Is there a being more fecund than a fly? The feminist conceptual artist Mary Beth Edelson seized brilliantly on the fly’s dark and secretive fecundity in her mythological pantheon that combines animals, insects, and manifold manifestations of the goddess figure. A fly is wanton in its appetites, aggressive and free, perhaps even obscene in its tastes. What better symbol for feminist art that reclaims fecundity as a transgressive female force?
Mary Beth Edelson: A Celebration at David Lewis Gallery, a compact presention of Edelson’s biodiverse feminist art, trills with a flair that’s unmistakably hers. Filling the gallery’s two-room space is an assortment of collages on canvas that the artist, who died in 2021 at the age of 88, produced from 1972 to 2011, plus selected mixed-media works from the early ’70s and one large acrylic collage-painting. The teeny fly-collages are mounted high on the wall in the front room. The swarm arches up and into the backroom, where collages wind high and low, and mushroom in the corners. The free-form installation in a way echoes Matisse’s site-specific cutouts — an artist Edelson acknowledged as an early influence.
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The flies bear faces of women artists Edelson knew or admired. The strategy reflects her most famous work, “Some Living American Women Artists” (1972), what looks like a poster mockup in which she replaced the faces of the apostles in Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (1495-98) with those of women artists such as Yoko Ono, Faith Ringgold, Agnes Martin, and Alice Neel. In the collages, Louise Bourgeois is the modernist fairy fly-godmother, and the bespectacled specimen with a Pentax camera is, I believe, Edelson herself. The effect of these buzzard-women (or artsy gnats?) peering curiously at the visitor is uncanny. In this sense, the flies embody what, in her Artforum essay on Edelson, essayist and poet Dodie Bellamy dubbed “relentless otherness.” At David Lewis, real women cohabit and fuse with flies, medusas, frightful mandibles, and arachno-morphs, but also female deities and mashup fertility and pop-culture idols (Faye Dunaway is easily among my favorites).
Edelson’s work is inseparable from 1970s feminism, particularly its New York vanguard. Born in East Chicago, Indiana, she earned a master’s degree in art and higher education from New York University. After some years in Indianapolis and Washington DC, where she organized the Conference for Women in the Visual Arts, she headed back to the Big Apple. By then, she had produced her seminal series Woman Rising, in which the artist used oil crayon, ink, and collage to ornament nude black and white self-portraits with symbols and masks. Two, “Dematerializing / Trans-DNA” and “Burning Light” (both 1973), are included in this exhibition. She said in interviews that she made the series to assert her sexual independence. No doubt her creative independence too, as she continued to make art through marriages and childrearing. In “Dematerializing / Trans-DNA,” her lithe body, arms raised so that her torso looks like a pitchfork, vanishes behind a black and orange swirl. Edelson was moving further into conceptualism, but she had a cartoonist’s sensibility for graphic shorthand and sly humor: The dots look like a swarm of colorful insects hatched from the artist’s sex, once again tying insects to women’s bodies, and art.
In New York, Edelson began to exhibit at A.I.R. Gallery, a collaborative space run by women artists in SoHo. She also founded the Heresies mother collective in 1977, with art historian Lucy Lippard and artists Joan Braderman, Harmony Hammond, and May Stevens. Mentors to younger artists on the scene, such as Ana Mendieta, and precursors to the Guerrilla Girls, the ’70s feminist artists curated communal shows and picketed prominent art institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art, that sidelined women artists. Edelson’s murals of woman-power are then much more than a quixotic manifesto culled from myriad sources (i.e., Jung, goddess-centered pantheism, or sororal multicultural exchanges with peers such as Turkish feminist artist Nil Yalter). Instead, these works form an ambitious catalogue of feminism and feminist-art history in the making, in the vein of André Malraux’s musée imaginaire. Edelson followed the hunch that if women artists didn’t create this history for themselves, no one would.
Edelson’s impulse to historiography is evident in her large, rarely exhibited 1989 painting “In Exile.” By the time she produced it, she had moved on from the protective cocoon of A.I.R. Gallery. Edelson’s velleity for risk served her well, and her major retrospective toured the United States from 1988 to 1990. Still, as she said in interviews, curators and gallerists alike took a long time to embrace feminist artists of her generation. She was often told her work was “unsellable.”
“In Exile” might be Edelson raising her middle finger to the idea of salability. The work’s quilt-like composition and evocations of many historical and high and low-brow Eves made me think of her slightly younger contemporary, Judy Chicago. But Edelson’s taunt at the viewer (or is it an invitation?) — “your face here,” painted across the empty oval visage of a red-haired Amazon-like rider in the work’s upper left, with a sign below the horse reading “Missing Aphrodite” — bristles with a prickly energy that feels distinctly hers. The Wonder Woman in the painting’s lower right encapsulates the hypocrisy of a society that pays lip service to equality, promoting women’s strength as long as it’s objectified. In star-spangled briefs, WW lassoes Mexico’s pre-classical double-headed Virgin of Guadalupe. I’d venture that this is also a critique of the United States’ rapaciousness toward its southern neighbor — and of sexualized stereotypes. In this way it incarnates Edelson’s belief, which she shared in interviews, that only in a radical, radically feminist culture of consent can external and internal colonialisms be vanquished.
Mary Beth Edelson: A Celebration continues at David Lewis Gallery (57 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.