In using this space for a comment on the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, it may seem unfair to focus on one film to the exclusion of all the others. But what if fairness is the essential concern of the film in question, itself a counterforce to exclusion?
The subversive wit of local artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson's documentary !Women Art Revolution is apparent very early on, when the film uses man-on-the-street interviews for a pop quiz on women in the museum. As Hershman Leeson asks us all in her narration, "Can anyone name three women artists?"
The uneasy implication here is that name-recognition alone should be considered the highest achievement of aesthetic accomplishment. There are of course plenty of exceptional male artists whose names we don't know either. And for that matter, plenty of female artists whose work isn't necessarily exceptional.
Ana Mendieta, "Documentation of an untitled work", 1972. c. The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.
Importantly, though, there is also the sense that if we could name a great female artist of whom Hershman Leeson herself hasn't heard, she'd be delighted, and grateful for the discovery. In the meantime, she has plenty of women to name -- those who individually and collectively pushed the American art scene, beginning in the 1960s, to grapple with and get past male dominance. !Women Art Revolution is Hershman Leeson's own personal survey of feminist art history -- a "secret" history, as she calls it, and the one in which she herself came of age. By her own account, she's been working on this project for 40 years.
Proceeding from the basic notion of how rare it was to find female artists in museums even one generation ago, Hershman Leeson examines all that's happened to change that fact: liberations, innovations, protests, performances, feuds, and many rich contemplations of the legacy of being looked at. Her gathered string includes commentary from scene stalwarts such as Judy Chicago (Check out the Gallery Crawl interview with Judy Chicago.) and the Guerrilla Girls collective, plus contemporary figures such as Miranda July (whose new film, The Future, also plays at SFIFF).
Judy Chicago, "The Dinner Party: installation overview", c. Judy Chicago 1979, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, Collection: The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Donald Woodman
Although Hershman Leeson is best known in these parts as an edgy-feminist experimentalist (her earlier films Conceiving Ada and Teknolust were ahead of the curve in appreciating the unusual allure of Tilda Swinton, and in suggesting that computer-generated imagery could be enchanting instead of merely colorful and dead-looking), !Women Art Revolution doesn't stray too far from the traditional documentary playbook. It's really just your standard chronological array of archival footage and interviews. What makes it interesting is that sometimes the footage includes Congresspeople becoming confused and alarmed by "a work that has 39 elaborate place settings depicting female vaginas" (really, the best kind of vaginas), and the talking heads sometimes include ape heads.
And so why shouldn't !Women Art Revolution be making the rounds at Berlin, Sundance, Toronto and now the San Francisco International Film Festival? The world already has waited too long for what this is: a feminist-activist crowd-pleaser.
As part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, !Women Art Revolution plays at 3pm, Saturday, April 23, 2011, at SFMOMA in San Francisco and at 8:40pm, Monday, April 25, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit sffs.org.