At Home: A Kentucky Project
Through March 20 at Sarratt Gallery, Vanderbilt University
In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin wrote an essay titled “Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists?” questioning the absence of women in the history of art. Feminist art criticism has long argued that women have indeed been making great art for centuries, but they haven’t been taken seriously because of their gender and because their work has typically been related to craft. Last week, Scene art critic David Maddox observed much the same thing, pointing out that the Frist Center’s current exhibit of 30 European masterworks from The Phillips Collection contains only one piece by a woman. This is not an unusual statistic, as less than one-third of most major museum collections are dedicated to art created by women. Since the 1960s, the women’s art movement has pushed to change these statistics and attitudes, and Judy Chicago has been a central figure in this transformation. Her recent collaborative endeavor “At Home: A Kentucky Project,” currently on display in the Sarratt Gallery at Vanderbilt, features predominantly female artists addressing women’s issues and exploring a renewed vision of feminism for the 21st century.
Three years ago, Chicago and her husband Donald Woodman team-taught a semester at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. While there, they facilitated the “At Home” project, a work in which more than 25 artists, students and scholars transformed a house on campus into a large-scale installation. With an overall focus on the relationships between women and men, particularly in the domestic sphere, the project explored traditional and contemporary ways of understanding the home, gender issues, marital conflicts, sexual abuse, rape and popular culture’s representation of women. Each room took on a different theme: For instance, the “Parental Bedroom” dealt with domestic abuse and marriage, while the “Adolescent Bedroom” commented on patriarchy and the influence of pornography. After the conclusion of the “At Home” project, participating artists John Warren Oakes and Andee Rudloff crafted a 1:12 scale model of the house. This model forms the core of the Sarratt exhibit, complemented by individual pieces by Karen Genter, Freda Fairchild, Farrah Ferriell and Lesley Patterson, all of which were part of the original “At Home” installation.
A pioneer and mother figure of the women’s art movement in the ’60s and ’70s, Judy Chicago is committed to “the power of art as a vehicle for social change.” In the early ’70s, she started an all-female art program at California State University in Fresno, and with the help of artist Miriam Schapiro, she went on to establish the first feminist art program at the California Institute of the Arts. Their students created “Womanhouse” (1971), a series of installations in each room of a home that addressed subject matter and materials related to female experiences. It was considered one of the first crossings into an explicit feminist art and also served as an obvious antecedent to the “At Home” project. After “Womanhouse,” Chicago continued to pursue massive collaborative projects that explored the history of women in Western culture, birth and women’s craft. From her best-known work, “The Dinner Party” (1974), to her more recent efforts with “At Home” (2001), Chicago has been a diligent advocate for “women’s right to the highest level of art production.”
But her notoriety should not overshadow the art works on display at Sarratt by Fairchild, Ferriell, Patterson and Genter, and the dollhouse-like models of Rudloff and Oakes. The models solve the problem of how to make a traveling show out of an exhibit that would be impossible to move around the country; all the imagery, text and objects have been reduced and incorporated exactly as they were in the original installation. The model is broken down into three sections: the first floor, second floor and basement. A gallery guide helps viewers discern the topics in each room, as the small scale can make it difficult to read and identify some items. By examining the model, viewers can see how the individual works in the Sarratt show originally fit into the “At Home” project.
Freda Fairchild’s “Love and Sexuality” quilt and “Abuse Dresses” were displayed in the “Parental Bedroom” and exemplify the importance of women reclaiming craft and typically domestic, feminine activities as fine art. Only recently has quilting been considered a fine art, thanks in large part to Faith Ringgold, whose rich, narrative quilts hang beside famous oil paintings in most major museums. Fairchild’s “Love and Sexuality,” dizzying in both size and color, consists of hundreds of hand-stitched silk and velvet hearts in hand-dyed shades of peach, red, violet and fuchsia. The finely sewn hearts exemplify the labor-intensive work involved in craft production, which has historically enriched and sustained the lives of women around the world.
The dress is one of the most obvious symbols of femininitywitness the figure on the door of every women’s public restroomand Fairchild has seized upon this symbol’s ability to prescribe social roles. Her six hand-sewn “Abuse Dresses” hang adjacent to her quilt, their gauzy white silk drifting with the air currents. Nostalgic images from old photographs, postcards and advertisements are printed on the fabric, inviting viewers to explore each piece’s fragmented narrative and find the silenced voices of these women. The dresses are titled with a name and datee.g., “Sarah Jane, 1888” and “June, 1942”which communicates the pattern of domestic abuse across generations. Behind these pieces hangs a poster titled “Fashion Advice: for those special times,” with drawings depicting bruised women in strapless gowns and high heels. The text reads, “I am so sorry; I didn’t mean it,” and “For a bruised throat wrap a lovely silk scarf,” along with other quotations that convey the deep sadness and secrecy of domestic abuse.
Karen Genter’s “Medicinal Lamp” originally stood in the Kentucky Project’s “Golden Dreams Bedroom.” The mixed-media sculpture is covered in a bright mosaic of pills and sits on a needlepoint table runner, but in the gallery context, it looses its original meaning. Genter writes in the gallery guide that this would have been in the “room of an elderly parent...and symbolizes a progressive journey through life.” On display at Sarratt, it reads as a dependency on pills or drugs as a sort of guiding light, helping a woman or man float through her or his days.
“Mary’s Diary, Pages 1-10” is a series of collaborative works by Farrah Ferriell and Lesley Patterson that reconstruct the fictional life of a woman who lived in the “At Home” house. Ferriell served as author/poet, recording a series of everyday events from the life of a housewife between 1933 and 1959, while Patterson illustrated the works, incorporating drawing, hand-stitching, black-and-white photographs and collage. Each entry is eloquently written and delicately crafted, carefully matching text and imagery. Patterson’s artwork poetically deals with topics including the loneliness of an unloving marriage, the pressure to be thin and the friendships between women of different races.
Dated March 11, 1941, “Page 5” of Mary’s diary is split down the middle. On the left are two silhouettes, a before and after image of a woman on a diet. One silhouette is robust and plump, the number 175 hanging over her head, while the other is sleek, “improved” and marked with the number 150. The right side of the composition is bordered with tape measures and a detailed calorie count of Mary’s food intake. The pursuit to be thin, and hence beautiful and loved, is not a new or unfamiliar sight, and exemplifies the personal struggles of a woman bending to cultural expectations.
It is important to point out that although the “At Home” project involved women and men from 18 to 62 years of age, the group lacked racial diversitysomething Chicago acknowledged as a disappointment in her recent lecture at Sarratt. Issues of race are addressed from a white perspective in the “Prejudice Basement,” which is an important and valid inclusion, but if we are to critique the Phillips Collection for lacking female voices, then “At Home” should be critiqued for lacking minority voices. As Chicago said in her lecture, feminism is “challenging the structure of dominance,” and this has never been confined solely to gender equality, but encompasses challenging racial, economic and political inequality as well.
Over the past three decades, feminism has helped to expand opportunities for women, but by no means do all women artists consider themselves feminist artists. While Chicago proudly uses the label, most women under 30 years of age (considered the third wave of feminists) dare not call themselves the “f-word,” lest they be associated with “femi-Nazis,” radicalism and lesbianism. Despite such reductive associations, feminism is a multifaceted, ever evolving term that embodies differing political and social ideologies. Although the label may not be as popular now as it was in the ’60s and ’70s, “At Home: A Kentucky Project” proves that the goals of feminism are still alive and being reshaped to fit the concerns of women’s lives. By taking on a form of social activism and consciousness-raising, all the participating artists are working under the auspices of feminism, even if they don’t call themselves by the label per se.
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