Women Behind the Camera

John Haber
in New York City

Barbara Crane, Amy Greenfield, and Barbara Ess

Why are there no great women artists? The question is old now—at least as old as the 1971 essay of that name by Linda Nochlin. Without it, questioning modern art might never have had the same urgency. Neither would new art ever since, by men and women alike.

Is it still worth asking? Is it still even a question? Jerry Saltz asked it angrily in 2009, long after Postmodernism had put it museums through the wringer. He sounded out of touch after so many years, but he could still point to MoMA's permanent collection. He could just as well have mentioned the one show on every mainstream critic's top ten list, including his. Picasso's last decade showed the great man still working through lust, love, painting, and his own enormous ego. Amy Greenfield's MUSEic of the BODy ({CTS} Creative Thriftshop/Dam, Stuhltrager, 1994–2009)

Male self-indulgence is not going away any time soon. Emerging women artists, though, are not doing so badly either, while recovering the past takes time. And as it comes, it may not look in the least like a canon of great women artists. It may look more like diverse artists at work on their own ideas. How did women end up on both sides of the camera? Take three born before 1950 that the list makers missed—Barbara Crane, Amy Greenfield, and Barbara Ess, who fragment both the body and the medium.

Crane photographed Chicago starting in the 1960s. Greenfield worked afterward with alternative film and new media, and Ess has recaptured a video camera's low-tech look most recently. They all tackle the moving image, including Crane's collage that resembles black-and-white film strips and Ess's blurry color photographs of surveillance cameras. But only Greenfield actually gives up stills. All fragment the body, but only Greenfield gives it overt sex appeal. For all three, though, unseen eyes are enjoying themselves—except when they were censoring Greenfield on YouTube.

Lenses extend unwish

From a distance, photos by Barbara Crane may look raw or even unfinished. Up close, "Repeats" look manipulated for a digital generation. Actually, they present a carefully elusive portrait of the 1970s.

Up to two dozen black-and-white frames pack tightly in a row, like contact prints from a single strip of film. That would explain the obsessive repetition, in shots of people from above or of paper dolls. Within, though, a single frame can hold multitudes—often as not, both right side up and upside down. The Dan Ryan Expressway does a loop the loop several times over. In the process, things grow unrecognizable but downright familiar. Shadows become tree branches while the dolls become shadows.

Besides contact prints, one might think of film strips or scientific instruments. Clouds billow into mushroom clouds, while paint peels resemble a seismograph or EKG. Fringes of an unseen garment become mountains. Crane might almost be quoting E. E. Cummings: "electrons deify one razor blade / into a mountainrange." As so often when science crosses into art, precision creates illusions.

Along with unfoldings in time, Crane's images unfold in space, including a panorama of the Swiss Alps. Here, too, one thinks of other devices that outrun a human field of vision, like Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha ten years earlier. Like Ruscha, too, the series bridge two notions of banality, Minimalism's grid and Pop Art. They have the humor and delight of women in Pop Art, too. The swirling highway looks like a 1950s' product logo that James Rosenquist might have admired. Zippers form a forest of zebra stripes.

Maybe the prejudice of New Yorkers explains why I am describing work in Chicago from 1969 through 1978 as a little behind its time. The gallery has a passion for rediscovering photography from those years, as with Alfred Gescheidt and Donna Ferrato. Crane, born in 1928, covers a lot of ground all the same. Barbara Crane's Paper Dolls (Higher Pictures, 1975)The twin axes of time and space pretty much cover it all by definition. Structuralists, who believed that one needs both to describe speech and language, called them diachronic and synchronic. One might think of them instead as just letting go.

They have a dark side as well. The mushroom cloud should have baby boomers looking for a grade-school desk under which to hide. Cummings, for one, meant his poem as a warning against the "comfortable disease" of progress: "lenses extend / unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish / returns on its unself." It sounds delightful all the same, and it could be describing Crane's photographs. If there is a hell of a good universe next door, why not also in Chicago?

Pearls before swine

Nam June Paik may have invented his own art form, but he loved collaboration. He thrived in a circle of art, dance, music, and performance. Amy Greenfield, for one, remembers. Thanks to them, new media from the first has had an association with the physical.

She has every right to dedicate her 1994 MUSEic of the BODy to Paik. He asked Greenfield to work with him on a tribute to another favorite collaborator, Charlotte Moorman. (You may know her as the soloist in Paik's Concerto for TV Cello.) Although they worked separately, the monitor atop a quaint electric piano could almost pass for his, in its combination of television and sculpture. He would love the on-screen anarchy as well. Suzanne Gregoire, naked but for a long string of pearls, lolls against that very keyboard—accompanied by fragments of her own "interactive performance" on monitors on-screen behind her.

Greenfield, however, handled the choreography and video, and the recreation and the memories now very much belong to her. At the opening, she was still draping more of those pearls across the keys. Paik, who died in 2006, may be synonymous with new media, but one always thinks of his busted spare parts and period TVs. She updates that, too, for a work that has taken on a life of its own, with a spiffy flat-panel monitor. These days, new media might suggest a different kind of interactivity—the invitation to alter the digital events by playing along. You do not get to choose the black keys, but she still arranged the gallery's seating in parallel, like a piano bench.

That monitor is not the only sign of Best Buy in "Untitled Nude." The curator, Lynn del Sol of {CTS} Creative Thriftshop, has given the artist and filmmaker a small retrospective. In Tides from 1982 and Element from 1973, Greenfield herself cavorts in close up. In one she splashes in water, in the other in mud. They show her career not just over time, but also in its themes. Like Barbara Bloom and Beth Campbell today, she fragments the body and dismembers visual narrative, along with the rules of prime time TV. She also links the nude to the identity of both women and art.

The nude has been a battleground for art at least since Edouard Manet and Olympia, but especially since feminism. Some feminists might see the naked body as the mark of a woman's energy and autonomy, others as object of the male gaze. Greenfield comes down pretty clearly for the first, right down to the unity of opposites like earth and water. She quotes Paul Valéry, that "the nude is for the artist what love is for the poet." Maybe, but that underestimates her own madness. There is comedy as well as magic in the slog through mud.

Ironically, Picasso old and young fragmented women's bodies, too—with some of the same ambiguity. It is not only a question of women's agency, not when Greenfield can collaborate with men and direct men behind the camera. (One feminist project dropped her for doing just that.) It is just as much about seeing and getting others to look, when men may refuse to do so. When Bill Viola puts the human body through fire and water, he reaches for eternity. If only, like Greenfield, he could accept fragmentation of his own ego on both sides of the camera.

Low-tech surveillance

Be careful. Someone may be watching you, perhaps even Barbara Ess. Fortunately for you, her tools are decidedly low tech. In the past, Ess's pinhole camera has given people and landscapes both a vivid texture and a striking unreality. Now the ancient photographic method collides with new ones, leaping past film noir along the way. Barbara Ess's No Title (promise) (Thierry Goldberg, 2009)

Her photographs look like untitled film stills—not the kind starring Cindy Sherman or the more slippery ones by Uta Barth, but still teasingly familiar. Even before one tries to make out the plot, one strains to remember the movie. A woman in deep red lipstick or a chandelier seen from below might come out of a horror film. A geeky young man or a robotic white figure on a lunar surface might open a sci-fi flick. Dogs leaping at a fence or flags silhouetted above a barrier belong in a political thriller. Each seems at once casual, even random, and a critical moment.

Ess is not revealing her sources. She has photographed and rephotographed from other media, including surveillance video, often with her trademark pinhole camera. It darkens black-and-white images and heightens their contrast, leaving cloud-like blocks of pixels. It intensifies color, like the ghastly tone of that woman's face. The processing and reprocessing places one at a further distance, but also creates a sense of intimacy. The paradox grows with a cluster of smaller close-ups, photographed from life.

The cluster also adds to associations with film, hinting that they belong to a single story. Ess throws in a couple of videos for good measure, and naturally their continuity makes the least sense. It does not take much to imagine the camera turning on you—and with much the same confusion. You may feel the details of your life less stolen than inserted into someone else's narrative. In that way, too, Ess makes one aware of the distance between oneself and others. As the show's title has it, "You Are Not I."

Metaphysics aside, the prints thrive on both mystery and the commonplace, like allusions to surveillance by E. E. Smith, Christian Marclay, Rivane Neuenschwander, and several others. Marclay's The Clock takes one twenty-four hours and even out of time, while Ess can approach abstraction, as in a print at the Emily Fisher Landau Center. Here she has traded the special care of her pinhole camera for a greater drama. One figure even juggles. Another exhales a cloud of smoke, as in an old movie. Still, one cannot see a cigarette, and the smoke forms a perfect cone.

Similarly low-tech ghosts inhabit a fashion these days for photograms, like the work of Liz Deschenes or Eileen Quinlan, and Mariah Robertson even recombines negatives by hand. It may seem strange that shows like these appear alongside the growth of digital media. One can see them as a shared reaction to photographic convention, with its idea of art as a lens onto nature. Or one can see them as a reaction to each other—a return to the primitive in the face of Photoshop's society of the spectacle. Ess's combination of methods makes it pointless to decide.

What community?

It seems harmless enough to praise good artists. I was wrong. Some of Greenfield's installation, plus two more videos, briefly appeared on YouTube—until YouTube took them down (seriously) for violating "community standards." One video from her show remains up at last count, but in the "adult" category.

This can bring joy to anyone concerned that art these days can no longer shock, that Rudy Giuliani is no longer in a position to pontificate about art in Brooklyn, or that the Web is less of a community than Williamsburg. (Williamsburg does have better bars and restaurants.) It shows that women artists can assert sexuality as well as Young British Artists, as in that notorious 1999 exhibition of the Saatchi collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Besides, now I know that, even now, there is art for adults. It could even reassure someone worried that YouTube is making copyright obsolete. That, too, could put creative artists out of business.

However, to her credit, Greenfield herself was making the video available and is not happy. More precisely, she posted four videos, all removed. The show's curator, Lynn del Sol, found another removed, the principal work in the show. And only del Sol's YouTube stash gets to keep one, for you grownups. I would try to play it, but I have a desk job. I would hate to verify that I work with adults.

Supporters point out too that Google, which has acquired YouTube, is after all publicly standing up to censorship in China. Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship's Arts Advocacy Project has a report. The young Carolee Schneemann famously pulled a feminist tract out of her vagina. Pray that it does not become a part of Googol books.

Mintcheva quotes Deborah Jowitt's description of one video: "Greenfield rolls and seethes and plunges in a field of mud." She never knew what she was getting into. As usual with women, someone is always watching. (As a postscript, YouTube responded by restoring at least some of the video on February 23—but to the adult category. By March 8, they had become more public at last. Perhaps one should now call them "young adult.")

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Barbara Crane ran through January 30, 2010, at Higher Pictures, Amy Greenfield at Dam, Stuhltrager through February 12. Barbara Ess ran at Thierry Goldberg through November 15, 2009, Mariah Robertson at Marvelli through November 14. Svetlana Mintcheva blogged on February 3, 2010; the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sent a letter of protest on February 22.


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