If you weren’t around in the early 1970s, when feminist artists worked to blow the lid off of male hegemony, you need to see Anita Steckel’s current exhibition at Mitchel Algus Gallery. If you were around, this is a chance to revisit early works and catch up with Steckel’s recent wild-eyed musings.
It’s a big show in a small space, with more than 30 works that span from 1972 to the present. And while mostly work on paper, it’s a loud rant in praise of heroes (both male and female) and condemnation of villains (mostly male, of course).
Two of Steckel’s “New York Skyline (Large)” paintings, one from 1972, the other from 1973, set the stage. Both utilize an iconic photo silkscreen image of the Manhattan skyline, that Midtown span that includes the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. The pre-digital methods and imagery are both vintage, carrying the touch and documents of another era.
But Steckel’s scumbled, sometimes cartoony depictions of sexed pop culture, and excessive collaging are immensely current. This work is an unappreciated precursor to a wealth of younger art, from the early work of Ellen Cantor, Nicole Eiseman, and Carrie Moyer, to the more recent accumulation decals and porn drawings of the artist assume vivid astro focus, aka Eli Sudbrock.
The clarity of ‘70s style protest is something we long to recapture in art and life. That nervy “take no prisoners” approach can seem a bit naive today, after 30 years of progressive and postmodern relativity. But Steckel shows us how, even while engaging in her own complex assertions. This complexity is most apparent in a series of 14 mixed media drawings made during 2004/2005. In the series “Anita of NY meets Tom of Finland,” the artist draws her colorful naked self in and around the found fragments of these sex-engaged buff boys. A cheery, fleshy “Anita” floats, flops breasts, and bends the conjoined fellows over her knee. Her insertion into the picture provides a different promise than the Tom’s intension to do the same. It’s a hysterically funny premise, as feminine arms embrace a couple of men who couldn’t be more oblivious or less interested.
Some might take offense, seeking signs of homophobia. But Stecklel’s warm palette, ornamental borders, and apparent appreciation of cock keep the whole project oddly uplifting, even while it illuminates the experience of invisibility in plain sight.
Other recent work includes a series of simpler drawing/collages that take aim at the current Bush administration. “Macho Christianity” depicts Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld in priestly black garb with their crucifixes hung low—very low. “Bush Follies” pastes W’s goofy, smiling face on the crotches of a chorus line of naked bathing beauties. Intimately scaled, handmade, and without the trappings of corporate production, this is the unrestrained stuff of personal, political statement. One woman with a mission—it still works.