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Re-Animating the Woman's Building

“Naked Lady,” a thick, primordial effigy crafted by Kate Millett, no longer hunkers on the roof of the feminist mecca Woman’s Building, arms akimbo as she guards the art center. “Naked Lady” no longer peers through downtown smog, watching jet-lagged pilgrims like former Woman’s Building executive director Terry Wolverton, as they trudge past warehouses, gazing upon 1727 N. Spring Street, awed. Poetry, consciousness-raising conversations, laughter and matriarchal prayers no longer make the center’s red bricks hum.

These changes don’t mean that the Woman’s Building is dead. Architecture transcends space. Architecture is about time. And time, thanks to art, and women, never ends.

The historic 1978 Woman's Building with Kate Millet's "Naked Lady" sculpture | Courtesy of the artist
The historic 1978 Woman's Building with Kate Millet's "Naked Lady" sculpture | Courtesy of the artist

A feminist preoccupation with time fuels “Animating the Archives,” a multimedia exhibition running from May 13 through June 3, which will be happening by dint of a preservation effort. “Lauren Bon of Metabolic Studio wanted to give us money to archive our history,” says Wolverton. “We were grateful for her interest, but we thought we’d done a lot of looking back. We wanted to figure out how to look forward.” This desire, which echoes artist Liza Cowan’s recently resurrected and very popular slogan “The Future Is Female,” inspired Wolverton to redistribute Metabolic’s financial contribution among fifteen young contemporary women artists.  “We asked them to make work which responds to the history of the Woman’s Building,” she says.

In 1973, Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven founded the Woman’s Building, intending it to serve as a public center for women’s culture. 1727 N. Spring Street housed this vision until 1991, when the Woman’s Building closed. Its staff, faculty and artists donated caches of memorabilia to the Smithsonian and Getty, and in 2011, these archives became the focus of Otis College’s “Doin’ It in Public,” a series of events, publications, and exhibits that documented and celebrated the Woman’s Building’s local, art, and feminist histories.

Woman's Building founders Arlene Raven, Judy Chicago and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. Woman's Building Image Archive, ​Otis College of Art and Design Lib
The Woman's Building Founders: Arlene Raven, Judy Chicago, Sheila de Bretteville, photographed in 1972, Woman's Building Image Archive, ​Otis College of Art and Design Library.

Otis graduate, artist and grant-recipient Marissa Magdalena will be exhibiting her commissioned work, “L/D,” a series of wearable objects inspired by Woman’s Building oral histories. Magdalena learned about the Woman’s Building through Jerri Allyn, an Otis professor and mentor. Magdalena, who hails from Bakersfield, explains that, “like mine, the roots of the Woman’s Building go back to the San Joaquin Valley. I met Suzanne Lacy, who’s from Wasco, there. She taught at the Woman’s Building, and we glommed onto each other because of our shared rural, working-class backgrounds.”

Judy Chicago, the co-founder who established the first feminist art program at Fresno State College, further roots the Woman’s Building in the San Joaquin Valley. Interest in Chicago is hot right now. Emmy-winning director Jill Soloway is developing a series on Chicago who brought what she started at Fresno to Los Angeles, turning it into the Feminist Studio Workshop. Though Chicago left to work on her iconic installation artwork “The Dinner Party,” the FSW carried on, offering a two-year educational program for women in the arts. Lacy served as performance faculty at FSW. Wolverton came from Detroit to participate in it and graduated from the program.

“My life intersected with mentors who had been Woman’s Building faculty members,” says Magdalena. This connection made her encounter with the archives intimate. “Jerri is a very humble person,” says Magdalena, “and she asked me to help her organize her personal archive. It was a summer project and I was physically digging through photos and documentation of performances she’d done throughout her life. I was like ‘Oh my gosh! This woman is kind of a big deal!’”

Marissa Magdalena's "Quince Quince" dress | Edward Duarte.
Marissa Magdalena's "Quince Quince" dress | Edward Duarte.

Because mentorship provided by Woman’s Building figures has strongly shaped Magdalena’s art practice, she decided to use her grant to honor this synergy. “I wanted to unpack the strategies that these mentors brought into their practices and passed on to their mentees,” she explains. “I know that their influence did not stop in 1991.” To this end, Magdalena paired women active in the Woman’s Building through the 70s and on up until the 90s with younger women. They engaged in intergenerational conversations about art making and meaning which Magdalena recorded. These conversations became muses. Magdalena memorialized each conversation with a wearable object.

Watch the story of the Woman's Building

“Some mentees felt hesitant to make work and discussed that they felt that they had failed. Themes that kept coming up were brokenness, empathy and that everybody’s story is worthwhile material,” says Magdalena. Her piece, “L/D,” embodies both failure and resilience. It consists of “two very large sets of wings. One will be in operation and the other will be broken. Standing together, they make a complete, functional set.” Much of Magdalena’s art is wearable and she says, “If I love something, I want to put it on.” “L/D” is not Magdalena’s first tribute to brokenness. For her thirtieth birthday, she staged “Quince Quince,” a performance piece where assistants suspended her from the ceiling. She wore a piñata dress, and with a metal bat, participants whacked at her, breaking her dress to free its candy.

Raquel Gutierrez is another artist who will be showing a commissioned piece, “Fissures in Frisson.” Gutierrez learned about the Woman’s Building through secondary source materials and from older lesbians, including Wolverton and Jeanne Cordova, who shared anecdotes about the place. “Fissures in Frisson” gives Gutierrez an opportunity similar to Magdalena’s: a space to explore the art of failure and the failure of art.

Gutierrez describes her piece as a meta-narrative, a performance about an older performance which she staged with Cordova, her mentor. Gutierrez says that during the piece, “Jeanne was sitting in a barber chair. I was giving her a haircut but not really. I was snipping only the tiniest pieces while she talked.” In the background, an incantatory loop of “Organize! Organize! Organize!” played. The pair intended to demonstrate Gutierrez grooming her elder, maintaining “butch panache” as Cordova talked about political organizing. However, Gutierrez thinks that the map projected behind them, the snipping of her scissors, the storytelling, and the chanting might have over-stimulated Cordova. “It threw her a little off kilter,” she says.

Gutierrez will be traveling into those off-kilter spaces during her meta-narrative. “That old performance showed me how much my own lesbian activism had failed,” she says. “In the past, I’ve been in service of others’ visions and that lack of reciprocity became important.” Gutierrez jokes about no longer believing in utopias and cites the work of LTTR, a feminist genderqueer artist collective that has urged artists to “practice more failure,”  as a touchstone for “Fissures in Frisson.”

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Gutierrez is developing her work far from Los Angeles, in Tucson where she is at work on her MFA. “Being out here,” she says, “I haven’t been immersed in all that energy.” Gutierrez is referring to the verve generated by the exhibition. Wolverton experienced this energy firsthand and says that the orientation for the younger artists was “reminiscent of the energy of the former Woman’s Building. You could feel the joy and excitement at being convened together as women artists and you could feel a buzz in the room.”

In addition to Magdalena and Gutierrez, a panel of judges also decided to fund works by Johanna Breiding, CamLab, Teresa Flores, Hackers of Resistance, Onya Hogan-Finlay, Carolina Ibarra-Mendoza, J. Alex Matthews, Felicia ‘Fe’ Montes, Cindy Rehm, Gladys Rodriguez, Hana Ward, Lisa Diane Wedgeworth and Diana Wyenn. They will be shown at Avenue 50 Studios in Highland Park.

“I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met since the Woman’s Building closed who’ve said something like, ‘I would love to have something like that,’” muses Wolverton. She’s onto something. Women are hungry for a building of their own and after seeing the “Doin’ It in Public” exhibit, two attendees, Sarah Williams and Kate Johnston created such a place, the Women’s Center for Creative Work, an organization working to cultivate L.A.’s feminist creative communities and practices. Perhaps “Animating the Archives” will be equally fruitful, inspiring more women to plug into the Woman’s Building’s zeitgeist and regenerate that spirit. For now, the closest one may get to experiencing it will be witnessing “Animating the Archives.”

Lisa Diane Wedgeworth's "Teach Your Daughters Well, Enseñe Bien a Sus Hijas" | Courtesy of the artist
Lisa Diane Wedgeworth's "Teach Your Daughters Well, Enseñe Bien a Sus Hijas" | Courtesy of the artist

 

Raquel Gutiérrez's "Fissures in Frisson | Courtesy of the artist
Raquel Gutiérrez's "Fissures in Frisson | Courtesy of the artist
Onya Hogan-Finlay (in collaboration with Phranc) "2017 Avest Awards" | Courtesy of the artist
Onya Hogan-Finlay (in collaboration with Phranc) "2017 Avest Awards" | Courtesy of the artist

Top Image: Diana Wyenn's "1+1=3" | Courtesy of the artist

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