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Masking for Art

[whitespace] The Guerilla Girls West
Christopher Gardner

Recognition Factor: The Guerilla Girls West want to see more art by women at the San Jose museum of Art.

The Guerrilla Girls West make a stand for women artists

By Lauren Barack

IT'S MIDMORNING when two women in rubber gorilla masks walk through the front door of Cafe Matisse on South First Street in downtown San Jose. A few patrons smile, and one man on the pay phone stares. But most ignore the Guerrilla Girls West--who have come armed with a briefcase and a bunch of bananas to make their case against the San Jose Museum of Art.

"I'm Guerrilla Girl One," says one, who is wearing a mask that appears frozen in a toothy snarl. She introduces her partner, whose mask, with red lipstick across its mouth, looks less ferocious. "She's Guerrilla Girl Two," says the first masked woman, as the second hands over a banana by way of greeting.

When they're performing, their usual costume is all black--short skirts, heels and fishnet stockings. But today, GG One is swathed in a hot-pink and orange silk jacket, while GG Two sports little slippers and a purple top. "It's spring," says GG One cheerfully, her rubber nose crinkling as she throws back her head.

And the Guerrilla Girls West have dressed for the occasion. Last October, the women appeared at the San Jose Museum of Art to protest the dearth of women artists in the museum's collection and exhibitions. Dressed in gorilla masks, they distributed posters at the opening of the third installation of the Whitney Collection. Surprisingly, the event went unnoticed, and the protest, also posted on the Internet, was buried at a Web site with an address that the Guerrilla Girls themselves couldn't remember.

Last month, the faction placed an anonymous listing on an Internet community billboard asking for new poster ideas, trying to stir up attention for their cause.

Calling themselves the Conscience of the Art World, the West Coast Guerrilla Girls formed as an offshoot of a group of women artists in New York with the same name. The original Guerrilla Girls papered the walls of Soho in the middle of the night with pithy, sarcastic, often angry posters that spoke about the lack of female representation in the art world. One showed a reclining nude with a gorilla mask over her face and asked, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?"

"The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist," read another and continued, "Working without the pressure of success," "Having more time to work after your mate dumps you for someone younger" and "Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius."

The women attacked H.W. Janson's The History of Art, the perennial art-history textbook, for not including women artists, and then went after art history itself. In February, the New York Guerrilla Girls published a new history called The Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art.

The guerrilla-like behavior of postering Soho streets at night spawned the group's name. The " 'girls' we added just to piss people off," says Kathe Kollwitz, one of the original members of the New York faction, which adopts the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms.

And the masks? "Group lore is that one of the women couldn't spell our name," says Kollwitz, whose smirk is audible over the telephone. "But they were also key for keeping our anonymity."

The West Coast contingent, whose members are also anonymous, was formed two years after the original Guerrilla Girls tacked up their first poster. "A woman out here knew one of the Guerrilla Girls in New York," says GG One at Matisse. "And she said, 'You know what we're doing out here--why don't you do something out there?' " So the girls of the West quickly adopted the gorilla masks, the poster ideas--and the name, which caused them a little guerrilla grief.

"There are other groups that have formed because of us," says Kollwitz. "We just ask them not to call themselves Guerrilla Girls for selfish reasons."

And because of confusion, one group will show up to give a talk when an organization expects the other. GG One remembers an occasion a few years back when the West Coast group called an art gallery to ask how many women artists it represented.

"We called one in San Francisco, and the owner wouldn't talk with us because she was still angry about [the time] when the New York group had come in on a visit and stuck stickers around the gallery," says GG One. "We don't deface property," she emphasizes. "We don't operate that way."

Their style is more subtle--they leave posters at museums and galleries or post them on their Web site. These West Coast Guerrillas are so laid-back, they're almost impossible to find. The search is a trip through a worm hole--calls to galleries, letters via snail mail, emails and faxes to art departments. When an email is finally returned--anonymously--it includes a telephone number for the Girls' "Safe House," where a woman answers, in a voice that drips with annoyance when asked to take a message for the group.

INSTEAD OF infiltrating the San Jose Museum of Art with stickers, or postering street lamps and telephone poles throughout downtown, the Guerrilla Girls West quietly posted their attack against the museum on the Web and distributed posters.

"They were kind enough to leave us some," says Mark Petr, associate curator of the San Jose Museum of Art, who turned out to be a fan and admitted to having Guerrilla Girl posters in his office from time to time. "In fact, we felt validated that we'd been noticed," he adds.

The Guerrilla Girls West poster is just black type on white paper and asks, "What Do the San Jose Museum of Art and Major U.S. Museums Have in Common? Answer: They Show Less Than 13% Women Artists." The piece includes the museum's record from 1995 through 1997, with the percentage of female artists at 9 percent, 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Petr doesn't deny the statistics. "I have to say I'm kind of disappointed to see our track record decrease," he adds, sheepishly. "But I think that will change after the Whitney shows are over."

The museum's contract with the Whitney to show selections from its permanent collection over five years is exactly what spurred the Guerrilla Girls West into action.

"We've always felt that the Whitney was discriminatory, and we knew the shows would attract national attention to the museum," says GG One. The current installation runs until October (the last installation goes up next year) and features pieces from the Whitney's collection that focus on the technology age--everything from Claes Oldenburg's oversized ice bag to Jenny Holzer's Spectacolor machine. Of the 36 artists featured, 31 are men--and five are women--a 16-percent showing--just notches above its previous score.

The exhibit is housed in the museum's original building--a flat-faced rectangular box made of beige and ochre sandstone. Thirty-two palm trees form a perfect ring in the plaza out front. At 10am, when the museum opens, a member of the cleaning staff is still sweeping the floor in one of the upstairs galleries, where the Whitney exhibit is displayed.

But a walk though the rest of the floors--including the new wing created out of the renovation of the old post office next door--finds two exhibitions of women artists: New York artist Barbara Broughel's artifacts--brooms and objects created to reflect the witch hunts of colonial New England--and San Francisco artist Mary Marsh's "Daily Drawings," sketches made on a year's worth of front pages from The New York Times.

But the Guerrilla Girls West are unimpressed with the recent shows at the museum. "One show does not make the whole picture," says GG One.

The museum, however, is trying to amp up its permanent collection, adding work by local artists and women. It recently bought a piece from Berkeley artist Deborah Oropallo. But Petr qualifies that the museum purchases a piece because it works with the rest of the collection, not just because an artist is local--or a woman.

"We need to make sure that what we pick works thematically and also make sure the quality is there," he says. "But we hope to improve our track record. If not, I encourage [the Guerrilla Girls] to come back and shame us again."

It's late morning, and warm, when the Guerrilla Girls West head over to the museum for a photo shoot. They pull at their masks to let cool air flow against their skin, but it's not just the heat that's bothering them.

"It's hard to wear the mask when you have allergies," said GG Two, as she covers her mouth while talking. She mentions theater classes the group has taken to help them during performances, where they're known to scratch, jump and "let loose," says GG Two. But today, they're serious--all business, or as much as one can be wearing a rubber gorilla mask and holding bunch of bananas.

Along South First Street, they talk about their next project--a new installation of the "Save the Penis" show they're planning for next year in Sacramento.

"No piece can be longer than 12 inches," GG One says. Although they invite men to submit work, they're less cordial to those who want to join the group. "They're not angry women artists," states GG One, firmly. "Plus you have to be invited to join." Adds GG Two in a soft voice: "But men can be honorary members. We welcome that."

After the pictures are snapped and GG Two tries to pawn off her last banana, GG One says goodbye for the two of them. As they walk off the plaza, a group of four twentysomethings giggle, and one man gives them a wide berth, but for the most part no one notices--as if it's an everyday occurrence for two women in gorilla masks to walk down the streets of San Jose.

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From the April 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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