by David M. Roth
It would take a museum the size of a small city to accommodate or even sample the many strains of feminist art that have arisen and flourished since the late 1960s. The reason is that Feminism quite literally altered and expanded the look and the face of contemporary art, turning it away from male-dominated, content-free formalism toward an inclusive endeavor that addresses gender, identity, race and sexuality. In so doing, Feminism helped pave the way for Postmodernism, undercutting the belief that aesthetic revolutions arise out of what came before. Feminists don't bother with dialectics; they use history — female history — to question essentialist gender roles, “transforming,” as Judy Chicago put it, “our circumstances into subject matter…to reveal the whole nature of the human condition.”
The New Domestics: Finding Beauty in the Mundane, an ambitious exhibition of eight Bay Area artists curated by Gail Enns, director of Celadon Arts, a Monterey nonprofit, mines one strain of that history: the part in which women use elements of domestic life as springboards for examining personal experience. Not all of the artists involved deal with domesticity or its mundane artifacts or with craft. Most, however, wrest dark and often disquieting beauty from non-traditional materials such as rope, rubber, books, clothing, electronic detritus and organic matter. Some of the strongest works address matters pertaining to the body.
Katherine Sherwood’s towering diptychs are the exhibition’s clear highlights. Six of them, closely arrayed along a wall, hit like lightening bolts. While the works are presented as painting, they read more as totems, owing to their size (they measure 6 and a half feet tall) and the appendage of dresses (and in one case, a plus-size pair of pants) to the lower half of each diptych. The animating event for this series, and for the artist’s output over the past two decades was a cerebral hemorrhage that left her disabled. She recovered, but the trauma left a permanent imprint, resulting in a shift toward grotesquely beautiful figurative paintings in which images from her own brain scans stand in for heads and faces. Torsos she renders by combining images culled from ancient medical texts with paint pours that congeal into cracked puddles. The paintings lay waste to popular notions of female beauty and echo a Jungian line of inquiry that held sway in the 1970s in the form of “goddess” images — the idea behind which was to reclaim power once wielded by women in matriarchal societies. By accident or design, Sherwood’s paintings tap into that legacy, bolstering her status as one of the Bay Area’s preeminent artists.
Some of the strongest feminist art revolves around hijacking an idea and turning it against itself. Such is the case with the work of Judy Shintani. She takes that most potent symbol of Japanese femininity, the kimono, and mutilates it, leaving the cutout pieces in bowls. Five such garments hang from dowels and exude a ghostly corporeal presence. The precedent they evoke most strongly is Yoko Ono’s legendary performance Cut Piece (1964) in which audience members were invited to slice clothing off the artist’s body with scissors. Those actions, taken by men and women, left her exposed and, very likely, humiliated. But what they mostly
revealed, besides the artist’s courage, was the desires of the participants. Shintani’s installation, Deconstructed Kimonos, unfolds a similar revelation in that it makes us conscious of the perverse (and also decadent) pleasure we take from finding beauty in ruins. Lisa Solomon, who’s also of Japanese ancestry, repurposes another of that country’s traditions. During World War II, women were tasked with creating sashes that soldiers and pilots wore as protective talismans. Each was comprised of 1,000 stitches. Solomon revisits that practice by creating 1,000 fist-sized knots, each dipped in red dye. They stretch across a wall to form an imposing 10 x 25-foot grid. And though the knots are roughly identical, they’re mounted at different angles, making each appear as a unique character, akin to sign language. The message isn’t clear, but the scale and tone of the piece are that of a public memorial.
Victoria May’s Fetish Installation, a grouping of sewn-together inner tubes looks like flock of giant bats splayed against a wall. It is an arresting sight. With its visible sutures and leather-like surface texture, the piece gives off strong hints of kink, as well as resonant associations to the post-minimalist sculptor Lynda Benglis, who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made
pioneering works out of wax, latex, polyurethane, rubber and clay with biomorphic features resembling those seen in May’s work. Works by Richard Serra in the same vein also spring to mind, as do some of the shaped canvases of Elizabeth Murray, an artist famous for using her own domestic life as subject matter. A second series titled Convulsion, in which sliced-open tubes spill viscera-like cords, suggests physical trauma as a possible source for May’s work.
The one artist in the show who deals directly with “women’s work” is Susan Abbott Martin. She takes found squares of needlepoint and pairs them with collages that combine images of well-known household brands with the faces of happy housewives. The images come from mid-20th century print ads, devised when Madison Avenue was well on the way toward creating the consumer society we know today. That display is accompanied by floor installation in which the artist transforms a variety of everyday items – an ironing board, a rake, grocery bags, a
colander, a broom, a washboard and a picnic basket – into clever sculptural objects. None, however, exhibit the kind of subversion this show seems to call for.
Female labor is the silent undercurrent in Mitra Fabian’s abstract aggregations of electronic resisters. They’re an unlikely material for art making, but Fabian deploys them in all kinds of marvelous ways: in drawings that resemble data “visualizations” and in bulbous sculptures that bring to mind deep-sea creatures. A pertinent fact to keep in mind is that women once performed nearly all of the electronic assembly work in the US until such jobs were shipped overseas to boost profits and evade environmental and safety regulations. In recontextualizing this tiny, nondescript item, Fabian obliquely references the conditions in which these women work.
Maria Porges slices up and rebinds books, turning the reconfigured pieces into pointy objects that, when attached to axe and saw handles, recall medieval weapons and/or useless tools. A well-known critic and a frequent contributor to this publication, Porges well understands the power of words and how they can be weaponized. Her sculptures stop short of doing so, but they suggest that possibility in no uncertain terms, The modular construction of Porges’ work also carries poetic resonance in its close relationship to origami, while at the same time calling to mind the history of bookbinding, an industry in which women were also once widely employed – and exploited. Effecting these transformations, of turning books into would-be tools, decorative objects or some combination of the two feels radical, dangerous and exhilarating.
In the end, it matters little that the contents of this exhibition sometimes strain the bounds of its thematic container. The show overflows with fine examples of artists exercising great material invention, and that, I think, is its chief strength. That so many of the works on view bear serious conceptual weight is an added bonus.
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“The New Domestics: Finding Beauty in the Mundane” @ Monterey Museum of Art through October 28, 2018. The exhibition also includes work by the Temple Sisters.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.