There’s a young person smiling, posing—hand on their hip—in front of a lit-up sign that reads: “EMPOWER WOMEN.” It intermittently flashes to include ED, making it “EMPOWERED.” The photo is snapped, the couple walks on. I’ve just entered Andrea Bowers’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Since the 90s, Bowers has been making work that nods at activism, joint action, and change on the west coast. In the exhibition catalog, curators Michael Darling (former chief curator at the MCA) and Connie Butler (chief curator at LA’s Hammer Museum) write that a variety of curators have been following Bowers’s work for decades. And since she sprang on to the Los Angeles art scene, they’ve watched “her work mature and grow infinitely complex and political.” Bowers’s work largely aims to educate, to invite viewers into a space where they can engage with various forms of advocacy. And the MCA made sure to include many examples—enough to dominate the entire top floor of the museum—of campaigning and activism in the styling of this exhibition.
The retrospective covers a slew of massive and diverse topics—immigration rights, an altar for missing Black girls in Chicago, installations from environmental activists, love letters from Emma Goldman, Bowers’s involvement with Occupy Wall Street, and reproductive rights.
Bowers is best known for photorealistic colored-pencil political drawings she created in the 90s and 00s. Rich in detail, these labor-intensive drawings depict subjects like a boy holding a cardboard sign that says “LIAR” on it. One drawing, titled Ugly Americans, features a man with an American flag painted on his face; he has an uncanny similarity to Trump, but is in fact a disgruntled football player. The intimate drawings are on a large-scale piece of paper, exemplifying the power of a person, no matter how small. These drawings would eventually propel Bowers into a wider view of community efforts and social practice. As Darling writes in the exhibition catalog, Bowers moved “even further away from the realm of theory and into one of action,” becoming involved in social justice movements, organizing, and protests.
In the mid-2000s, she moved away from her drawings and on to depicting 1960s and 1970s feminist protest buttons. Working with her colored pencils, she drew these buttons as wrapping paper patterns. The same issue Bowers focused on then—reproductive rights and abortion rights—has come up recently during COVID-19, as clinic access has been limited in many areas and new laws passed in Texas and Arkansas attack abortion.
Through 3/27/22: Wed-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Tue 10 AM-9 PM, closed Mon and select holidays (see website for full schedule), Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660, mcachicago.org
In recent years, Bowers has started to work with cardboard as canvas. The large-scale piece, “Can You Think of Any Laws that Give Government the Power to Make Decisions About the Male Body?” is named after a quote by Kamala Harris during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in 2018. “Can You Think…” is 108 by 78 inches and stitched together with cardboard and paint. The face of Harris is a stand-in for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. In this gallery are three other similarly sized cardboard paintings commenting on women’s rights and other issues that smash sexism. When walking around the space, I see the skill of painting—many detailed in an ornate way—but cannot help but focus on the archival hell cardboard paintings must be. How do these images stay alive? Are they meant to deteriorate? What’s the purpose of their deterioration if these social issues should be long-lasting, a fight that is far from over?
The following gallery space is dedicated to DREAMers, as pieces focusing on immigration rights and sanctuary cities fill up the walls. Each gallery you walk into has a new theme, and Bowers makes sure all social arenas are covered. There’s a large cardboard drawing of a butterfly with the words, “MIGRATION IS BEAUTIFUL” in the middle of the monarch. When I visited the exhibition, this piece (titled Papillon Monarque (Migration Is Beautiful)) had another couple posing in front of it, staring into an iPhone camera, like the duo I saw upon entering.
Taking photos of these signs, of the artwork, of these messages is meant to be poignant. It’s meant to say, “I care”; it’s supposed to signify that yes, I too, care about immigration and abortion rights and the environment and labor rights and Black girls missing in Chicago. Visitors take in the artwork behind their phone screen. The work in the exhibition serves as an Instagram backdrop for folks showing their followers that they are politically activated and charged. It reminds me of the influencers who were caught holding fake protest signs during the uprisings and folks who posed for photos—riding on the murder and injustice of Black people for clout. But here, influencers can simply visit a museum to flex their social warrior muscles. It’s an influencer’s heaven. Making an aesthetically pleasing sign that reads “sanctuary” makes me feel like I’m in Las Vegas—neon signs sprinkling knowledge with cheesy slogans that really, at the end of the day, don’t do much.
The excess of language and phrases throughout these spaces make me just shy of uncomfortable. It’s an exhibition for pussyhat wearers, for white feminists who want to show they care but miss the mark. This isn’t to say, however, that Bowers’s efforts are in vain. She’s worked with collectives and groups over the years that create change. In 2013 during the Frieze Art Fair, Bowers wrote a protest letter to organizers expressing concern over fair labor rights.
On the flip side, it’s especially jarring to see artwork focusing on labor rights and working conditions when not that long ago, the MCA’s own staff wrote a letter of demands in response to the racism and exploitative labor practices enacted by the museum.
From textile work and video art, to protest signs and paintings, Bowers’s coverage of all types of media is vast. The top floor exhibition space is pulsating with color, text, and sound. But this begs the question—can a pretty picture really enact change? How much can a neon sign, or a butterfly drawing, convince someone to become politically active? How do we get off of the couch and into the streets? Is it through a photograph, or a letter, or a video piece?
I hadn’t stepped foot inside of the MCA since before the pandemic, before the uprisings around the country, and before Biden won the presidency, knocking Trump out of the White House. Bowers’s exhibition was conceived before the recent outcry surrounding racial injustice. Her retrospective illustrates the power of protest as well as the dismissal of it. Fighting for justice throughout history has looked eerily similar and inequality isn’t solved through cardboard signs alone. It can be a snapshot or it can also be someone’s entire life. It’s up to the viewer to decide if they are convinced or not.
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