The subversive wit of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution is apparent very early on, when the film uses man-on-the-street interviews for a pop quiz on women in museums. As Hershman Leeson asks us all in her narration, “Can anyone name three women artists?”
An uneasy implication here is that name-recognition alone should be considered the highest achievement of aesthetic accomplishment. Of course, plenty of exceptional male artists exist whose names we don’t know either—and, for that matter, plenty of female artists whose work isn’t necessarily exceptional.
Importantly, though, there is also the sense that if we could name a great female artist of whom Hershman Leeson herself hasn’t heard, she’d be delighted and grateful for the discovery. In the meantime, she has plenty of women to name—those who, beginning in the 1960s, individually and collectively pushed the American art scene to grapple with and get past male dominance. !Women Art Revolution is Hershman Leeson’s own personal survey of feminist art history—a “secret” history, as she calls it, and the one in which she herself came of age. By her own account, she’s been working on this project for 40 years.
Proceeding from the basic notion of how rare it was to find female artists in museums even one generation ago, Hershman Leeson examines all that’s happened to change that: liberations, innovations, protests, performances, feuds and many rich contemplations of the legacy of being looked at. Her gathered string includes commentary from scene stalwarts such as Judy Chicago and the Guerrilla Girls collective, plus contemporary figures such as Miranda July.
Although Hershman Leeson is best known as an edgy, feminist experimentalist (her earlier films Conceiving Ada and Teknolust were ahead of the curve in appreciating the unusual allure of Tilda Swinton, and in suggesting that computer-generated imagery could be enchanting instead of merely colorful and dead-looking), !Women Art Revolution doesn’t stray too far from the traditional documentary playbook. It’s really just your standard chronological array of archival footage and interviews. What makes it interesting is that sometimes the footage includes congresspeople becoming confused and alarmed by “a work that has 39 elaborate place settings depicting female vaginas” (really, the best kind of place settings), and that the talking heads sometimes include ape heads.
And so why shouldn’t !Women Art Revolution be making the rounds at international film festivals and museums? The world already has waited too long for what this is: a feminist-activist crowd-pleaser.