michele Johnson, Waffles, 2007. Oil on canvas.

Her work is important to me for those two reasons; that it was the first and most personal example of how someone else’s image could so singularly define my thoughts about a certain issue, and that it offered to renew my appreciation for just how differently we all interpret information, for better or worse.

Women like Pam Bannos, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University, who uncovered the wholly neglected an incredibly relevant history of Lincoln Park, something which the current residents of the neighborhood might prefer to have left underground.

During the Civil War, Lincoln Park was a burial ground – The City Cemetery, not only for Confederate soldiers but also the diseased – and it is quite possible that there are still plenty of bones beneath those lovely lanes.

Bannos’s extensive research made quite a bit of noise, and the city of Chicago worked with her to place several markers throughout Lincoln Park which illuminate it’s history for hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

The project, Hidden Truths, is currently being developed into a book, and having read a few of the early chapters, the potential is exciting. There are so many strange stories within the whole that Devil in the White City comes to mind, yet with far more immediate import.

The metaphors inherent in this story – of sweeping the dead under the carpet of history (akin perhaps to not showing us the coffins of our fellow patriots as they come home from war), of affluence planting it’s roots in the toil of drones (not unlike the 1 percenter’s who have made their money on the backs of the 99 percent of us who have none) – fit so snugly over the template of today that Bannos really cannot go wrong.

Her photography often beautifully aims its sweet spot at the idea and nature of truth, and I have no doubt that Bannos will apply the same focus, light, and personality to her book.

Experiencing the evolution of this project, from rigorously documented research to articulate narrative, has been an education in the creative endeavor for me, an education I intend to take full advantage of.

Marjane Satrapi

And there are so many others, like Marjane Satrapi, whose masterpiece Persepolis is the crest of the wave of a woman-made cultural revolution in Iran; musician Rachel Yamagata, formerly of Bumpus, whose residency at Schuba’s a few years back still resonates with unbelievable integrity and passion; Rebecca Solnit, an author who has not only chronicled but participated in some of the monumental social demonstrations of the last decade; Vandana Shiva, the brilliant activist and intellectual who has united the people of India in rejection of agri-monsters and ecology eaters like Monsanto and Coca Cola.

Women like – though there is really no other woman like her – Cassandra O’Keefe, one of the very first contributors to BUST Magazine, a staff member of GirlsRock! Chicago, and a gifted intuitive. O’Keefe is one of those unsung heroes who constantly crashes into our ever-expanding lack of civility and refuses to accept it.

She is an activist who has marched in every anti-war demonstration in the city of Chicago for the last decade, a creative autodidact who once decorated with handmade party hats and noise makers the smoked white fish which was to be eaten for a New Years brunch; and more importantly, a parent who decided to home-school her two daughters when No Child Left Behind became the prevailing but fundamentally flawed logic of the day for our public schools.

Not only has O’Keefe fought intolerance in her own neighborhood by simply engaging everyone she meets, but she has enriched my entire vocabulary for compassion. Those two daughters are mine as well, completing a trio of amazing women in my own home, none of whom I could imagine my life without.

Any of the millions of abused, abducted, murdered women in the world could easily be this important, this provocative, this enriching, for any number of people in their own lives. If given the chance. Their influence and intelligence could reach across the globe and touch all of us. Any one of the missing could profoundly impact someone near to them, if only they were truly valued.

There is an overwhelming amount of daily proof that our current values are failing us; our resources are withering, our environment is changing dramatically, and the same destruction that we’ve visited upon ourselves throughout history exists today, only with more politically acceptable terms. The word genocide is used far less than the phenomenon of genocide is employed. More women have to accept rape than men have to pay for the crime.

These are truths only because of our collective lack of involvement. And there is no one I know who can’t spare at least ten minutes to take the first step toward changing these truths.  How much time can you spare, and to what end?

Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery and Aldo Castillo, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project and Rhonda Schaller, various apartments in Berlin, London, Mumbai, and a tiny village in Romania.