Momenta Art, February 13 – March 16, 2009
Immediately confronting visitors to The Mood Back Home, a thoughtful and evocative group exhibition organized by Suzy Spence and Leslie Brack at Momenta Art, is Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s 70s-vintage spring-mounted hobby horse, whose head has been covered with crudely applied wads of clay in tumor-like growths. It is a piece that, as intended, renders palpable both the frustration and the playfulness that results when contemporary artists are ensnared in domestic life.
Brack and Spence conceived of the show as a tribute to an update of the feminist art classic, Womanhouse, a 1972 collaborative project created in an abandoned Hollywood house by CalArts grad students and their teachers, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. While male artists like Donald Judd and Richard Serra were using spare construction materials to create cerebral Minimalism, the women involved in Womanhouse mastered construction skills to renovate the dilapidated house and explore radical ideas about homemaking. Once the renovation was complete, they held performances and created installations with titles like “Eggs to Breasts,” “Aprons in Kitchen,” and “Bridal Staircase” that frankly and mercilessly examined the female experience, traditional gender roles, and domesticity. At the time, this type of guerrilla project was rare, and an uninitiated public was invited to walk through the project. Johanna Demetrakas’s documentary, also titled Womanhouse, which was screened for a packed audience in conjunction with the Momenta Art exhibition, captures their often bemused reactions.
The Mood Back Home shows that both art and feminism have come a long way since 1972. Womanhouse enlisted earnest art students who chafed at the limitations that domesticity and motherhood bode for them, and were intent on rejecting them. In contrast, Spence and Brack have assembled work by older artists who have experienced the difficulties and contradictions of domesticity firsthand, and apprehended it as something more complex and rich than the Womanhouse artists speculated it would be. Of course, it was Womanhouse that made The Mood Back Home possible: without the brave combativeness of the early feminists, the next generation of women would scarcely have had the freedom to choose the lives they have.
From this perspective, the newer show reflects a repositioning of feminism—in the fullness of time—as subtle social evolution rather than stark political revolution. Keyed by Hutchins’s clay-headed hobbyhorse, most of the work in the show embraces domestic life, but tentatively and with trepidation. While the artists enshrine their immediate surroundings, daily activities, and childhood memories with a measured sense of wonder, their exuberance is qualified with anxiety.
At first glance, Jeanne Tremel’s small-scale, crocheted sculptures look quirky and fun. Brightly colored and small enough to fit in a baby’s hand, they could be the work of a dedicated crafter for a holiday bazaar. But the small forms are discomfortingly organic and unruly, enveloping objects like baby pacifiers, and radiating a persistent restlessness. One can imagine Tremel, dislodged from her studio practice, compulsively crocheting these idiosyncratic forms as she sits numbly with the other mothers at the playground.
Kirsten Stoltmann cleverly employs children’s craft supplies for her collage, made of Snoopy stickers on neon-yellow poster board, with the words “Autonomous Wife” spelled out in the sticker-free areas. The artist fantasizes about independence and self-actualization, but in reality we know that parenting involves taking charge, managing a household, caring for others, and teamwork. Back in the 1970s, when men were more disengaged from parenting and domestic responsibility, ambitious female artists often didn’t have children because doing so would have effectively ended their art practices. Things have gradually changed, and Stoltmann’s message is heartening. That said, her choice of crude materials and hasty craftsmanship carries a residue of dissatisfaction.
Tara Mateik’s performance “Putting the Balls Away” recreates the famous 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in which Billie Jean King creamed the coyly chauvinistic Bobby Riggs on national television. A video of the performance, in which both parts are played by a transgendered Mateik, is screened on a 70s-era round TV, hanging by a chain over a green tarmac . The piece, both funny and poignant, suggests the artist’s yearning for a post-gender era. Like Mateik’s, the best pieces in the show are riffs on specific experiences, emotions, or events rather than grand statements on gender and domesticity. Less interesting are Pinar Yolacan’s photographic portraits of grim-faced, well-dressed women draped with meat and other organs, which, though visually striking, are conceptually obvious and heavy-handed.
The Womanhouse collaborators, mostly in their twenties, used consciousness-raising sessions to understand gender, imagine what it meant to be a wife and mother, and create art that might somehow reflect the experience. Over thirty years later, in vastly more liberated times, female artists no longer feel compelled to defiantly spurn domesticity or femininity for their art. If Pam Butler’s bathroom installation of fashion magazines, lipstick blots, and other relatively demure accessories feels slight compared to the visceral impact of Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” from Womanhouse, that may in fact be the point. Similarly, Nicole Eisenman’s characteristically cheeky watercolor—featuring a mother expertly squirting breast milk into the cereal bowls of two adoring children—recognizes the societal pressure to breastfeed, the competiveness among parents, and the dogged feelings of inadequacy that mothers endure, without rejecting domesticity wholesale. Still, as The Mood Back Home vividly conveys, the choice between tradition and departure will never be painless.
ContributorSharon L. Butler
Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.