Review: ‘Witch Hunt’ Artists See Feminism in the Trump Era


How many times in the past four years has former President Trump, twice indicted, uttered the words “witch hunt”?

Hundred? A thousand? A bazillion?

In 2018, as Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion and obstruction of justice intensified, an avalanche of tweets from Trump claimed he was the innocent home of a hysterical cabal, a much like the poor 17th-century residents of Salem, Massachusetts, 20 of whom (mostly women) were hunted down in early graves following unfounded accusations of witchcraft.

He has continued ever since.

A History of Vox on the incessant use of the term witch hunt by the disgraced president rightly noted that there is “something unpleasant about the men in power – especially [those] credibly accused of sexual assault – using a term that harkens back to a time in history when a patriarchal society unfairly persecuted (primarily) women.

Stacy Schiff, the author of a book on Salem called “Witches,” explained to the publication, “We have turned the phrase upside down. Traditionally, a charge of witchcraft went to powerful men accusing helpless women of a bogus crime. Now these are powerful men screaming that they are accused of false crimes. “

The curators of the often cheeky but nonetheless serious “Witch Hunt” exhibit would likely agree. Their show’s catchy title, wrapping the recent art of 16 women in a familiar nickname shrouded in hostility in order to defuse it, is anything but a coincidence.

“We started with a question,” announces the exhibition catalog. “What did it mean to be a feminist in the days of Donald Trump? “

Shu Lea Cheang, “UKI Virus Rising”, 2018, digital video installation

(Christophe Knight / Los Angeles Times)

On display until January 9 at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles across town, the exhibition brings together international artists – all 16 were born or work in 13 countries. as far apart as Brazil. , Germany and South Africa – which reflect the diverse life experiences of women in today’s patriarchal societies. Most are members of Generation X, born in the media-saturated 1960s and 1970s, who grew up during the third wave of feminism.

This wave has now passed. This selection underlines that the defense of women’s rights on the basis of gender equality has been supplanted. The old binaries have given way, opening up a myriad of new avenues. Feminisms – in the plural – proliferate.

Two works are exemplary. Shu Lea Cheang – at 67, the group’s senior artist – dives deep into the futuristic digital sea to swim among the elusive pixels. Candice Breitz goes in an almost opposite direction, rethinking the physically and psychologically demanding nature of sex work – the putative “oldest profession” in the world.

Cheang’s captivating “UKI Virus Rising” shoots vivid red blood cells onto the floor of a dark gallery, organic shapes swarming like a gigantic blood sample slipping underfoot. To the muffled sound of an eerie electronic score, the back wall presents a 10-minute video projection of a dark, ever-changing landscape of the bowels of a computer, through which a female-looking android moves.

Suddenly, it turns into a tree, recalling Bernini’s Daphne escaping rape, from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Slowly, it becomes a printed circuit board, buzzing and throbbing. Finally, she transmutes herself into a virus – a female bug in a hard-wired social system. Maybe the computer virus will bring the whole system down, or maybe it will bring it to a halt.

Breitz brings together a cast of South African sex workers, mostly black and not all-female, who line up on a large video screening. It’s a Greek choir that comments on moral issues raised by a charismatic and surprisingly self-confident young woman at the center.

Sex Workers Wear Celebs Ask Me In Candice Breitz Video Installation "TLDR."

Sex workers wear Hollywood celebrity masks in Candice Breitz’s 2017 13-channel video installation, “TLDR.”

(Christophe Knight / Los Angeles Times)

At one point, they wear masks of Meryl Streep, Lena Dunham and other white Hollywood feminists who once lobbied to stop Cape Town’s legalization of prostitution. Sex workers reprimand well-meaning celebrities’ denigration of work. “Sex work is work,” they insist.

To emphasize that these are varied feminist themes rather than a singularly conceived presentation, curators Connie Butler of Hammer and Anne Ellegood of ICA LA effectively present the exhibition as a collection of 15 solo exhibitions. (Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz work as a team, their 20-minute tribute video to electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros is a theatrical wonder in which props, lights, sets and microphones are themselves animated performers. ) Ten are at the Hammer, five at ICA LA

Among the most compelling works are Lara Schnitger’s monumental fashion icons – giant, literal stick figures dressed to the hilt in pieces of sleek jersey, lace, vinyl and feathers, doing more than just anything. from less than nothing. (Think of a cartoon of R. Crumb walking into the Met Gala.) A room divider sculpture by Leonor Antunes reinvents the unrecognized mid-century work of Los Angeles architect and designer Greta Magnusson-Grossman, transforming the domestic crafts such as weaving and leatherworking in political commentary.

In a similar stadium, Laura Lima has set up a professional sewing room inside a gallery. Two talented tailors – Lily Abbitt and Surjalo – produce clothes which are then stretched and framed like abstract paintings. “Steel to Rust – Meltdown”, a magnificent abstract painting by Otobong Nkanga, turns out to be an exquisite tapestry, its wide view of the landscape both luminously aerial and darkly underground, all crossed by metallic threads.

A human stick frame is covered in pantyhose and lingerie in a detail from Lara Schnitger's

Lara Schnitger, “Warts and All (detail)”, 2021, multimedia installation

(Christophe Knight / Los Angeles Times)

Tiny rough-paper portraits of performance artist Vaginal Davis celebrate women who are personal idols, ranging from her mother to Los Angeles pioneer Margo Leavin, who died last month. Davis, like legendary San Francisco artist Jerome Caja (1958–1995), paints with eye shadows, lipstick and other messy cosmetics – Aqua Net hairspray fixes fragile surfaces – making them generalized acts of homage rather than acute physical resemblances.

Beverly Semmes stacks hand-crafted clay pots, each glazed in ruby ​​red, forming raging phallic towers. The traditionally feminine associations of a vessel are slyly bewildered by dense tangles of handles, resembling jellyfish in their clusters of serpent-like shapes.

The ancient Greeks invented Medusa to be an evil female image that would ward off other ailments, and Semmes’ intricate carvings are also animated with paradox. Another double-edged sword is made in what could be an exhibition motto “Witch Hunt”: a blue neon wall script by Yael Bartana coolly announces: “Patriarchy is history.”

The past is described – and simultaneously thrown in the trash.

Tailors make clothes in Laura Lima's sewing room facility,

Tailors Surjalo, left, and Lily Abbitt make clothes to frame in Laura Lima’s sewing room installation “Alfaiataria”.

(Christophe Knight / Los Angeles Times)

Many scholars believe the mass hysteria over the Salem witch-hunt was fueled by a local Protestant patriarchy, which viewed witchcraft as a supernatural affront to biblical practice. Under the faltering leadership of the city fathers in the face of survival failures in 1692 at Salem, the feverish trials functioned as a useful diversion.

Much the same could be said about Trump, who needs a bible-beating witch hunt to keep his white fundamentalist Christian base whipped. But the alleged persecution of a man as a wizard faces a wide range of insistent demands for women’s release, as this exhibit gleefully asserts.

‘Witch hunt’

UCLA Hammer Museum. 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood, (310) 443-7000. Closed Mon.

ICA LA 1717 E. 7th St., (213) 928-0833. Closed Mon. and Tue.

Both until January 9.


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