Mary Beth Edelson

David Lewis, New York, USA

Triumphant in her vengeance, Mary Beth Edelson’s transformed mannequin Kali Bobbit (1994) is a welcome sight in these dark times. Brandishing a butcher’s knife and a severed phallus in two of her six hands, her hips strung with a girdle of blades, the sculpture – the centrepiece of Edelson’s solo exhibition, ‘The Devil Giving Birth to the Patriarchy’ – cuts a warrior’s silhouette against the lower Manhattan skyline, visible through the windows of David Lewis Gallery.

mbe462_hounds_of_hell_hr.jpg

Mary Beth Edelson, Hounds of Hell, 1973, oil and marker on silver gelatin print, 25 x 20 cm. Courtesy: David Lewis Galley, New York

Mary Beth Edelson, Hounds of Hell, 1973, oil and marker on silver gelatin print, 25 x 20 cm. Courtesy: David Lewis Galley, New York

A prominent participant and agitator in the feminist art movement of the 1970s, Edelson is long overdue attention from US institutions – her most recent retrospective toured four university art museums from 1988 and 1990. The close affinity between Edelson’s early output and the feminist spirituality that took shape in the 1970s, with its emphases on the body and an overarching female deity, resulted in critical disdain for her work in the theory-heavy 1980s – a tension that continued to rankle in 2007’s large-scale touring show ‘WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution’, where earnest engagements with the ‘Goddess’, such as Edelson’s, were quietly excluded. This exhibition at David Lewis Gallery does a service to Edelson’s work from the early 1970s, positioning it alongside the later, and more raucously combative, Kali Bobbit as part of a singular, coherent vision of resistance.

mbe_the_devil_david_lewis_2017_inst_02.1.jpg

Mary Beth Edelson, The Devil Giving Birth to the Patriarchy, 2017, exhibition view, David Lewis, New York. Courtesy: David Lewis, New York

Mary Beth Edelson, The Devil Giving Birth to the Patriarchy, 2017, exhibition view, David Lewis, New York. Courtesy: David Lewis, New York

The exhibition opens with its earliest work, a series of hand-altered photographs from 1973, collectively titled ‘Woman Rising’. Hung in one row, the 17 prints included here are from only two exposures that document actions carried out in private by Edelson on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Naked, her stomach and nipples ringed with paint, Edelson photographed herself head-on in assertive poses: legs planted wide apart, arms raised in a stance adopted from Predynastic Egyptian statuary. Seen together, Edelson’s alterations of these self-portraits with paint, marker pen and collaged elements produces the impression of serial transformation: here, the artist toys with being Wonder Woman; there, she appears as a praying mantis; there again, a bloody-mouthed hound emerges from her vagina. If Edelson’s experimentation with various avatars prefigures Cindy Sherman’s prop-based cycle through different female stereotypes, it also reflects a central concern of 1970s feminist theory: the performance of the self. Onto one photograph of Edelson holding her breasts (a pose borrowed from Mesopotamian figurines), the artist has inked a television over her head, from which a large, unlidded eye stares out. With its scratchy, hand-written inscription (‘Seeing you looking at me’) the work forms a counterpart to Laura Mulvey’s 1973 dissection of the male gaze in film, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’.

mbe_the_devil_david_lewis_2017_inst_05_det01.jpg

Mary Beth Edelson, Series of wall collages (detail), 1973–2017, mixed media on canvas, dimensions variable. Courtesy: David Lewis, New York

Mary Beth Edelson, Series of wall collages (detail), 1973–2017, mixed media on canvas, dimensions variable. Courtesy: David Lewis, New York

In the main gallery, two later works testify to Edelson’s continual experimentation with an array of media and formats to articulate her vision of female empowerment. Rearing up on a plinth opposite the doorway, Kali Bobbit is a rare example of theatrical, life-sized figure sculpture allied to a feminist agenda, having originally formed part of the artist’s ‘Combat Zone’ ensemble, a 1994 Creative Time project in which Edelson converted a SoHo shopfront into a dialogue-and-resource-filled space for countering domestic violence. A field of paper collages, dating from the early 1970s, wraps around the gallery walls, enveloping the sculpture. Edelson began deploying these collages as large-scale installations in the 2000s. Here, small black and white reproductions of a miscellany of winged creatures and cellular organisms, crossed with the features and bodies of women past and present, ascend the gallery’s walls like spores carried on a breeze. It is fitting that this marshalling of vital images is Edelson’s most ambitious to date in terms of scale and critical mass: the times require no less.

Issue 187

First published in Issue 187

May 2017

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018