Female artists have typically gotten short shrift for their roles in creating art movements, so who's surprised that their numerous contributions to technology-oriented art aren't especially known? Now, that particular gender gap in contemporary art's timeline has been effectively closed. In "Making/Breaking the Binary: Women, Art, and Technology (1968-85)" at UArts' Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, curator Kelsey Halliday Johnson makes the case that female artists took to technology the minute it became available — and ran with it.
Several of the 14 artists in Johnson's exhibition are noted figures in contemporary art but have not been associated specifically with new media. One of them, Jennifer Bartlett, now known primarily as a painter, is represented here by her works from the early 1970s that comprise baked-enamel steel plates with grids of dots on them (and patterns within those grids) and show her exploring a system-based conceptual art that could be said to mimic the pixels in a digital image.
Several artists who began their careers as sculptors and painters embraced video art in its nascence in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Lynda Benglis's sexually provocative color video Now, from 1973, displays multiple images of her sticking out her tongue. Deploying video as a kind of process art, Benglis would reshoot footage on the monitor and technically manipulate images on the screen.
Joan Jonas's iconic black-and-white video Vertical Roll, made in 1972, captures the artist in a performance inspired by — and in concert with — a technological dysfunction that was common to television at one time, in which a rolling vertical bar would appear on an otherwise blank screen. Repeating images of Jonas tapping a spoon appear on a monitor with the vertical roll separating them.
Also here is Shigeko Kubota's elegiac, but also weirdly funny My Father (1975), her video of her father spending the final days of his life watching Japanese pop stars on television. Howardena Pindell's contribution is a 1980 video of herself unemotionally recounting the racism she has encountered — paired with rebuttals by an entitled white woman who is Pindell in whiteface sporting a blond wig. Dave Chappelle's monologues would mine the same territory more than a decade later.
Other artists in Johnson's show have made entire careers in new media, but not without an affection for the handmade, among them Beryl Korot, a video art pioneer who's taken inspiration from such practical crafts as weaving. And there are the outliers with considerable reputations. Lynn Hershman Leeson's films have explored the relationships between people and technology; a work of hers from 1976, Roberta's Construction Chart #2, suggests an acquaintance's future cosmetic surgery.
I would have liked to have seen one of Pati Hill's early copy-machine works, which she began making around 1973. The later copier prints here — one, a facsimile of a page she copied from a 1979 issue of Science magazine, the other an original copy print of a scarf — at least offer the uninitiated a sense of Hill's foresight into the simple truths and beauties that technology might afford.
Other artists in "Making/Breaking the Binary: Women, Art & Technology, 1968-1985" include Dara Birnbaum, Catherine Jansen, Mary Ross, Sonia Landy Sheridan, Lillian Schwartz, and Laurie Spiegel.
By the way, Johnson doesn't stop with artists. She cites the technological achievements of female scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and others — and has included a "reading room" of books on art and technology.
Through Dec. 8 at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, University of the Arts, 333 S. Broad St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. 215-717-6480 or uarts.edu.
More works by female artists are in two group shows at the Avery Galleries, which occupies part of a Main Line carriage house. (The gallery also has an appointment-only presence on New York's Upper East Side).
The larger of the two shows, "American Women Artists 1860-1960," boasts more than a few remarkable paintings and drawings by 20 artists who were mostly unknown to me except for Theresa Bernstein, Mary Cassatt, Suzy Frelinghuysen, Grandma Moses, and Marguerite Zorach. The textured charcoal drawings by Lilian Westcott Hale, once a student of the American impressionist William Merritt Chase, and a haunting trompe l'oeil watercolor by Claude Raguet Hirst (originally Claudine) are standouts. So is Zorach's 1961 still-life oil painting "The Last Leaves."
The gallery's smaller exhibition, "Women Now" features works by contemporary Philadelphia artists Laura Adams, Anna Bogatin, Holly Trostle Brigham, Emily Brown, Karen Fogarty, Shira Friedman, Kiki Gaffney, Elizabeth Osborne, and Celia Reisman.