“Riot Grrrls” Celebrates the Bold, Brash Edge of American Art

Photo: Installation view of “Riot Grrrls,” courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

In 1991, the Riot Grrrl Manifesto was published in Bikini Kill Zine 2, giving voice to a new generation of female artists, musicians, and warriors who refused to fall for the okie doke. Combining punk style and politics with the women’s power movement, the manifesto called for a new approach that struck against stereotype and sexism in equal part.

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Calling out hypocrisy and ignorance, the manifesto challenged people to go beyond shortsighted thinking that was keeping women hemmed up in outmoded ideologies. The movement came out of Olympia, Washington, at the same time that grunge was challenging the old guard. The scenes grew as one, with the Riot Grrrls leading the charge against issues specific to women, in particular rape, domestic abuse, and misogyny. Using art as a vehicle for activism, the scene found its voice through bands like Hole, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Babes in Toyland, Sleater-Kinney, 7 Year Bitch, L7, and Le Tigre.

This energized the base that went far beyond the sound, creating a style of art made its way into the gallery world. Women artists began to use their work to challenge the notorious sexist of the art world that marginalized them while exalting male artists. They began to create work that subverted and transgressed the expectations of polite society, following in the footsteps of pioneering women artists of the past while embracing a wide array of influences, from Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art to punk, ska, and new wave.

In celebration, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents Riot Grrrls, a group exhibition currently on view now though June 18, 2017. Organized by Michael Darling, Chief Curator at the MCA, the exhibition presents a selection of works by pioneering American painter Mary Heilmann, as well as subsequent leaders like Charline von Heyl, Judy Ledgerwood, and Joyce Pensato, as well as a newer crop of rebels like Molly Zuckerman-Hartung and Amy Feldman.

As the Riot Grrrl Manifesto proclaimed, “BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock you can do anything’ idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours,”—creating a foundation upon which women were free to build the world in which they wanted to live.

The result is a collection of work that is bold, brash, and unbothered by expectations or stereotypes, gleefully dispelling the myth that girls are sugar and spice. Their work embraces the freedom inherent to punk, to the belief that the only way to do things is to it the way you want it to be done. Riot Grrrls is a reminder to the current age that mastery comes from the self, from the willingness to disregard all limitations in pursuit of excellence—and that the only validation worth recognizing is your own. Ultimately, Riot Grrrls is a statement of freedom and self-liberation from everything outside the self.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.


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