Riot Grrrl Gets the Gallery Treatment in “Alien She”

The YBCA exhibit presents art from the ongoing social project and punk feminist movement known as riot grrrl.

Alien She, an exhibit curated by Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss on display at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, nobly rejects the urge to historically bookend riot grrrl. The term arose from a confluence of ideas and actions focused on feminism, youth empowerment, and institutional autonomy — and was chosen by the participating musicians, writers, and artists, not prescribed by observers — and such a diverse social project shouldn’t be fixed in time. To that end, the “first exhibition to examine the lasting impact of riot grrrl” presents the work of seven contemporary artists — Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Tammy Rae Carland, Miranda July, Faythe Levine, Allyson Mitchell, L.J. Roberts, and Stephanie Syjuco — working in varied mediums to upend a gamut of persisting social ills.

The scope of riot grrrl’s endeavor — to confront and combat isms everywhere — also makes it an unwieldy gallery subject. Focus too narrowly and you marginalize vital topics; zoom out and you risk muddled curation. Alien She lands in between. The works on display are complementary and engaged in conversation with one another, even while disagreeing.

Alien She’s biggest contradiction is on the front end. Enter the gallery and behold a wall of fliers sourced from around the world. The wall features handbills from Bikini Kill shows in the 1990s and recent events such as Ladyfest, all printed out anew and haphazardly stapled atop one another like the corkboard outside of a record store. Nearby, behind glass, appear “original” zines. They themselves are copies — often intended to be reproduced and distributed freely — so it’s odd to put a premium on the age of items whose value derives from being read, connecting likeminded people, and agitating others. Likewise, glass cases full of old mix tapes appeared captive, woefully wretched from circulation.

Selections from the artists Stephanie Syjuco and Miranda July leaned most toward social practice. July’s area featured transcripts of real-life arguments, chain letters, and person-on-the-street style surveys. For one project, the artist encouraged people to write press releases about everyday events and — I love this — send them to newspaper editors. Many of the results shown were a catalog of quotidian sexism, all the more toxic for how seamlessly they’re woven into life’s mundane details.

The zines and mixtapes looked sad in retirement, but Syjuco’s work showcased riot grrrl’s focus on autonomous networks for cultural exchange: “Free Texts” featured fliers with tear-off URLs for accessing literature online. As items pulled from interactive endeavors that involved countless people, and eventually escaped the artists’ orbit, the work of July and Syjuco blurred notions of authorship. Sacrificing ego to maximize cultural impact, they reflected riot grrrl’s activist imperative wonderfully.

Nothing in the show explicitly grapples with what it means for riot grrrl to receive the museum treatment. Still, Allyson Mitchell’s work began to acknowledge the tricky proposition of criticizing the hierarchical institutions that artists depend on. A diptych featuring two doctored T-shirts is titled for the messages on each: “Women’s Studies Professors Have Class Privilege” and “I’m With Problematic.” Three furry sculptures entitled “Ladies Sasquatch” spurred viewers to wonder why Bigfoot — the solitary, hairy, and sort of benign mythical creature — is widely thought of as male. Consult Mitchell’s wall-length drawing of book spines — mostly gender studies tomes — for explanations.

L.J. Roberts work featured knit and crocheted material, at once attacking the subjugation of craft art and radicalizing activities traditionally associated with housewives. A Jacquard-woven banner displayed the slogan “Gay Bashers Come and Get It,” which the queer San Francisco hardcore band Limp Wrist used as an album insert. A small, framed picture showed the banner in action at a protest. It wasn’t installed per se, just slung between poles and leaned against the wall, as if resting temporarily. It was Alien She’s most riotous inclusion.

Most of the work led with commentary and was backed with aesthetic reinforcement, but the photographs of Tammy Rae Carland worked in reverse. An Oakland-based artist and former bandmate of Kathleen Hanna (whose Bikini Kill song provides the Alien She name), Carland’s section of the show included “Lesbian Beds,” a series of images depicting the wrinkly topography of unmade and unoccupied beds. Lustrously saturated and impeccably composed, their magnetism was unparalleled by anything in the show. In the photo “One Love Leads to Another,” a neatly balanced spread of mixtapes enticed with geometry and color, and then pulled the viewer in to scan text. One mixtape compiler had the foresight to scrawl out an expiration date.

Selections of art explicitly organized around a critical, politically charged movement such as riot grrrl risk smothering viewing pleasure with intellect, a trapping that Alien She largely averts. Despite the precious presentation of material that’s better left in circulation, it succeeded in highlighting artists who revere ongoing cultural impact and critique. As beacons such as Rookie magazine and Pussy Riot are seen as descendants of what began as a scrappy group of artists with limited means, Alien She’s organizers were wise to present work that doesn’t begin or end in museums.


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