A Womanhouse or a Roaming House? A Room of Ones Own Today
On ViewA.I.R. Gallery
January 9 – February 2, 2014
A.I.R. Gallery in Dumbo kicked off 2014 with a large women-only group exhibition, curated by celebrated feminist artist and writer Mira Schor. In an open call, artists were asked to submit work that would update the landmark feminist work from 1972 called “Womanhouse.” The original “Womanhouse,” conceived by art historian Paula Harper, was made from an abandoned house in Hollywood, CA. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, both teachers at California Institute of the Arts (CAL Arts), worked collaboratively for months with over 20 of their students (including Schor) to transform the house. The house symbolized the faceted role domesticity plays in a woman’s self-identity. The artists worked room by room to create an installation to be experienced from the inside out. “Womanhouse’ was … art as social and political realism,” recalls participant Faith Wilding.
In keeping with Schor’s retrospective theme, it is worth remembering that in the ’60s and ’70s feminism’s second wave addressed the workplace, reproductive rights, and violence against women, among other issues. Such was the political context for the original “Womanhouse.” The current show is taking place concurrently with a renewed commitment to feminism. Artist Suzanne Lacy, who studied with Chicago and Schapiro at Cal Arts in the ’70s recently commented, “There is a resurgence of activism … a deepening of the field of activism around woman. [Through social media] there is a global response to issues such as violence against women in different parts of the world.” By invoking “Womanhouse,” A.I.R.’s Roaming House provides an important reminder of what scale of action is required to combat the forces operating against social change. Although there is much strong artistic work on display here, powerful messages sometimes feel diminished by the format.
Most of the pieces in A.I.R.’s first gallery are modest-sized framed photographs of interiors and female forms. They are installed in a forthright line around three walls interrupted in two places each by paintings and wall-mounted flat screens. Several three-dimensional pieces sit on the floor or on pedestals, including “Travel” (2013), a delicate reconstructed china dish held together with tiny brass hinges by Jacintha Clark. All are tucked in close to the wall. References to the unrelenting global societal programming aimed at destroying the sacred feminine are evident in the work, but only as quiet—almost secret—codes. The clean style of installation reads as meek and dangerously submissive. Thankfully, the center of the room is dedicated to a multi-media installation by (Rail Associate Art Editor) Kara L. Rooney, “Four Poems for Paz” (2013), comprised of a polyhedron painted in blue on the floor, topped with cut wild grasses contained by a cropped square of white picket fence. The piece takes up space; it gets in your way. A video projection of text and the silhouettes of moving grass flit across the fence boards. Headphones are available to listen to the audio: a woman’s voice reading the projected text phrases, such as “noiseless grid,” or “rewritten fugitives” in a whisper. I don’t see why this couldn’t have been broadcast without headphones. Its scale and use of materials resonate effectively with the gallery’s industrial environment while conveying a distilled longing for security as if it were a ghost pain.
The adjacent gallery contains a variety of work: three paintings, including a small monochrome work, “Helen Frankenthaler in her Studio, 1957” (2013) by Kimberly Brooks portraying the painter as heroine absorbed in her work; a video monitor; one domestic miniature on a pedestal; a fabric relief; and a chair-like assemblage all set against the wall. As with the first gallery, a multi-media installation extending from the wall succeeds in pulling away from the pack. Sasha Wortzel’s “42 Butter Lane,” (2011) stages a private workspace by placing a scuffed desk and chair in front of a small bookshelf. The shelf holds several worn books with titles including Lesbian Body, Querelle, and Gay Couple, Gay New York, along with personal photos and objects. Rolled into a Smith-Corona typewriter is a piece of paper that serves as a video screen. Viewers may sit in the chair while listening to the voice of an older woman reminiscing about her partner who has passed away. Her comments change, as do images on the page, as different letters are pressed on the typewriter. The piece houses the discreet components of intense personal mourning.
Since the original show in 1972, digital technology was not only invented but has grown in power and nuance as a tool for individual expression. With a total of 11 pieces, stand alone video is therefore a significant component of the show. Most of them are compelling portrayals of women’s stories in the form of dance, montage, bare-ass ritual, and, in several cases, comedy. Irina Arnaut’s “Working Title,” (2013) is homage to slap stick and its relation to art-making. In Evelin Stermitz’s “Blue House of Dance” (2009) three dancers move as sisters in back-lit domestic scale rooms. Unfortunately, most of the videos were not operating during the time of my visit; I was able to see them at the gallery assistant’s desk computer. A.I.R.’s third gallery room would be a perfect space to run a continual screening of this evocative component of the show and perhaps avoid the gallery’s current technical difficulties.
The show serves as a hopeful reminder that our Goddess culture has been kept alive, but the gallery environment can’t compare to the visceral presence and drama of the original project. Conservative anti-women forces are even more strongly established in government and their allied religious institutions around the world. We need to make a louder open call and answer with an overwhelming, undeniable, unforgettable response.