Suzanne Bocanegra’s Wardrobe Test inaugurates the newly opened Art Cake’s exhibition programming in spectacular fashion. Art Cake’s presentation is a modified version of Bocanegra’s 2018 solo show, Poorly Watched Girls, at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum; the Brooklyn venue includes the two videos and a sound installation displayed in 2018 but is absent the textile works made as a result of the artist’s collaboration with the museum. As a result, the exhibition has been rethought, the works are differently projected, and the viewer encounters them in a new order.
On ViewArt Cake
September 7 – November 24, 2019
Grant Klarich Johnson reviewed the Fabric Workshop and Museum exhibition in the Brooklyn Rail’s November 2018 issue. This gives me the opportunity—a year on—to delve more fully into the moments I found particularly thought provoking. The exhibition begins with Lemonade, Roses, Satchel (2017), a video starring the singer Shara Nova performing a song composed from lines repeatedly spoken by Bocanegra’s grandmother, who suffered from dementia. Nova, dressed by the artist in a gingham apron and a crown of roses, straw, and a tiny perched bird, calls to mind the picturesque peasant women of art history (Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jean-François Millet have both been referenced by Bocanegra in this and other pieces). She sings ethereally while accompanying herself on an autoharp, and we might think that she is some sort of contemporary fairy or nymph but for the way she maintains disciplined eye contact with the camera, grounding us. So often Bocanegra’s art explores female personas and performativity, moving the voice of the artist into the mouth of another, and indeed, the video originated as an element of one of her “Artist’s Lectures,” in which Bocanegra directs a performer’s movements and statements through microphones and earpieces. Here, the speech of her grandmother sings with the voice of Nova. It is moving to consider the way that such simple statements are reborn to resonate as poetry.
The next gallery features Valley (2018), an eight-channel video installation that recreates Judy Garland’s screen tests for The Valley of the Dolls (1967) using eight different, identically dressed performers: classicist and poet Anne Carson; choreographer Deborah Hay; artist Joan Jonas; vocalist Alicia Hall Moran; author, producer, and activist Tanya Selvaratnam; thespian Kate Valk; artist Carrie Mae Weems; and Wendy Whelan, dancer and Associate Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet. At Art Cake, it is possible to stand back and to see more than one performer at a time (the videos are installed two to a wall except on a wall in the center of the gallery, which features a projection on each side), but it is impossible to pay close attention to every image simultaneously. Instead, we must focus on single performances to observe the means by which each woman suggests the emotional distress Garland may have been experiencing during these tests. As in her artist’s lectures, Bocanegra instructs her actors through earpieces visible in their ears, and we see some of them waiting for their cues, while others—Hay and Whelan especially—continuously move and therefore link their directives into a sinuous whole. It is enthralling to see Garland in such a way that we view her psychology (her relationship with the film and with the industry as a whole was famously fraught, and she would leave the production early) as channeled through the mannerisms of a diverse group of women. Weems is constantly, effortlessly regal; Jonas seems a critical thinker; Selvaratnam smiles close-lipped while Valk beams megawattage; Whelan lushly swan-necked; Hay upright but not stiff; Moran channels the camp chanteuse; and Carson poignantly sports a band-aid on one of the fingers of her right hand.
Dialogue of the Carmelites occupies the final gallery, accessible through a discrete closed door. In this room, cloistered from the others, music composed by Bocanegra’s partner David Lang of Bang on a Can and based on Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1956) plays overhead as sheets from a disbound copy of the 1955 Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States rest in display cases. The sounds tell the story of nuns executed for their religious commitment during the French Revolution, while the pages feature descriptions of dozens, though not all, of the orders active in this country in mid-century and include the qualities desired in novitiates, the age ranges considered acceptable for admission to the order, and intriguingly, a description of the habits worn by the sisters. Each order is also represented by a photograph of a nun in said habit, which has been embroidered by Bocanegra to amplify the wimples, mantles, or crucifixes worn by the women. For viewers raised in the Catholic faith as I was, nuns often bear an almost perverse fascination, especially because the sisterhood was for so many centuries one of the only opportunities for female education (as it may have been for the executed sisters). Here, we learn that perhaps young women of the 1950s could be persuaded to a vocation by a particular style of garment (I was interested in the order whose members wore an outer crucifix and an inner gilded monstrance [the decorative hardware that holds the host on the altar]), that one order required the novitiate pay a dowry, and that nowhere in the description of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns (Strictly Cloistered) does it mention that the sisters are barefoot.
Throughout Wardrobe Test, we encounter women trying things on: costumes, other voices, new or different personae. And yet despite, or even through, this garb, we also witness glimpses of what we have to assume or hope to believe is the person within, the compassionate collaborator and mourner, the artist as empath, the woman of faith above all else. The works remind us that these figures are not just performing, but that they and all of us must constantly perform our choices and our convictions. Perhaps, then, the women we watch in Wardrobe Test are not just in character but of character.