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By Kate Laurel Burgess

Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection at the Brooklyn Museum's Sackler Center for Feminist Art is an encyclopedic exhibition that defines feminist art to those who are already familiar with its definition, but falls short for those who have not studied the context of the featured works.

Those looking to gain a visual definition of the term need look no further. Burning Down the House looks like a chapter from an art history textbook; over 40 works fill a gallery that wraps around the triangular permanent installation of Judy Chicago's pinnacle feminist piece The Dinner Party. Despite its visual affect, the exhibition lacks a dialogue with those who are not art historians, students or others with previous exposure, missing an opportunity to share the value of the feminist art movement and its meaning with the public.

Maura Reilly, Founding Curator of the Sackler Center, states in the opening text that the exhibition is "...[i]nspired by the feminist masterpiece The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago," and explains that the "exhibition features artists who have risen above the narrow roles imposed on women and whose work has challenged the status quo, particularly within the cannons of art history." This description of the work further alienates those who are unfamiliar with the context for the works on display, as the 'cannons of art history' are not guidelines the average public viewer is familiar with.

The exhibition's strengths reside in the physicality of the works on display. A photograph of one of Ana Mendieta's earthen goddess drawings, Miriam Shapiro's adaptation of Freda Kahlo's well-known white bloused self portrait Agony in the Garden, a documentary photograph from the performance of Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneeman and the black, white and red statement "We are notifying you of a change of address" immediately identifiable as Barbara Kruger, make notable appearances.

The Guerilla Girls, whose work is pivotal in the discourse of feminist art and must be present in an exhibition whose goal is creating a collection of feminist art, are included with their work Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, 1988. Despite its twenty-one years of existence, many of the tag lines of the work, which list 'advantages' such as "knowing your career may pick up after your eighty," and "having an escape from the art world in your 4 freelance jobs," are arguably still issues women face in the contemporary art world.

Edwina Sandys piece Marriage Bed, 2001, evolves the comfort of a couple's marriage bed into a statement on the disparities of some marriages; diagonally split, half the bed is oversized nails and the other half roses. Discussing the conflicts faced in marriage, Marriage Bed sheds light on the darker side of '...till death do us part.' Marriage Bed creates a strong internal desire from the viewer to graze one's hand over the surface of the bed, to feel the juxtaposition of the soft fake flowers and the harsh points of the erect nails.

Burning Down the House is redeemed by the video interviews of many of the exhibition's featured artists, installed throughout the exhibition space. Additionally available on the Museum's website, each interview begins with the featured artist's personal definition of 'feminist art,' creating a baseline throughout the exhibition. These interviews form the basis for the interpretation of the artworks, however, many guests miss their valuable information by walking past the sleek iPhones with headphones throughout the galleries.

For individuals who have a basic understanding of feminist art, or an art historical background, Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection is an emotional journey through the movement, from its early foundations in the 1970s to its contemporary post-feminism influences and implications. Lacking in a connection to those who are not versed in feminist art, the exhibition is overall visual stimulating and successful as a representation of the movement, but is without an explanation of the artworks' context for the everyday museum visitor.

"Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection" is on view October 31, 2008–April 5, 2009 at The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum

All images are courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

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