Orange County Museum of Art's "Forms of Identity: Women Artists In the 90s" is composed of 18 sculptures, paintings, installations and photographs from the institution's permanent collection, several of them new donations. It's a small show, relegated to a side gallery, with the pomp and circumstance of the Pop Art exhibition in the larger galleries next door sucking all the air (and presumably budget) out of the room.
The museum press release tells us "Forms" is focused on the historical moment when female artists "disassociated from the politics of feminism" and moved toward more "covert poetic gestures." The unstated reason behind this was that in the 1990s, it wasn't fashionable to say you were a feminist. Being painted as a hairy-legged, man-hater in the male-dominated art scene didn't make financial sense, so it was easier to reject the past and stop using that political lens to look through. Problem is, by moving on to "pop culture," "gender identity" and "personal interior worlds"—all subjects transformed by the activism of the past 30 years—these supposedly new subjects were really just derivations of issues already addressed. Even "post-feminist" artists weren't all that "post": They simply couldn't remove themselves from its influence. To repeat the cliché, the personal is political, and no amount of nay-saying or "covert poetic gestures" was going to change it.
At this crucial point in the country's history, a retrospective of supposedly apolitical women artists would seem like a step backward or even a slap in the face, especially after the museum's recent artistic and critical success with the Marilyn Minter show last year, as well as the "Alien She" exhibit the year previously. So, why bother? If the artists did worthwhile work but got lost in the shuffle, it would certainly be important to hear from them, but few of the artists on display here are of that caliber. Less than 25 percent of the work is interesting, let alone poetic. Whether it's because curator Alyssa Cordova's choices aren't compelling—with three out of four pieces not motivating one to stick around and really look it over—or just a commentary on the archive of women's work that OCMA has in storage, I can't be sure.
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What's good? Mostly pieces that fit within a framework in opposition to the exhibition's own stated purposes. Leslie Brack's Untitled is an oil painting of cut-up letters forming the words Sometime Actress. Whether it's selling the idea that women are held hostage to jobs expected of them, instead of those they aspire to, or it's a sly commentary that women fake it because of the neglectful sexual attention of the men in their lives, the piece is bright, happy and retro cool in its blue and green tints. Erika Rothenberg's five aluminum, heart-shaped pie tins, Love Story #2, all lined with paper and small blocks of text, gives us an emotional story via the images and text, as well as something to consider, without also telling us what we're supposed to think about it.
The only other overt narrative is Alexis Smith's Valedictorian, a mixed-media collage of a science award torn in half, an abacus and math flash cards, all serving to draw our eyes to the lingerie ads in the center because a woman is only as worthwhile as the underwear she's wearing or taking off. Rachel Lachowicz's mesmerizing checkerboard made from wax and reconstituted lipstick, Homage to Carl Andre, is less tribute to one of his previous works than a blaring, red indictment of Andre, who was arrested (and cleared) for murdering his wife a few years before her sculpture was created. Dawn Fryling says she isn't interested in stories, just the aesthetics and visuals of texture, but it's impossible to look closely at her Fence Bundles—three tightly wrapped columns of chain link in all its fastidious, antiseptic zigzagging/criss-crossed steel lines—and not think about the fencing that either keeps us in or is keeping others away.
When something as simple as a pink-yarn cat hat now symbolizes effective, 1 million-strong rebellion, conceptual art with Xeroxed contracts and representations of vaginas seems outdated and self-indulgent. This (mostly) dull, occasionally shallow work from 20 years ago feels like retrograde kitsch gathering dust on a forgotten shelf, instead of something vibrant, important or missed. The take-home is that while it only takes 40 minutes to walk through the exhibition, you'd be better off using your time otherwise. And it's safe to say Jan. 21's march won't be the last one.
"Forms of Identity: Women Artists in the 90s" at Orange County Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Wed.-Thurs. & Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through April 2. $7.50-$10; every Fri., free; children younger than 12, free.