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The Brooklyn Museum’s new feminist art show is a swift kick in the crotch

The Brooklyn Paper
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A new exhibit of feminist pop art during the turmoil of the 1960s gives the supposed King of Pop, Andy Warhol, a swift kick in the groin through an eclectic mix of works that are both provocative and humorous.

Warhol tended to tackle our commercialized culture through his ironic reproductions of the quotidian, but the works in “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” have an urgent, rebellious attitude.

Many of the pieces are more explicit in their attacks on male-dominated society. John Wayne, a “man’s man” if there ever was one, is lampooned in a wooden sculpture of him riding a carousel horse. The artist May Stevens’s father also gets skewered; he is depicted as a cop, butcher, military man, and executioner. Even King Kong gets in on the misogyny by menacing the ubiquitous damsel in distress in a painting by Rosalyn Drexler.

But men are not the only targets in “Seductive Subversion.” The Vietnam War is an influence on many of the pieces, as is the hyper-sexualization of women in popular culture.

The exhibit seamlessly includes photo collages from skin mags, sculptures, plenty of phallic symbols — including a colorful missile — and much more, all hinting that in a time of social upheaval these artists were struggling to make their voices heard over the din of revolution.

Take, for example, Idelle Weber, who portrays males from the “Mad Men” era as merely soulless silhouettes on their daily commute. She calls them, “Munchkins.”

In another painting called, “Marvelous Mechanical Men,” a cadre of identical businessmen with statuesque features enjoy a drink after work.

Finally, in “Squeeze Me” those same mechanical men get what’s coming to them: a pair of hands — Weber’s — crushes them into oblivion. The piece features comic-book influences, like many of the paintings on display, as the men are crushed in a three-panel sequence.

Other works are less explicit in their aggression. Yayo Kusama’s seat made of phalluses tackles the familiar theme in pop art of mass production. Needless to say, Kusama’s seat — possibly the worst football chair ever — is much more shocking than yet another Campbell’s soup can or silkscreen portrait.

The art makes for a stark contrast with the work of Warhol — who was featured in an excellent retrospective last summer at the Brooklyn Museum and whose work tended have an ironic air of detachment rather than a pugilistic desire to shock the status quo.

Warhol’s dominance of the pop art scene was symbolically broken in 1968 when the feminist writer Valerie Solanas shot and nearly killed him — in the ultimate piece of performance art of the century. But “Seductive Subversion,” which features no works created after that shooting, proves that numerous artists were challenging the male pop-paradigm well before Solanas put a cap in Warhol.

Take Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Black Rosy or My Heart Belongs to Rosy,” which looks like a cross between the Venus of Willendorf and one of R. Crumb’s freakiest fantasies. The towering statue depicts a woman with outrageous proportions, tacky clothes and a tiny, featureless head. It’s as if some dirtbag’s fantasy is towering over the viewer.

“Seductive Subversion” brings levity to feminist art — the genre has a reputation for being earnest, to say the least — that makes it appealing, easy to approach and thought-provoking.

Overall, the exhibit works as an excellent complement to one of the museum’s most important pieces, Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” — the quintessential example of humorless, overwhelming feminist art. Chicago’s famous work is permanently set up in the museum in a pyramid-shaped, dimly lit black room, and features 39 vaginal dinner plates representing underappreciated heroines from history on elaborately embroidered tablecloth.

Taken together, the two exhibits are a powerful indicator of the diversity and creativity of the feminist movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” at the Brooklyn Museum [200 Eastern Pkwy. at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, (718) 638-5000], Oct. 15- Jan. 9. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Updated 11:59 am, October 18, 2010
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