Barbara T. Smith Shows How the Angry Penis Lives

The performance artist's 'Radicalization of a '50s Housewife' still struggles for exposure and against assault

Amid the hearty backslapping at lectures, performances, galas and dinners celebrating the Getty's massive Southern California-wide arts initiative Pacific Standard Time, there seems to be a gorilla in the room. I'd heard rumblings about the lack of female representation when I attended a few exhibits; at the revolutionary performance artist Barbara T. Smith's "The Radicalization of a '50s Housewife," a PST show at UC Irvine's University Art Gallery, I read this entry in the exhibition guestbook:

"In the 1981 Performance Magazine on the table, page 10, ironically, [there is] an article about women protesting at LACMA for having no women artists in the exhibit covering '60s art. The grand opening and marketing materials for Pacific Standard Time spotlight male artists—as they are 'artists'—didn't someone from the Getty decide not to fuck things up this time? I guess not."

It was signed "C. Wittel." Beneath it was another line: "Glad we saw your show. Walter Wittel."

Tantra does the bodies good
From 'Birthdaze' by Barbara T. Smith
Tantra does the bodies good

It was an entry pregnant with meaning—and humor. C. Wittel was correct in her assessment of the Getty, according to accounts I've received from friends (apparently Judy Chicago was the only woman appearing at the PST launch). And, Walter Wittel, whoever he is, clearly knew better than to edit, append to or debate "C's" declaration—perhaps because he agreed with her, or because it was decided long ago that she gets to be "bad cop."

I certainly agreed with C. Wittel. I also recently attended a Judy Chicago performance in which she talked about the unwritten, but certainly not unspoken, "closed door" policy toward women artists prior to the 1980s, a trend that hasn't necessarily abated and is currently even perpetuated by some female curators. (One reason for under-representation in PST can legitimately be attributed to the gender shutouts of the past, but then again, everyone could have tried just a little bit harder—or at least called attention to the disparity.)

Fighting to be heard, seen and, most important, viewed as an actual person and not just a reflection of male desire is something Barbara T. Smith had to teach herself to do, just like her female contemporaries. In her three-part, 1980 performance Birthdaze, documented at the University Art Gallery and curated by Juli Carson, Smith addresses the seeds of the sickness that makes some men exert power through violence, domination and sex, men who make some women believe that's the way life's supposed to be. (One glance at our national headlines reveals not much has changed; regardless of laws enacted over the past 20 years to protect women, any female who publicly claims sexual harm or foul is still a dirty, gold-digging whore.) [Editor's Note: Material in this paragraph was corrected. See the end of the story for details.]

The exhibit, filled with photos and relics from the performance, fascinating audio interviews and myriad magazine features, is most potent in its first performance segment, which speaks directly to this problem of the aggressive, out-of-control penis. Isolation: Early desire to remain impervious to real life through adhering to conventional forms—"Maybe if I don't touch it, it will go away" features Smith in a floral dress standing at a table and looking at pairs of ladies' gloves. She is a good girl—just like the real Smith, who grew up a society deb in 1940s Pasadena—and she focuses on the safe and symbolic items that define a proper woman and should primarily occupy her mind. Two men enter the scene, however: one is nude and covered in mud, wearing a branchy mask to obscure his face, and he begins to circle her; the other, in a sports coat, drops his pants, crawls under the table and begins thrusting an enormous dildo covered in mayonnaise at her. Both use obscene words and crude gestures to get her attention, and soon, Smith can't get near the table without being assaulted. Since she won't look at the men and can no longer play with the "clean" ladythings, she climbs up a ladder and over a fence and escapes. This, Smith writes, is a "sad and humorous metaphor of my (and many women's) early adulthood." Indeed.

The second and third segments of the performance involve more men, a bed, a motorcycle and, finally, a tantric ritual, with the progression moving steadily toward healing and unification of woman to herself—and to man. It's a powerful and important examination of the female experience—not plain and simple, but elaborate and complex—and regardless of any shortsighted media or art-world power players, this experience is still very real and is still not going away. Perhaps someday, a new generation of men and women will ensure the female perspective is always invited to the table, visible and audible, and free from mobs of poking, angry penises—figurative or otherwise.

 

Correction, 11/24/11: In the original version of this story, the University Art Center was given as being in San Diego in one reference. The Weekly regrets the error.

 

This review appeared in print as "The Angry Penis Lives: Barbara T. Smith's 'Radicalization of a '50s Housewife' still struggles for exposure and against assault."

 
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