Artist Lynn Hershman Leeson on Being ‘Discovered’ at 75

Lynn Hershman Leeson, 'The Infinity Engine,' 2014–17. Installation view of 'Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,' Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, 'The Infinity Engine,' 2014–17. Installation view of 'Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,' Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017. (Photo by John Foster Cartwright; Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco)

“Here I am, at 75 years old, and my work is being seen for the first time,” says Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose retrospective Civic Radar is currently on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

It marks the first major exhibition of her work in the Bay Area — even though she’s been an established visual artist for more than 50 years, with work in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, SFMOMA and BAMPFA, to name a few.

“It’s sort of like this strange thing of being ‘discovered’ after all these decades of doing work that is, I think, substantial,” Hershman Leeson says. “I think a large part of it is the female factor and the fact that you are not taken seriously, and certainly my generation was left out of a lot of history because of the cultural repression and eradication, and really, rejection, of anything that came from people of my gender.”

Lynn Hershman Leeson, 'Lorna,' 1984. Installation view of 'Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,' Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, ‘Lorna,’ 1984. Installation view of ‘Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,’ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017. (Photo by John Foster Cartwright; Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco)

The San Francisco-based artist is known for her transgressive, intimate artwork exploring the limits of femininity, the experience of agoraphobia and weaponized surveillance of women. She pioneered sound works as art in the 1960s with her “breathing machines,” and created one of the first artificial intelligence bots, predating Apple’s Siri by 12 years. Artists Sophie Calle and Cindy Sherman are among those influenced by Hershman Leeson’s work. In 2016, she was named a USA Smith Fellow for her work in media.

Yet for all of her innovations and acknowledgments in the art world, from 1993 to 2015 Hershman Leeson was neither written about nor had her work reviewed in a Bay Area publication.

“I wrote letters to Kenneth Baker [at the San Francisco Chronicle] and to the critic before that, about how I felt that when you’re invisible it’s like a type of cultural murder,” she says. “When people won’t admit that you’re doing work that has been proved to be significant, and to be continually omitted, was such a difficult thing.”

Lynn Hershman Leeson, 'The Infinity Engine,' 2014–17. Installation view of 'Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,' Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, ‘The Infinity Engine,’ 2014–17. Installation view of ‘Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,’ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017. (Photo by John Foster Cartwright; Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco)

Hershman Leeson’s omission from Bay Area art writing is poignant, a reflection of the exact kind of misogyny her work confronts. And though the work she created for Civic Radar spans five decades, her art speaks to our exact cultural moment in 2017.

“I’ve always been interested in the edge of reality,” she says. “And it seems to me that once you could imagine something, it could be true. So where does reality end and fiction begin?”

Hershman Leeson is describing the Roberta Breitmore Project — a series that is part comic book, part video installation work and part sculpture — which tells the story of a fictional woman, played by Hershman Leeson, who suffers through rape and abuse.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, 'Roberta Breitmore series,' 1973–78. Installation view of 'Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,' Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, ‘Roberta Breitmore series,’ 1973–78. Installation view of ‘Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar,’ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2017. (Photo by John Foster Cartwright; Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco)

“We assume that she’s a living person, but she’s really a fiction,” Hershman Leeson says, “so everything that happened to her, is it a cultural fiction or is it something that can be used as an archetype of what can be drawn from any person living in that time?”

Is it a cultural fiction? This type of question is particularly prescient in a time of alternative facts and government-constructed alternative realities. The Roberta Breitmore Project plays with the insecurity and uneasiness of not knowing what’s real or what isn’t.

'Robertas' during the opening of 'Lynne Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar.'
‘Robertas’ during the opening of ‘Lynne Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar.’ (Photo by Michelle Threadgould)

At the opening of Civic Radar, young men dressed in drag as Roberta Breitmore wandered through the exhibition with her signature aloofness and discomfort, aliens inside the art world. Nearly 40 years after Hershman Leeson originally ended the Roberta Breitmore Project, did these modern-day Robertas now belong in the world, or were they still out of place?

Civic Radar shows the scope, breadth and influence of Hershman Leeson’s work. With video installation pieces like Room of One’s Own, which allow you to spy on a fictional character trapped in a room while you are being videotaped and projected into the piece, her work complicates the roles of viewer versus participant, spy versus spied upon, and the freeing versus constricting nature of technology.

In this impressive body of work, Hershman Leeson creates a space for herself and fellow female artists to confront the art world and reveal the truth: you can’t afford to omit me now.

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Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Civic Radar is on view at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through May 21, 2017. For more information, visit ybca.org.

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