Maloney Fine Art is probably the smallest of all the art galleries in the Culver City art district, but despite it’s small space it can certainly present exhibits that carry a big punch. That is definitely the case with Fire in Her Belly curated by Martabel Wasserman. In a single tiny room Wasserman is able to show us photographs, videos, and an interactive sculpture that all seek to dismantle the canonical narrative of art history and bring attention to artists or artworks which may have been lost or forgotten. The Culture Wars is often talked about as a straightforward attack artist’s freedom of speech by the conservative right which led to controversy over whether tax dollars should be used to promote such “obscene” art (which tended to address issues such as race, gender, AIDS, and sexuality). Of course, that is an extremely simplified explanation. But even the most expansive account of the events would surely leave out many of the artists, artworks, happenings, objects, documents, statements, or ideas that were a part of what came to be called the Culture Wars. This exhibit brings some recognition to those that were ignored or outright hidden and creates a trajectory between the events of the 80’s and the world we live in today.
It was definitely interesting to see many of these works in person. I think it is safe to say that Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano were the most known artists included in the exhibition, and I must admit there was a sense of celebrity when looking at their works. There is a certain sensation that is experienced when you get to see an art piece that has been much discussed in art history books and classes, even though I had seen these works before. But here they sit next to works that I was very curious to learn more about.
Some of the works on display precede the more iconic notorious works. For example, a photograph by Lisa Kahane depicts artist Paulette Nenner standing next to one of her sculptures which was removed from the gallery when the artist attempted to exhibit it in 1981. Other works are more contemporary, like a video by the band Pussy Riot which is also included. The feminist punk band / art collective from Russia gained attention in 2012 when they conducted a performance protest inside of a church that landed them in prison. Similarly, the art of Ai Wei Wei led to him being held by police for two months without charges for criticizing the Chinese government. The piece 1989/1992/2005, which is a collaboration between Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, is interesting because its creation falls both during and after typical scope of the Culture Wars, and is an example that shows that the issues of the Culture Wars did not die when people stopped discussing them, they continued through the 90’s and to today. Clearly the censorship of art has been a problem since before it became a controversial topic in the Culture Wars, and it continues to be a problem to this day. It is also worth noting that the artists in the exhibition who suffered the most severe consequences for their artwork are international artists. David Wonjnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly was a film created in 1987, which became controversial in 2010 when the Smithsonian removed it from an exhibition after complaints from religious groups and politicians made them fear loss of funding. This goes to show that even in the US such topics are still under scrutiny.
Standing in the small room reading about the works surrounding me created a web of connections as I learned the story behind each art piece. Some of the works included make reference to other artists, such as Julie Tolentino reenacting Ron Athey or Kahane’s photo of Nenner. In that sense, the exhibition seems to follow the tradition of paying tribute to those who did not get the recognition they deserve. More information about the works in the exhibition can be found in the catalog essay. The show is on view until July 20th (That’s this Saturday!).