Mary Beth Edelson: Trickster and Gunslinger

E. Ann Kaplan, 2000

reprinted from "The Art of Mary Beth Edelson"

We might wonder at the renewed interest in Mary Edelson’s art. Like many of us, Edelson belongs to a generation of women artists and critics marked by a very specific historical moment–namely that of discovery of women’s male-identification--of female subjectivities formed within a traditional and unquestioned patriarchal culture. That moment has passed, but its lessons, its activities and its pressures, have radically altered US culture. Indeed, that era changed North American culture so much that succeeding generations of women artists and critics who benefit from their foremothers’ discoveries, demonstrations and actions do not even realize what has made possible their freedoms, their theoretical frameworks, their ideas about art and literature, theory and criticism.

So it is important to have retrospectives of leading 1970s artists like Edelson, partly to preserve the important history of the past thirty decades of feminist art and public activities; partly to show younger artists what was done to bring about their freedoms and potentialities. But phrased this way, it would seem that Edelson and others are ready for the archive! Or that the point of showing this work is feminist history, merely. Both ideas would be wrong: Perhaps the danger of retrospectives is that such views might emerge. In fact, the work is fascinating in and of itself. Moreover, Edelson like many of us has kept moving, renewing and changing ideas about her art while keeping abreast of a changing political and artistic world. Perhaps she cannot move in ways that young women can, starting out fresh, as they are, on the shoulders of their foremothers--whether they realize it or not. But Edelson keeps inventing new kinds of projects, and works with new materials, new forms as she refines her ideas.

From the start, Edelson’s works have been nothing if not hybrids: They bring together a collage of diverse materials and theories, crossing borders on numerous levels. While an overriding ideology–that of feminism(s)–governs the entire body of work, individual pieces are not ultimately able to be categorized under any one label, such as feminist or feminine “art.” They are most accurately grouped, perhaps, as performances: actions, activities, activisms, so to speak, rather than art in the traditional (male) sense of something static to be gazed upon and consumed. Edelson’s works deliberately challenge such an idea of art, and demand the spectator’s involvement. Her point is to have an impact upon viewers--perhaps to prod viewers’ assumptions, perhaps to change viewers.

All of which is to say that Edelson’s works are, in varying degrees, didactic. But this does not mean that they may not also be aesthetically pleasing, or that they do not use experimental techniques. The opposite is true, especially regarding aesthetic strategies. Browsing through the 30-year survey of her work, one is struck by the diversity of innovative techniques evident across the decades. Some works indeed–such as the Marilyn Monroe series or the cartoon-like images of Edelson herself with head too large for the body--aim to challenge traditional female roles or male expectations of women and their bodies. And in so doing seem to deliberately counter the very concept of “beauty” in art--a traditional Western and male idea going back to Plato. Perhaps Adorno’s concept of “committed” art–that is avant garde art which addresses social concerns without the didacticism of authors like Brecht and Sartre–best fits Edelson’s work.

Edelson’s engagement with feminist film theory (one of many theories she draws upon) is interesting as crossing over a line many have found difficult. Feminist academic critics and feminist creative artists have not always been happy bedfellows. Academic feminists started out sharing with artists a similar passion to recover forgotten women artists, writers, scholars, thinkers and activists. But only too quickly, feminist theorists began to worry about the so-called “essentialism” of this search. The discoveries seemed to leave intact the symbolic, “male” versus “female” positions that, no matter what gender was occupying a position, kept opposed sets of qualities in place: male=aggressive, autonomous, ambitious, active, searching, etc; female=gentle, symbiotic, unambitious, passive, settled, etc. Edelson tries to break through such simple dichotomies so as to reveal the inadequacy of either set of qualities to describe how we in fact are. But it’s true that what we used to call “strategic essentialism” might be appropriate for some of Edelson’s 1970s projects. For in strategic essentialism one adopts specific female identities and political positions for the purposes of challenging the status quo. But one does not claim the identity as a fixed or biological one across time. In another action, one may adopt a different identity because the purposes are different. Edelson’s shape-shifters have similar ends in mind.

Edelson has behind her three decades of pioneering work which included raising the visibility of women artists (e.g. the well-known Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper (1972) or the O Kevelson 1972-73 series). Further, in her Death to the Patriarchy, in Edelson’s own words, she aimed to present women artists “as the grand subject–while spoofing the patriarchy for cutting women out of positions of power and authority.” In addition, Edelson has over the years celebrated the female body, not as a “nude tantalizer, but powerful, and wild, with self-generating energy symbolizing the joy and exuberance of our new freedom....” In the mid-70s, she studied and became fascinated with concepts and images of female Goddesses, and engaged in private rituals in nature as well in some public ritualistic performances that others have written about. She plays with the concept of the trickster’s body, incorporated in the image of Baubo, an ancient figure associated with the goddess Demeter in the Greek pantheon. In her lecture, she quotes Peter Wollen who notes that “Baubo’s exhibitionism is interpreted as a potential alternative to the castrating display of the medusa: Baubo’s display is to another woman and its effect is to provoke laughter and to end grief and mourning.”

In a sense, Edelson’s interest in the femme fatale is in a figure at precisely the opposite pole to the Baubo figure. In this short piece, I will focus on the provocative uses Edelson has made of the femme fatale and feminist film theory, since that is what I know best. Edelson has been involved with femme fatale images since the early 1970s, and before she engaged feminist film theory. She has returned to these images in new ways in the early 1990s, in the wake of reading such theory, as well as most recently extending this inquiry into film to other themes and other cinematic female images. Typical of Edelson is that prior motifs and themes do recur, but in ever new ways, as will be clear in a moment.

Edelson is not the first (nor will she necessarily be the last) female artist to be inspired by the cinema and by academic feminist film theory. Both Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger come to mind as artists drawing upon cinema, and Mary Kelly’s obvious and deep involvement with feminist theory, including film theory, is well known, as is her impact on film theory itself. But Edelson has a particularly close relationship feminist film theory, as can be seen in her visual discussions of the femme fatale. This relationship is intriguing, as an intertextual practice, crossing discourses as well as images.

A mainstay of 1980s feminist film theory was the controversial, much debated, concept of the “male gaze,” first articulated by Laura Mulvey in 1975, but not widely known until much later. Edelson notes that before she encountered feminist film theory, she confronted the problem of woman’s look in her Dematerializing project, in which she “takes command of the act of looking in this performance on sight by directing my gaze directly at the viewer with three pairs of eyes.” Later, Edelson focused on the female gun slinger as depicted by Gena Rowlands in the film Gloria. Edelson did not know feminist film theory until the mid 1980s, nor was she at that point aware of feminist interest in women in film noir. But she was already pondering whether woman is object of the gaze, or subject of the gaze; and asking whether and how women can have agency. She worked her way back to the 1940's film noir heroines—Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Graham, among others–as she encountered feminist film theory.

In images in her “Shooter Series,” Edelson returns to Gena Rowlands as Gloria. Edelson poses the problem of female power and asks in what ways women can have agency and be powerful. She is fascinated with the female gunslinger as an image of power--an image diametrically opposed to that of the mild, submissive woman, dependent on her man wielding the power. Let me comment on a few images before discussing the concept of the female gunslinger in more detail.

Edelson’s pun on “double agent” in the work of that title is worth comment: Sitting at the mirror, the femme fatale (usually a double agent confusing the male detective) has double agency in that her mirror image also wields a gun. The slippage of gender roles and power hierarchies is humorously commented on in a photo in the exhibition which shows Edelson’s son, in a classically “feminine” role, cooking dinner. However, his apron, tied around his waist, carries an image of the Gena Rowlands shooter, pointing her penis/gun directly out at the spectator. This image embodies the problematizing of gender roles and power at the core of Edelson’s work, as does a much later one, namely This is What 64 Looks Like. Consolidating her ideas, Edelson features herself at age 64 recreated as a femme fatale. Her point here is to betray the ageism tied to the femme fatale figure, who has to be young and beautiful. “It gives me great pleasure,” Edelson says, “ to challenge the taboos, the should and should not’s set up for women as they age, not only by the culture itself but also by other women.”

But we need to pause on the issue of whether the female gunslinger, a male fantasy seeking to allay castration anxiety can be recuperated in the ways Edelson’s wants. Much of the feminist film theory Edelson draws upon aimed to expose the femme fatale as a figure constructed to at once thrill the male spectator with the woman with-penis idea–allaying fears of castration Freud had theorized–and to show male mastery over this figure, who always ends up dead or punished at least.

Speaking about her gunslingers, Edelson argues that the gun symbolizes power, and is intended to counteract pervasive images of women as passive, lacking agency: “The shooter takes aim directing her gaze at an unseen object. As the looks down the barrel of her gun, there is no debate about who is in charge of the gaze...the accuracy and steadiness of the shooters determines who gets the best shot. The gun and the camera are seen here as equalizers.” But can such a strategy in fact destabilize the system? Doesn’t it run the risk of simply replacing women figures with male ones, leaving the system of violence and aggression in place? Such replacement of gender positions does not take us very far. In addition, as Edelson knows, in an era of gun violence it might be problematic to destabilize the current system with such images.” These images of Hollywood shooters,” she notes, “present me with at least two dilemmas; the first, how to avoid generalizing the image of women, and the second, not replicating the violence of patriarchy.”

I believe Edelson problematizes and opens up these questions by mixing Gloria Graham–a fairly conventional femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat–with the character Gloria, played by Gena Rowlands in the film of that name, perhaps with a nod to Gloria Graham and the roles she played. In the latter case, Gloria dons the gun to protect a young boy being hunted by the mafia. And, an aging woman, Gloria is not the common femme fatale. The slippage from the one figure–a male fantasy–to the second figure–a female fantasy–allows us to contemplate the distance culture has moved from producing the femme fatale to producing an older woman willing to engage in violence in order to save life. Or indeed, to producing images of women with guns like Thelma and Louise, who are also fleeing male violence.

Perhaps my favorite image in Edelson’s work inspired by the femme fatale also extends ideas of the femme fatale in positive ways. This is the huge chiffon curtain with the image of Gloria Graham as she appeared in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. I like the tension in this chiffon image where the softness of the silk, the wafting of the chiffon in the breeze in the exhibition site, exists in dramatic contrast to the figure of the femme fatale, portrayed here not so much in all her aggressivity and power, but as thinking, planning her next move. For the femme fatale’s remarkable intelligence has not been sufficiently commented upon. She needs to be smart enough to outwit the also smart male detective, which she usually does right up to the end. It’s as if the figure is aware of her status between codes of “masculine” and “feminine”–that is, between the male imaginary of the feminine woman, and the male imaginary of “tough” woman. The “reality” of women is in this way problematized–thrown open for meditation, like that Gloria Graham is engaging in herself.

Talking in an interview about a lecture she gave, Edelson says: “If it had been the middle ages instead of the 1970s, certain members of the audience would have erected a stake, and lit a match to me!” Since a large part of Edelson’s strategy is to provoke engagement, to challenge thought, to confront accepted positions, her shooters certainly do that, even in raising the issue of guns and violence, as they relate to women, so essential to discuss today.

The title of this survey “Re-scripting the Story,” suggests the intersection of writing and art. The term “script” of course implies the film script as well as social “scripts” which have confined women traditionally; “Story” indicates that Edelson is thinking of narrative as much as visuality. The overlap suggests to me the possibility of locating Edelson’s work within a new area of study, namely “Visual Culture,” rather than within the usual terms--painting, art, drawing or even collage. Edelson has so much involvement in culture and in discourses about women--including women’s social and political roles–that prior terms cannot encompass her varied practices. Other terms might also be appropriate, especially that of “performance” noted earlier–a term that fits Edelson’s interest in many female film stars, as I have shown above. A kind of trickster herself, Edelson’s work is fitting in an era that, in searching to move beyond static traditional categories of race, gender and class, uses the language of hybridity, in betweenness, multiple selves. Her vision resonates well with recent feminist focus on standpoint, position, as defining identities. Using her concept of “scripting,” Edelson is performing in her practices–aesthetic and otherwise–and in these multiple ways creating new cultural scripts for women.