When activism finds its way into the art gallery, the house style is what Paige Sarlin calls "new left-wing melancholy," or what I think of as “post-radical chic:" neutralized and neutralizing, mining the paraphernalia of protest for historical pathos. This is not the way Andrea Bowers operates, as you can confirm for yourself if you visit the LA artist's show at Andrew Kreps Gallery in Chelsea, dubbed “Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?"
Bowers says that she makes her work by listening to "alternative media," finding stories that inspire her, and then figuring out how to relate to them using the tools of her art. Back in 2004 for the Whitney Biennial, she showed a video detailing the story of environmental activist John Quigley, known for physically occupying a tree to stop developers in LA (in 2011, she crossed the line from documentarian to participant, joining Quigley in another "treesitting" protest). More recently, Bowers's has done acclaimed, large-scale drawing installations
about immigrant deaths at the Mexican border and about the Steubenville, Ohio high school rape case.
In terms of media, “Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?" is disparate, the works mostly connected to the theme of transgender liberation, a cause whichTime in 2014 famously dubbed the “next civil rights frontier." It includes small graphite drawings, large scruffy marker-on-cardboard constructions, and an assemblage incorporating angel wings and ribbons with feminist and trans-rights slogans on them, such as "My Body, My Choice," and "Trans Is Beautiful."
At this gallery show's literal center is a table piled high with cardboard-backed facsimiles of historical activist graphics that Bowers has spent decades collecting, with an eye to how images of women figure in left-wing culture. This reflects the topic of the show, inasmuch as "Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?" focuses specifically on images of trans women, and not of trans men.
But additionally, the fact that you are invited to rifle through these images nudges you to think about how Bowers herself approaches this historical material, as a resource library for present-day inspiration instead of a dead-letter office of soured dreams.
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Photo: Ben Davis - Image of historical activist graphics at Andrew Kreps Gallery.