Esther Windsor

Bad Girls

Helen Chadwick, Dorethy Cross, Rachel Evans, Nicole Eisenman, Nan Goldin, Sue Williams

The Mall

December 1993

Director: Mik Flood
Director of Exhibitions: Emma Dexter
Deputy Director of Exhibitions: Kate Bush
Curatorial Intern: Esther Windsor

What’s So Bad About ‘Em?
Laura Cottingham

What are Bad Girls? That a large exhibition of the same title is also forthcoming in the United States indicates that the phrase has a certain currency at the moment, that it is considered an apt epithet for at least some current visual art practices 1 Because we take for granted that museums in the UK and the US would not exhibit work they truly considered 'bad', nor are they likely to devote major shows to persons who have not yet reached legal maturity, it must be assumed that both words of the title are intended to imply meanings outside of their common usage. The employment of Bad Girls within an art context appears to summon us to consider the phrase ironically, as a joke.

In slang parlance 'bad' is not a deprecative term. Its ironic usage, for 'excellent' or 'right on', originated out of Black urban jazz culture in the United States. Not simply a reversal of the opposite of good, as an advocatory description 'bad' is loaded with implications of a Dionysian direction: freedom from conventional restraint, talent, hell-bent determination, possible recklessness, and wilful extravagance. This use of 'bad' applies to the aggressive visual strategies employed by the three American artists in this exhibition. But as modifier for 'girls', 'bad' takes on another spin, a twist laden with the conventional double standard regarding sexual activity; that is, females who engage in sex are 'bad' in a traditional pejorative sense.2 All of the works in this exhibition seek to challenge and dismantle dominant social and aesthetic codes, especially those which seek to repress and control lived experience and cultural expressions.

But the title is not a self-appellation; none of these artists calls herself a 'Bad Girl'.3 On one level, the title moves back to reinvest and renew traditional conventions; its literal meaning is pejorative and infantilizing. The irony and humour the title hopes to coax reminds us that the artists submitted under this nomenclature, despite their museum appearances, still endure classification in a subcultural rather than a dominant cultural location. The need for slang, flip language as a situating device to announce these works indicates that this is art outside of the central organizing apparatus of our culture, that this is restless, uncomfortable art. Indeed, it is.

In the most conventional and conservative of senses, the American artists in this exhibition - Nicole Eisenman, Nan Goldin, and Sue Williams - are all bad. The subject matter they play with - sex, violence, more sex, drugs - is not considered appropriate discussion at table, nor is it material thought by many to be welcomed in the discourse of art. The formal properties of their work are equally susceptible to conservative accusations of badness: Eisenman and Williams can make very messy drawings and paintings, and Goldin confidently admits that her snapshotish photographs began as a reaction against formal values, as a revolt from "the obsession with technology that was in the photoworld in the early 70s."4 The 'badness' of these artists is underscored by the audacity with which their work reflects and transforms unconventional, subcultural and disturbing experiences. All three of these artists work in enunciative models that refuse idealization and silence. Eisenman, Williams and Goldin have all stepped outside the normative terms of society and its art; although, as women, one must question whether they were ever really in it.

The transgressions actualized in the lives and related artistic products of these artists are familiar and obvious to those of us reared under the dominant values of middle class, Anglo-derivative societies, especially those of us who have been indoctrinated as 'girls'. But at the same time, these artists also transgress some of the normative values associated with the radical political and aesthetic legacy within which they should be placed; that is, feminism. UnIike the Utopian consciousness that formed the foundation for the development of a woman's art in the US during the Second Wave of feminism, during the 70s these artists are ambivalent, flippant, frequently cynical and at times dejected. Their works waiver between a kind of hard-core realism and a rejection of the very possibility of reality as a fixed or documentable site. Each of these artists is suspicious of what she witnesses and feels: this ambivalence regarding the veracity of subjectivity is the tension most frequently actualized in their work and it is also what separates them from other practitioners, especially their Utopian, 'pro-woman' 70s predecessors. Eisenman's raunchy lesbians are not the same ones who appear in Adrienne Rich's sweet love poetry; William's battered women would not have been invited to sit among the great personages invited to Judy Chicago's Dinner Party; and of Goldin's women it could be said that many are not women at all.

But in as much as it is different from, and even contrary to, the strategies and aims of the 70s Feminist Art Movement, this work is part of that movement's legacy. Perhaps the most definitive connection between these three artists and their feminist forerunners is their reliance on autobiography as an artistic site. Before the Feminist Art Movement, autobiography, along with 'content' in general, was not considered an appropriate source for art making. Despite the personalized gestures that may have slipped in, or may be read from, Jackson Pollock's drips, Jasper John's targets, or Donald Judd's steel rectangles, American art from the 50s to the 70s was critically prescribed to follow a formalist progression.5 That Minimalism is now regarded as late, or the last, Modernism is only because Feminism interrupted it.

The priority sanctioned for autobiography within the formative proscriptions of 70s Feminist Art developed out of the central position consciousness-raising occupied as the primary methodology of Second Wave activism. The retrieval of personal memories, especially those constructed according to the overdetermination of female subjectivity as circumscribed within a sense of bodily inferiority, sexual humiliation, and other female-coded afflictions, served as the basis for consciousness-raising. Seventies feminist artists, like their contemporaries in the activist movement, used consciousness-raising as a method.6 For the activists, consciousness was considered the necessary first step towards the self-education that could enable women to organize and revolt: for the artists it was considered the process from which women's specific experience could be uncovered for its subsequent infusion into art.

For Eisenman, Williams and Goldin, memory and experience form an artistic basis but with little sense of a revolutionary or Utopian direction. Their works embody no lateral coherence of value or values, but rather produce an elliptical chain of otherness that is perpetually engaged in the process of dislocation and adjustment of and against 'parental' values, including the Utopian and idealized visions of their feminist foremothers.

This anxious, unresolved, provocative sensibility colludes with the similarly perplexed state of American feminist theory and activism today. Questions that were never asked, or answered perhaps too quickly during the 70s, have created a confused situation regarding issues such as gender as a category, pornography, the alliance between lesbians and nonlesbians, female sexual desire, and what it means or could mean to 'represent women'. What is a woman? How can a woman participate in a culture that both includes and excludes us? How can women retrieve the debased visuality of women - as sign of the body, of sex, of male-to-male exchange? These were among the questions first posed by women art makers during the 70s, and these investigations are still very much in process, even as they are undergoing reformulation. In activism, as in art, the 70s feminist model has undergone many adjustments. Under the influence of postmodernism's problemization of the idea of a 'self’, some theorists are decrying, the utility of the term 'woman', while activists are confused as to who we should organize if 'women' do not indeed exist.7 A vote recently taken at a Lesbian Avenger's meeting in New York City for instance, would have been an unlikely item on the agenda of feminist or lesbian groups during the 70s: that is, should the group be open to male-to-female transsexuals who now consider themselves lesbians? (The group voted 'yes'.)8 The debates concerning female sexual desire, which have frequently taken place within discussions of pornography, began in the late 70s and are still continuing, although the tables have considerably turned. Whereas in the late 70s and early 80s, a general critique of mainstream pornography was an assumed premise of those who considered themselves feminist, now the majority of academics, artists and activists who consider themselves feminists are openly hostile to the pornographic critique.9

Sue Williams captures the porn debate - perhaps the most confrontational issue for American feminists during the last twenty years - in her Are You Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn? 1992. Running across the top of the canvas is a naked woman tied by the hands and feet to two horses galloping off in opposite directions, while the bottom portion of the painting is rife with confusing visual and verbal conflations that suggest that the whole muddle is worth less than a horse's ass. Feminist themes, puns and allusions constitute a consistent backdrop to Williams's raw evocations of personal memory. In her 1992 Your Bland Essence she plays with the discourse around essentialism, especially as a charge so frequently applied to attempts to generalize about women's experience and so seldom directed against the essentialized basis of the idea of maleness or masculinity. The mostly-red canvas of drips and washes presents a collection of abject human figures, commingling with toilets, that bear as little resemblance to the dictates of anatomy as they do to any idealized notions of human decorum or deportment. The extensive graffiti script includes satiric comments such as "Hey, you want something? Grow a dick. Get a life"; and cocksucking is sarcastically captioned as "pure femininity".

Eisenman's work, exhibited as scattered drawings on paper haphazardly hung or as large murals painted directly on the wall, usually evidences more systemic precision and conventional composition than do Williams's more visceral expostulations. In Eisenman, the red chalky wash of Renaissance masters and the clever cuteness of Saturday morning cartoons conspire to deliver disturbingly earnest renderings of narratives experienced and imagined, of part autobiography, part fantasy. In Trash's Dance, 1992, dozens of full-bodied women congregate around a figure looming from her exaggerated stance on top of a bar. The central figure is drawn from a well known downtown fixture: Trash is a popular New York City lesbian bar performer/ exhibitionist. But Trash's dance, while dominant in size and positioning, is only a backdrop to the personal narratives being enacted around the bar; most of the crowd seem oblivious to the performance. While a bartender timidly gathers beer bottles, dozens of patrons are engaged in various forms of flirtation and confrontation. Eisenman's work is frequently positioned from this kind of omnipotent narrator point-of-view that is both all-seeing, all-telling and usually lying. The vernacular quality of her lines and images is balanced between sincerity and manipulation, between idealization and sabotage. In The Gay Bash Games, 1993, for instance, a riotous mob of gay bashers * commence their 'sport' in the midst of the stadium setting complete with passive spectators and a soda vendor. As a social satirist, Eisenman prefers the perverse to the didactic.

Both Eisenman and Williams frequently reverberate back and forth between the parameters of art and the social determinants of lived experience, often to suggest that 'fine art' and its 'masters' have too often sanctioned the symbolic and literal subjugation of women. Williams's work has included direct references to the misogyny of Pollock, the female mutilation inscribed in paintings by Pablo Picasso and David Salle, and the culpability of Carl Andre in the death of his wife. In Spiritual America, 1992, Williams appropriates and dissects the woman hatred in Richard Prince's well known series of 'joke' paintings. i Titled after an early Prince piece of pasdophilia of a photograph of Brooke Shields, Williams's Spiritual America reproduces the visual look of a Prince 'joke' but refuses to allow the text (and therefore Prince) to get the last laugh. Williams visually blurs and syntactically confuses a Prince text so that only some well-chosen words are decipherable: "A man...his dick...won't get hard..." The final line holds the most visual clarity and it offers an observation (a plea to Prince and others like him?) less irreverent than sad: "Every time you tell a joke, a feeling dies."

Perhaps what is most 'baddest' in Williams and Eisenman is the anger and mockery they frequently direct at male behaviour, men and men's art. In Eisenman's wall mural The Minotaur Hunt, 1991, two Amazonian women kill a minotaur that is visually ."constructed from the iconography of Picasso, suggesting Eisenman's own war with the prerogatives attributed to maleness as a genius and the easy ases  mutilation make into Euro-American art history. Jokes at the penis's expense are an Eisenman favourite. In a sketch included in the artist's installation at Trial Balloon Gallery, New York, a nude male figure in the presumptuous pose of Rodin's Le Penseur applies his paint brush to another male's crotch, evidently to provide him with a penis. Another goofy male form appears to be walking his dick on a leash - and the dick on the leash has evidently just urinated on a fire hydrant. This untitled visual parable suggests that the role of the male artist has too often been situated to serve the egoistic desires of men, to symbolically give men their 'penis', their power, their worth. And Eisenman refuses to play (or give) the part. In her Captured Pirates on the Island Of Lesbos, 1992, castration is the catalyst of an orgasmic female frenzy in a fluidly drafted drawing that reverses art history's plethora of rape visualizations, such as The Rape of the Sabine, as Eisenman's sapphic women gleefully engage in simultaneous male dismemberment and sexual pleasure.

Dicks and power collude again in Williams's The  Artworld Can Suck My Proverbial Dick, 1992. Two female figures foreground a vaguely yellow brick road that leads to a television set dominating the horizon. One of the women resembles Brigitte Bardot, the other is similar to the artist's own appearance, and a large scrawl in the margin desperately exclaims: "Female imagery is a joke!" The attempt to construct a conscious 'female imagery' constituted one of the central investigations of 70s feminist art in the US as the representation of women, in art history and popular culture, was considered then, as now, one of the most crucial ideological apparatuses supporting women's subjugation. Feminist-inspired 'female imagery' of the 70s included abstracted renderings of female genitals into flowers and other biomorph.ic forms, by artists as diverse as Pat Steir, Judy Chicago, Hannah Wilke and Joan Snyder; consciously 'positive' images of women, such as the Goddess, as in the work of Nancy Spero or Mary Beth Edelson; or the celebration of female historical figures, as in the work of Miriam Schapiro or Chicago. These recuperative strategies that attempted to reclaim the iconography of the female body against the overdetermination of women as a sign for body and sex were groundbreaking and futile, in the same stroke. Though ground breaking in their insistence on the need for challenging received imagery, they were doomed by their optimistic assumption that a successful retrieval of representations of women could be actualized by utilizing the same or similar signs. Among American 70s feminists, many were wary of 'female imagery'. It was hotly debated as both a 'goal' and a 'practice.' But the cul-de-sac of women's representation remained a naive debater the US during the 70s, its problematics never more substantively discussed than in cursory sentiments, or wary admonishments, such as Lucy R. Lippard's passing comment, in a 1976 essay: "It is a subtle abyss that separates men's use of women for sexual titillation from use of women to expose that insult."10 In Great Britain, specifically in London, a broader-based embracement of the neo-Marxist critiques of ideology was already in place in the intellectual arts and film community during the late 60s and early 70s. The problematic of 'images of women' received more sophisticated attention from British critics, most notably Griselda Pollock in her 'What's Wrong with Images of Women.?’ 11 Concern with spectatorship, the 'male gaze,' the instability of the subject,’ the 'image of women' and other considerations regarding the production and reception of visualities continue to perplex feminist viewers and art makers alike. But the works of Eisenman, Goldin and Willams are less theoretically motivated than the kind of photo and text' practices embraced by 80s American practitioners such as Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine and Jenny Holzer

While photographic in form and appearance,. Goldin's work bears scant resemblance to the polished images of Cindy Sherman or the billboard clarity favored by Kruger. Goldin has often spoken of her work as a "visual diary." But her deployment of the autobiographical, unlike that of Williams, is not grounded in memory of the past, but in maintaining a hold on the fleeting present. Her photographs of friends, bar buddies, sex partners, transvestites, club kids, and other member of her often transient milieu was begun in the late 70s and first exhibited, in bars and clubs, as a slide show set to music.12 Goldin work displaces the traditional idealogical snapshot for 'family pictures' and replaces the usual subjects (mother, baby, Christmas Tree, vacation, birthday party) with subjects at odds with an idealized notion of the nuclear family. Similarly, the syntax and tone of her work contradict a snapshot's conventional framing: Goldin doesn’t seek to get her subjects at their 'best' (the smile as the usual requisite to idealized 'family' portraiture), nor does her timing, except for works like Joey at the Love Ball, NYC, 1991, attach any prerogative to specific events or circumstances deemed 'special'. Hers is a quotidian eye that only appears to be spectacular to those unacquainted with the sites and subjects that comprise the artist's circle. When Goldin's work began circulating on the New York circuit during the early 80s, many downtowners couldn't make out what the fuss was; these were the same people one had seen just last night at an East Village bar. Ten years later, Goldin's Ballad has an eerie, nostagic feeling; its  documentary quality, which seemed perhaps unnecessary a decade ago, takes on a new power now that time and AIDS have, irrevocably altered how life can be lived in New York. In following the moment, Goldin unwittingly arrived somewhere classically eternal, a place where her subject and her viewers are as uncertain as she is as to the distinction between heaven and hell. The strength of Goldin's art is that she is not willing to accept any pat categoricals; her camera is always aimed,toward a void of expectation, an unknowingness she, approaches without fear of judgement, but with compulsion nontheless

There is an insistent anxiety in Eisenman, Goldin and Williams for getting something 'right'. Goldin uses the camera as if it were part of her very body, as if photographing, seeing and feeling were connected in the same psychosomatic reflex. The visually busy executions of Eisenman and Williams often appear as if the artists can't get enough into the pictorial frame, as if any collection of images or works is never quite enough. All three of the artists, if not outright desperate, are at odds with the conventional signifying practices they are forced to employ. Goldin seems always to be in search of something, something that will tell us, and her, whatever it is we need to know. But her attempts to capture her feelings, her visual moments, don't lead to any narrative closure. Images such as Siobhan on the toilet, New Year's Eve, Berlin, 1991, and Fiona after breast operation, NYC, 1991, might appear to present a moment in stasis: a dark haired woman seated on a toilet and another woman, with bruised breasts, reclining on a bed. But with both of these images, as with all of Goldin's photographs, what appear as fixed moments are really just fragments of continuity. Although her work is often titled as 'before' or 'after' something, this suggested narrative is really just a tease. Goldin's work is always situated within the terms of process, not closure; a feature more apparent, perhaps in her earlier predilection for exhibiting her images as transitory, moving visuals in a slide show format.

This is a communicative, conversational – not a formal - art. Eisenman, Williams and Goldin are each more concerned with the subjects of their representation than with conventions of aesthetic media in and of themselves. The radical assault against formalism ushered in by feminism's implications led many 70s American artists to investigate the domestic crafts historically associated with female labour, such as sewing, weaving, porcelain, and quilting; the anti-objectness of performative work; and the personal, immediacy made available in the then-new technology of video. These three contemporary ‘bad girls’ continue that revolt against Greenbergian formalism, against an idea of art sealed off from either the personal or the political. And just what is so bad about that?

Laura Cottingham, New York City September 1993

In January 1994, 'Bad Girls' will open with simultaneous shows at The New Museum, New York, and the Wright Art Gallery at the University of California, Los Angeles. Organised by Marcia Tucker, the Director of The New Museum, and Marcia Tanner, an independent curator based in San Francisco, the American 'Bad Girls' will feature more than 30 women artists, including Sue Williams, and several men.

Riot Grrrl Day:

Amy Lame (website >)
Bidisha (blog >)
Suzy Corrigan (twitter >)
Esther Windsor