Shifting Signs


Laura Cottingham

For more than four decades, the art of Mary Beth Edelson has sustained a radical engagement with transforming the parameters and purpose of art. Working in a variety of media -including sculpture, posters, printmaking, painting, collage, installation, ritual, photography and performance - Edelson’s work is situated according to a dialectic of change that relies on philosophies and iconographies taken from diverse sources, including Celtic myth and European art history, feminism and Hollywood movies, spirituality and political theory, autobiography and cultural critique. A leading member of the first generation of feminist artists who emerged coterminous with the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United States during the early 1970s, Edelson developed and participated in the challenge to traditional artistic values introduced by the insights of second wave feminism. As a critique and expansion of 19th-century and Modernist-derivative assumptions, the Feminist Art Movement encour-aged collaborative art practices; sought new recognition for craft and for sculptural materials associated with domesticity; championed autobiography as a vital artistic foundation; engaged directly with the political implications of the work of art; encouraged the emergence of new media, especially video and performance; called for a prioritization of female subjectivity; and opposed the purely formalist basis according to which American art has categorized and judged itself since the end of World War II. In New York City, where Edelson has lived and worked since the 1970s, some of her associates in the Feminist Art Movement included Carolee Schneemann, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, and Nancy Spero, among others. Involved with A.I.R. in its formative years as the first all-women cooperative art gallery, and a founding member of the Heresies Collective, Edelson was one of the most active individual forces in the construction of feminist aesthetics that burgeoned in New York and throughout the United States during the 1970s, and which laid the foundational groundwork for subsequent developments in American art. Her engagement with feminist theory and ideals has continued to inform her artistic practice during the 1980s and 1990s, including work in the political realm: she was a leading member of the Women’s Action Coalition, a direct action group that thrived in New York City from 1992-94.

Edelson’s initial development of a feminist aesthetic during the 1970s, in particular her engagement with producing images of female representation that seek to disrupt and transform the patriarchal pictorial codes that define and limit female identity, constituted one of the central organizing features of her entire artistic production. In works produced during the 1990s she began to introduce the theme of aging, a consideration that is also a personal one for the artist; the ongoing performance piece, Just Looking: Mary Beth Shops for a New Mate, for instance, humorously considers the limited romantic options available to women as we age. Indeed, all of Edelson’s art can be interpreted according to an understanding of the ever shifting parameters of individual identity. Her work seeks to question who we are - and why we think we are who we are. In Edelson’s photographic pieces from the early 1970s, she is concerned with the political and historical restraints that prohibit individuals - especially those of us born female - from self knowledge. The photographs produced as part of the Body Works series, 1973-77 (featuring black and white photographic images of her naked body altered with paint, ink and grease pencil), function simultaneously as self-portraits and critical adjustments to the representation of the female body within the European art historical tradition. She works with cross-cultural archetypes, including icons from antiquity, such as that of Baubo (a Mediterranean trickster goddess whose image is a visual pun) that appears overlaid on the artist’s torso in Tricksters Body, 1973, and the Irish Sheela-na-gig (another ambivalent trickster) that appears on Edelson’s drawings, paintings and the photograph, Sheela’s Delight, 1973. Symbols taken from popular culture include the reference to Wonder Woman in To the Rescue, 1973. This piece represents Edelson’s early manipulations of self-portraiture and identity that reflect her internal engagement with the then budding feminist consciousness, as well as her desire to externalize this awareness with deliberate artistic gestures that critique the spectacularized position of the female nude within the European art historical tradition. One of a small group of women artists who deployed their own bodies as medium and material during the early 1970s, Edelson sought to document the politically altered awareness of her body while at the same time recognizing that her individual transformation heralded a larger change in the cultural consciousness. As the artist wrote of her Body Works series at the time: These photographic images are defining images presented aggressively as sexuality, mind, and spirit comfortable in one body. The female body here is not a nude tantalizer but powerful, wild, with self-generating energy, symbolizing the joy and exuberance of our new freedom, as well as making a political statement that says I am, and I am my body, and I am not going away.1 On a formal level, her Body Works, incorporate unique paint, ink and collage overlays on the same series of photographic images. These varied gestural adjustments to the same group of photographs are consistent with Edelson‘s concern with the instability and expansion of personal identity, wherein each piece is an ‘altered version’ of herself, or rather, of the ‘image’ of herself. Edelson situates the intention of her practice, with its simultaneous engagement with serious purpose and provocative play, within the terms of a line from Nietzsche: ”I hope that at this artificial inflation of a small species into the absolute measure of things one is still permitted to laugh?” In another significant ‘adjusted self-portrait’ from 1973, O’Kevelson, the artist transformed her appearance 26 into those of Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson. A kind of ‘photographic performance’ that anticipates the early 1980s performative photos of Cindy Sherman and the subsequent computerized morphings of self during the 1990s by artists such as Mariko Mori and Yasuma Morimura, Edelson’s process involved photographing herself in the facial pose, expression, and costume of the two other artists, then manipulating the portrait’s surface with grease paint to better approximate a closer simulation of the Nevelson and O’Keeffe portraits. The six photographic panels that comprise O’Kevelson function as an homage to two of the grand dames of American art before feminism, as well as an insightful meditation on the roles history and celebrity play as signposts and inspiration for the construction of individual identity. In this case: the struggle for a woman of Edelson’s generation to claim the right to the identity of “artist,” and the contributory effect the existence of Nevelson and O’Keeffe had on Edelson’s evolving identity formation. Edelson’s homage to O’Keeffe is manifest in another early work, the poster edition Some Living American Women Artists, 1972, which features Da Vinci’s Last Supper dramatically readjusted to an all-woman dinner party, bordered by a collage of over seventy more photographs of women artists. The artist whose image replaces that of Christ - the central figure at Da Vinci’s table as well as the main protagonist in Christian mythology - is Georgia O’Keeffe. Edelson’s poster celebrations of American feminist artists, all of which are rendered as re-makings of male [master]pieces (Happy Birthday America, 1976; Death of the Patriarchy/Heresies, 1976; Death of the Patriarchy/A.I.R., 1976; Bringing Home the Evolution, 1978) critique the male exclusivity of patriarchal culture and herald the emergence of a radical new cultural movement: feminist art. The final poster of the series, Bringing Home the Evolution, features Louise Bourgeois leading a triumphant parade, in acknowledgment of the role Bourgeois‘s art and life have had in the development of Edelson‘s art and thought.

Reviewing the historical misrepresentation of women in European painting and culture was a dominant feature of the Feminist Art Movement, which spawned a surge of revisionist scholarship in academic art history dedicated to unearthing neglected female artists from the past - including Angelica Kauffman, Artemesia Gentileschi, Vigee LeBrun - all of whom became the subjects of monographs and exhibitions during the 1970s. This new-found interest in women‘s history began with artists and activists such as Edelson, who exercised impassioned amateur scholarship in their efforts on behalf of women‘s history and women artists before such work was taken up by the Academy. Since 1970, Edelson has researched myths and symbols of women from different times in antiquity, which she has incorporated into much of her art, including in her mixed-media drawings featuring images of goddesses, Sheela-na-gigs, and Baubo, which she often presents alongside contemporary female mythologies, including art historical images and Hollywood femme fatales. In March 1977, in conjunction with her exhibition Your 5,000 Years are Up!, an optimistic declaration of the historical end of patriarchy, Edelson gave her first public performance. Performed in Los Angeles with members of the Los Angeles Women‘s Building, Mourning Our Lost Herstory was constructed as a feminist liturgy, incorporating both recognition for women‘s accomplishments as well as anger and rage against the persistent cultural disavowal of women’s contributions. 27 Edelson’s other major research-based projects include Proposals for Memorials to the 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era, 1977, an exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery, New York, which included a Halloween night performance, and was drawn from the artist’s research on the European witch hunts of the Middle Ages. Indeed, a critique of women’s subordinate status in the history and structure of Christianity and a consideration of women’s spirituality has been a central concern throughout Edelson’s career and constitutes one of her main contributions to feminist aesthetics. Spirituality, as well as history and politics, is one of the consistent lenses through which Edelson views, examines, and artistically manipulates her world. In Edelson’s ongoing project Story Gathering Box, initiated in 1972, her “research” process is shared with her audience, who is invited to respond in writing to categorical ‘life questions’ the artist poses, thus assembling a kind of sociological history. The suggestive topics have included “Make Up a New Beginning,” “Describe the Future as You Would Like for It to Be,” “What is the Most Alienating Thing That You Encounter in Your Daily Life,” “What Did Your Mother Tell You About Men?” and other queries that address the philosophical and political implications of individual thoughts, feelings and experiences of daily life. Writing about the piece in 1990, after having collected over 2000 responses, Edelson said: When I began collecting these stories in the early ’70s, what I had in mind was to reveal our collective mythology by gathering stories from people who were not writers contriving to present a particular point of view but, people who were sharing their own spontaneous real-life stories. Over the years these stories reflected people as they are: profound, silly, hateful, loving, intelligent, mindless, angry and so on. I shifted in time from expecting a collective mythology to emerge on the cards to having no particular expectations. Although I may in fact be collecting mythology, the responses on the cards have taught me that being open is the appropriate perspective.2 Her interest in a “collective mythology” dates back to the late 1960s when she participated in a five-year Jungian seminar that involved researching goddesses, myth and the collective unconscious. Although Edelson ended up rejecting Jungian theory, her sustained engagement with its interest in cross-cultural iconography, emphasis on the universal aspects of human existence, critique of conventional social organization, and prioritization of the unconscious, had a profound affect on her artistic development. The Edelson works which are the most purely metaphysical are those from a series of private performances she conducted in natural landscapes and rock formations during the late 1970s. On the most obvious visual level, these works visually depart from the Body Works of the early 1970s in that Edelson is no longer photographing herself nude, but rather presenting herself covered in fabric (i.e., not “clothing” per se). In performances such as Cliff Hanger, 1978; Shamanic Trace, 1977; Stone Speaks, 1978; The Nature of Balancing, 1979; Fireflights in Deep Space, 1979; and Up from the Earth, 1979; the artist deliberately situated herself outside of culture and the attendant support to personal identity that clothing, language and other human mediators provide the self. As a kind of sweeping Wittgensteinian gesture, Edelson’s private rituals in nature refer to the ever-present instability of individual subjectivity: without the support of linguistic and cultural mediators, our identities collapse, lose shape, leave us grasping for cognitive certitude. Without the mirror of culture, how do we recognize ourselves?

Edelson‘s earliest performative interactions with nature occlude with other conceptual investigations of the earth conducted during the seventies by artists such as Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson and Michelle Stuart, who also sought, however differently, an artistic connection with natural landscapes more immediate than that previously provided in European art’s long history of landscape painting– i.e., they wanted an engagement with nature more direct than one separated by an easel and brush. 28 Situated within the heightened spirituality that developed within the sixties generally and within the feminist movement specifically, Edelson‘s performative interactions with and within nature are not about the visual appearance of nature but, concerned with nature’s invisible powers and the human capacity for accessing, connecting and utilizing those powers. Like many performative works conducted during the 1960s and 1970s which were enacted privately and not documented on film and video, Edelson‘s subjective performative investigations with nature from 1970 have come down to us exclusively through still photographic documentation, providing auxiliary art works that are simultaneously distinct from and directly referential to the performances upon which they are based. She designed these private performances with the still camera in mind, knowing that photographic documentation would be the primary method of communicating what had transpired. The three photographs that exist as testament to Edelson’s Cliff Hanger, 1978, for instance, only enable us to witness isolated moments from what the performance may have looked like to a viewer–indeed, a viewer physically positioned identically to the camera lens. We see a figure (Edelson) before and during her physical leap onto the embankment of a clay cliff on Montauk, Long Island. What remains invisible to us is perhaps what is most important to the piece: Edelson’s feelings during her enactment of this experience, a jump into the void that recalls to mind Yves Klein’s well known leap. For the interior aspect so crucial to the intentionality of these works - and which photography cannot be expected to capture - we must refer to Edelson’s journals from the period. Of Cliff Hanger she wrote: ”I am testing the edge.“3 Of Stones Speaks, performed at Post Clyde, Maine: ”Nestled in among the rocks along the coastline I open my mouth as wide as I can, allowing the rocks to speak through me–to find the courage to say the hard thing–to speak out.“4 Of Up from the Earth, performed in Reykjavik, Iceland: ”I separate myself from the awesome unyielding landscape of hardened lava without trees to establish my own nature.“5 This is the voice of the artist testing her limits.

A dominant feature of Edelson‘s work during the 1990s is her ongoing exploration of images of women in Hollywood, in particular, representations of women wielding guns. Like her earlier self-portrait works from the 1970s that incorporate images of female goddesses, Edelson continues to be fascinated with the potential to transform and reassign meaning to already existing representations of women, to reclaim debased and diminished cultural iconographies. Informed by considerations of the role of cultural imagery in the construction of individual and collective identities, Edelson progresses to new artistic strategies that challenge our preconceptions of who a woman is–and who we might become. Although her manipulations of the Hollywood femme fatale feature various female movie stars–including Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Angelica Houston, Gloria Graham, Sharon Stone, among others–the actress to whom she seems most drawn, whose image appears the most often and in the most diverse formal manipulations, is Gena Rowlands. Best known for her work with her director-husband, John Cassavetes, Rowlands is an understandable recipient of Edelson’s attention: Rowlands acting style has always carried with it a visible degree of satire and self-awareness. Like Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis did before her, Rowlands plays her femme fatales with an edgy suggestiveness that helps to undermine the overdetermined sexism implicit to the femme fatale role. Edelson has selected still images of Rowlands from Cassavetes’s 1980 feature, Gloria, in which the actress plays an innocent woman in the Bronx who is forced to meet violence with violence in order to protect a young boy from the mafia. In particular, Edelson utilizes images of Rowlands from Gloria which feature the actress brandishing a pistol. In a 1991 work, Edelson emblazoned a white kitchen apron with a black and white photographic image of Rowlands holding a gun pointed directly at the viewer, an ironic synthesis of a visual symbol of the femme fatale with an item of household clothing that signifies female domestic servitude. The apron is 29 presented in photographic form, in a narrative still that features a young man (in fact, the artist‘s adult son) wearing the incendiary apron as he stands before a kitchen stove preparing a meal. For a 1992 installation Edelson silk-screened the same image onto pillowcases and a top sheet. Exhibited on a full double bed, the altered bed coverings of Get It?, 1992 evoke suggestions of violence and sexuality and the promise of female self-defense, if necessary. Get It? anticipates a more overtly political project concerning violence against women Edelson produced Combat Zone: Campaign HQ Against Domestic Violence in 1994, in a New York City storefront that offered referrals, education and self-defense workshops to victims of domestic violence and their children. Combat Zone also included an on-line chat room with domestic violence centers around the country.

In subsequent works that feature Gloria Grahame as she appears in the Fritz Lang film, The Big Heat, the artist has chosen more ambiguous imagery and installation contexts. In Already Marked, 1996, a dramatic full-body portrait of the actress is presented larger-than-life on transparent chiffon fabric hung from the ceiling. The gun, which the actress holds in her left hand and which appears in another triple-hanging of the same image, is left outside the frame in Already Marked. Dressed in a tight-bodiced satin dress that falls just below the knee, her feet clad in high-heeled sandals, Grahame’s right hand touches her lips as if she is contemplating something (more than her cigarette) – but we don’t know what. The soft, see-through quality of the image coaxes us to consider the fleetingness of both Grahame’s projected thoughts and her own image; the chiffon itself also references the veil, a cultural symbol of female masking and duplicity. In another Grahame-inspired piece, Double Agent, 1998, the actress is presented seated at a vanity table, pointing a gun at her own image in the mirror. Also rendered in transparent chiffon, at the monumental scale of sixteen by forty feet, Double Agent considers the troubled relationship women have with their representations as constructed by Hollywood - as well as the problematic role women play in the misrepresentation of self they collude with, while seated at the makeup mirror. Isolating single-frame images of women from their Hollywood productions also removes them from the narratives into which they were initially scripted, allowing viewers the possibility to rewrite the story. Indeed, all of Mary Beth Edelson’s cultural production from the past thirty years can be understood within the terms of narrative reconstruction: to rewrite the codes of fine art’s terms and distribution; to re-script the story to include women’s experience within the context of both historical and cultural experience; and, finally, as a sustained personal engagement with her own unique and ever-shifting experiences as both a woman and an artist.