The quiet, mostly monochromatic art now residing in the first floor gallery space of the Institute of Contemporary Art doesn’t immediately incite its viewers to protest. That is to say, when compared to the '90s–era work of the art collective fierce pussy, these newer works are both less explicit in their motivations and more detached in their directions, and not simply because the ICA provides no description in its labels. No, the new exhibition arms ache avid aeon: Nancy Brooks Brody / Joy Episalla / Zoe Leonard / Carrie Yamaoka: fierce pussy amplified, which opened last Friday, brings us the art from four members of that collective. This new exhibition holds a tone distinct from the protest pieces of fierce pussy’s early days, one that now shares a refreshed and nuanced iteration of their fiery old resistance.

The collective fierce pussy, formed in response to the AIDS pandemic, with all of its members also being involved with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Due to the low budget and technology access of many of fierce pussy’s members in the '90s, the collective is most famous for their early work with wheat paste, stencil, and sticker media. With a specific focus on issues of lesbian identity and visibility, fierce pussy was once a fluid group of many members, but today only Brooks Brody, Episalla, Leonard, and Yamaoka‚—four of the original core—still actively produce and exhibit art together.

The installation at the ICA is the fifth chapter of one such exhibition, with chapters one through four having been shown at the Beeler Gallery at Columbus College of Art & Design over the last year. Each chapter updated the works displayed, including art both old and new from each artist in a way meant to put their work, practice, and lifestyle in amplified dialogue. While there is still an underlying urgency in the art of the fifth chapter, the exhibition at the ICA is more a proponent of the slow movement, allowing us to contemplate the resistance within abstraction. 


Carrie Yamaoka, A is for Angel, 1991. Letraset and rubber cement on vellum, 17 × 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist


Consider Yamaoka’s A is for Angel, a 1991 work that inspired the title arms ache avid aeon. The four words come from discarded typewriter correction ribbons, and their repurposing by Yamaoka brings a unity to their abandonment—a metaphor that fits well with the deletions of our lives and cultures, both today and during the origins of fierce pussy. While perhaps this piece delivers its message more clearly with context, all pieces in the exhibition reflect some sort of resistance, to rules both implicit and explicit in artistic and philosophical thought.

Most of these rules have to do with the ways we typically perceive the ideas of time and space. Certain pieces in the new exhibition, like the massive iteration of one of Episalla’s foldtograms (her term for a folded photogram), challenge the notion of photography as a two–dimensional art by fusing several photograms together into a floor–to–ceiling sculpture that piles and twists out onto the floor of the gallery itself, forcing viewers to walk around it. 

Even when more traditional demonstrations of photography present themselves in the exhibition, in this case by Leonard, certain conventions are still amiss. Her photographs of WWII–era photographs in Misia, postwar purposely leave a glare over the center of the image, concealing the main subject of the original photograph. But, as Leonard once explained about this piece, and others in which she employs similar light–focused techniques, “It’s not that one sees less here, but that different information becomes visible.” Her subversion of the notion of standards in photography are even further emphasized by a stack of 47 copies of Tom Maloney’s The Picture Universe, a photography book from 1961, with the unique deterioration of each copy mirroring the inevitable differentiation from the sameness of such standards over time. 

We can see both these manipulations of space and time as well as a combination of the two domains in the exhibition's display of Brooks Brody’s work. Her piece West/South, 90° Line is a 20–foot–long rectangle of polychromatic lead, embedded into the wall of the gallery space around eye level. This allows us to simultaneously see it bend into the corner of the gallery, and unbend in our own minds as a straight rectangle, warping our perceptions of both the work and the space it inhabits. Brooks Brody also demonstrates this complexity in Cement Shoes, a pair of black heels filled with concrete. Particularly under the lens of fierce pussy’s original mission, the heels can be seen as a symbol of limitation and restriction, and the heavy concrete within them gives a tangible form to that social oppression. 

There is also a more explicit sense of resistance in Yamaoka’s Archipelagoes, a continuing series of pieces in which the artist prints the names of quarantine or detention centers on chemically altered gelatin silver prints. Though the words alone may be phonetically alluring, the distortion of these prints, and the spaces between the words, serve as a grave reminder of the evil power behind them. This emphasis on words also exists in pieces like Yamaoka’s Outlaw, in which an excerpt from Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers is partially whited–out, so that only a brief passage about the heightened pleasure of secret sexual acts is clearly visible.

The conclusion of the exhibition is a survey of fierce pussy’s early work of the '90s. Copies of wheatpaste posters that directly address their viewers with questions like, “Are you a boy or a girl?” or “What is a lesbian?” stand in stark contrast to the more enigmatic conceptual art in the preceding galleries of the exhibition. The early work of fierce pussy is undeniably cruder, its protest messages exciting in their biting clarity. But visitors shouldn’t let this collection of posters, clippings, and photos push the former abstractions out of their minds.The foundations of these two domains are one and the same.

Perhaps an excerpt of an old conversation Leonard had with the late artist David Wojnarowicz, a fellow ACT  UP member, may shed light on the connection between the new and old art of fierce pussy. In struggling to find ways to clearly communicate her ambitions in her early artwork, a young Leonard spoke to Wojnarowicz about her guilt in creating prints of clouds that were “so subtle and abstract, so apolitical on the surface,” not unlike her contemporary experimentations with photography and framing. But instead of admonishing the cloud prints, or even suggesting ways to make them more political, Wojnarowicz replied with this: “Don’t ever give up on beauty. We’re fighting so that we can have things like this, so that we can have beauty again.” 


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