In: women artists
Martha Rosler | House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–1972March 24, 2023
Martha Rosler | House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–1972
Cotton’s generation grew up with a war in the house. For them, games of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians no longer satisfied the senses. A boy had but to turn a control to be totally involved in the violent distension of experience that was Vietnam on television. Cotton became addicted to it. Vietnam was even a portable war.
A boy had but to move his personal set to have air strikes in the living room, search-and-destroy operations in the bedroom, naval bombardment in the bathroom—napalm before school, body bags before dinner.
(Glendon Swarthout, Bless the Beasts and the Children)
I recently read The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes. The premise – of a young woman who survives a doomsday cult – sent me down a rabbit hole, if you will, of research on these cults, and since then I’ve been devouring a number of texts on the topic.
One of these – Jeffrey Melnick, Charles Manson’s Creepy Crawl: The Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family – offers an interesting supposition. Melnick argues that the Tate – LaBianca murders were used by many on the right – Nixon, for example – as a means by which to shutter debate about the (even then) failure of the nuclear family in the United States. This is similar to Zizek’s comment that most conversations about socialism always have a chicken little proclaiming it ‘will end in the gulag!’. Other societal issues are cast in a different light from the Manson murders, as well (for example, Melnick talks about the dismissive attitude towards runaways – especially girls – at that time, criminalizing or infantilizing them, using several of the Manson ‘family’ as examples, instead of focusing on larger issues within society).
Melnick dismisses with derision the idea that Manson ‘ended’ the supposed utopic dream of the 1960s – and for this post, a point he makes stays with me. Bluntly, that the violence of the Manson family was nary a drop in the bucket to the televised, sanctioned and officially endorsed violence of the war in Vietnam and other societal pressures. His words: “If the countercultural fabric got torn it was not because a few celebrities were killed in August of 1969. We would be better off attending to the plight of returning veterans, the not unconnected influx of harder drugs into American cities, the ongoing runaway crisis, and a major effort by the dominant culture—from the president on down—to repudiate and abandon young people and their culture.”
And this brings us to Martha Rosler’s series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, 1967–72.
The initial incarnation of this series was about Vietnam: in a despairing commentary about history Rosler would revisit and reinterpret it decades later, for the ‘war against terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan…..
Rosler – in the tradition of artists like Hannah Höch – employs collage, using images that are familiar to us in tandem with others that fracture and trouble the original ‘homes’ on display. These might ‘homes’ in the literal sense, but also the ideologies and assumptions that inform those spaces, sometimes so implicitly that to highlight them engenders a denial of them, like a fish unaware of water as it’s so ubiquitous.
‘This work is one of twenty pieces from Rosler’s House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (c.1967-72) series created during, and influenced by, the Vietnam War. It was the first war in history that was literally brought into the homes of American people through the revolutionary new television set from which its horrors could be witnessed daily. It was often described as a “living room war” – a description loaded with strange poignancy as it shined a light on the eeriness of a nation living their everyday lives, ripe with consumerist concerns like keeping the stylish home drapes clean, all the while gruesome political realities took place elsewhere, becoming just another form of nightly entertainment in front of the tube.
Simultaneously, there is a feminist element to the work as it comments on the robotic mundaneness of female domestic work in the midst of global unrest. The idea of women striving to keep the house beautiful while war’s tragedies are omnipresent becomes almost comical, and presents a surreal picture about what we deem important. Recognizing the potential for manipulation in the photographic medium, Rosler once stated, “Any familiarity with photographic history shows that manipulation is integral to photography.”’ (from here)
More of Rosler’s extensive practice – and her roles as social critic and historian for more than half a century – can be seen here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Robin Claire Fox | ReflectionsMarch 17, 2023
Robin Claire Fox | Reflections
Photography is inherently nostalgic. Every image taken is essentially the capturing of a moment from the past. That moment no longer exists, just the memory of it and an analogue print or a digital impression trapped on an electronic device. Many modern photographers harbour longings for the saturated or contrasty renderings of images made with processes and media (like Kodachrome) long out of use or no longer in production. Quite a few of them try to recreate the look and feel of these processes digitally, running their captures through filters and algorithms to bring back the visual past. While many are overdone (why keep it at 3 when you can dial it up to 10?), there are a few who have mastered the ability to make us believe that we are viewing an image taken decades ago. The evocation of this photographic past is (I believe) an effort to physically reconnect with it in a way that seems familiar, safe and warm… like sitting with your family watching slides projections of photos from a vacation taken years ago.
Ancaster, Ontario’s Robin Fox started taking photographs around the time of the birth of her most recent child as a conscious attempt to document her family’s childhoods for her future self to enjoy. She is a natural at capturing the uncertainties alongside the joys of growing up. A huge fan of Saul Leiter’s colour work, she has found a method of perfectly capturing the deep saturation and contrast Leiter exhibited in his work with Kodachrome and other slide films in the 1950’s. Her images seem imbued with palettes that exist only in the memory of childhood, where everything was so much bigger and the world was awash with primary colours.Read More
Jana Sterbak | Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987March 16, 2023
Jana Sterbak | Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987
“Adam was left alone. It was then that God created the Second Wife.”
“Yeah? What was her name?”
“Oh. She never had a name, poor thing. God created her for Adam, out of nothingness. Bones first. Then internal organs. Then flesh. Muscle. Sinew. Fat. Bile. Eyes. Snot. Skin. Hair. Breath…
Adam couldn’t bear to go near her. He wouldn’t touch her.
Bodies are strange. Some people have real problems with the stuff that goes on inside them.”
“Jesus. What happened to her?”
“Opinions differ. Most say God destroyed her. A few have claimed that she was permitted to leave the Garden alone.”
(Neil Gaiman, A Parliament of Rooks)
Ah, the controversy, the pearl clutching, the performative gnashing of teeth: back when this work was installed at the National Gallery of Canada, you would have thought that a Canadian government had wilfully allowed a citizen to be tortured or sent body bags to an Indigenous Reserve as a continuing pattern of colonial violence both literal and ideological. To inject my own time in Saskatchewan, it’s not like Premier who has three DUIs where one led to the death of a young mother, or like Indigenous men are being dumped outside the city, in winter, by police.
In tandem with the hypocrisy around the purchase of Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire (which has only appreciated with age, unlike the money the taxpayers have paid out in unmerited pensions and perks to the ‘politicians’ who whined about it), it was a strange time for the visual arts in Canada.
But now some facts to balance that vitriolic tangent.
“The artwork consists of a “Flesh Dress”, constructed of slabs of beef sewn together, hung on a tailor’s dummy. It is a one-piece, sleeveless, calf-length “house dress”, with a jagged edge. The marble texture of steak and the thick fat are fully visible, displaying its expressive and bloody appearance. On a nearby wall, a photograph of a young woman poses in the dress. The dress is stitched together from 50–60 pounds of raw flank steak and must be constructed anew each time it is shown. Initially, the steak is fresh and fiery red, and then it gradually turned beige and brown, changing its shape and size to conform to the dummy’s hourglass shape. The work included either $260 or $300 worth of meat, as of its 1991 showing.
As suggested by the title, the work is considered within the genre of “vanitas”, a category of art showing death and decay. The work includes non-traditional materials, a trend in 20th-century art. It “stands in the Surrealist tradition of the uncanny….disturbing the distinctions, by which we categorize experience”.
Progressive Conservative MP Felix Holtmann, a pig farmer from Manitoba commented: “I call it a jerky dress. There are a lot of people who hold food sacred in this land, and they are appalled by the use of food for this thing.” In response, one newspaper editorial called him a “meat head”. Holtmann was chair of the House of Commons Communications and Culture Committee, which oversees the NGC funding; the committee itself was split on the issue. The artist called Holtmann a “self-proclaimed Philistine [who is] not even successful as a hog farmer.” Art critic Christopher Hume commented that the committee’s concept “was based on the notion that the National Gallery is somehow accountable for poverty and hunger in Canada. Surely the irony of their desperate position is that they are members of the group that created the mess the country is now in.””
(All of the above from here).
Sarah Milroy – then writing for Canadian Art, now one of the engines driving the Art Canada Institute – observed that reaction would have been very different if the artist had been male. I’d also inject an observation from Lucy Lippard, when she was writing about the controversies in the United States around the works of Andres Serano, Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe: most – if not all – were driven by those defined – or deformed, if you will – by religion, and thus the body is always ‘bad’ and the only thing worse than that is a woman who makes work about the body. How little has changed, it seems.
But the work itself is at that intersection of horror and aesthetic evocation that we know from art history in the works of Francis Bacon or Francisco Goya. In other ways, this installation by Sterbak can be considered in tandem with Carolyn Wren’s War Map Dress Trilogy, that is a more subtle assertion of Barbara Kruger’s iconic work Untitled (Your body is a battleground).
I feel it’s also important to disclose that while writing this, I was also rewatching Todd Haynes film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story that “portrays the last 17 years of singer Karen Carpenter’s life, as she struggled with anorexia.” (from here) This is also an artwork that had to deal with the travails of censorship…..
About the artist: “Jana Sterbak forges conceptual, architectonic objects that encourage their wearers to experience bodily and out-of-body freedom. Drawn to notions of doubling, physicality, and self-awareness, she favors juxtapositions between vanity and decomposition as a reminder of human vulnerability. This is evident in her dress of raw meat, which is meant to rest on a hanger until it rots and deteriorates. Such wearable, cage-like constructions allude to technological and societal constraints and a quest for freedom beyond corporeality. Sterbak’s art is marked by a dark humor and absurdist themes likely influenced by her childhood in Prague and education under Marxist and Leninist systems as well as the work of such writers as Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek.” (from here)
More about Sterbak’s life and work can be seen here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Catherine Mellinger | WhipsMarch 17, 2023
Catherine Mellinger | Whips
Originally from Saskatoon, mixed media collage artist Catherine Mellinger is a valued contributor to the Kitchener-Waterloo Region art scene. A graduate of the CREATE Institute in Toronto, Mellinger states that her work has always centered on her “own personal experience of being a human being.” While stating that she was originally shy and would not “blatantly state things” when it came to her work, Mellinger’s work developed after having children. As her life “exploded and imploded at the same time”, Mellinger explains how her art evolved as she “realized and connected to other feminist artists, other contemporary artists who were not having to hide. They were talking about trauma, mental illness and their personal lives as inspiration.” Today, Mellinger works with the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery and other community organizations and initiatives.
To read more click here.Read More
Shani Rhys James | Woman Smoking, 2011March 7, 2023
Shani Rhys James | Woman Smoking, 2011
“If painting doesn’t offer a way to dream and create emotions, then it’s not worth it.” (Pierre Soulages)
“Through the dialogue between paint and word, issues of domesticity, rootlessness and the relationship between women and the home will arise within the claustrophobic space, revealing how the places in which we live can say so much about who we are.” (Karen Price, from here)
There is a directness to James’ paintings – her moments that are both captured and created – of everyday, potentially ordinary scenes that is belied by her facility in paint. The physicality of the medium as employed by James’ is reminiscent of Lucian Freud (“She lathers and slathers on the paint with a kind of unrestrained glee” asserts Michael Glover), and the charged nature of what she presents to us is of the same ilk. Something has just happened, or is about to happen: there’s a quietus here, portentous and mildly unnerving.
The tight compositions of figures in rooms that seem suffocating were also a factor in the many works that James made about life during COVID lockdowns: “The claustrophobia of the interior is a metaphor for that frustration of being unable to express deep feelings of creativity, or to be involved in pertinent worldly issues.”
James also offers – not about this painting specifically, but applicable here that “my over-scaling of flowers [in the wallpaper] evokes either a cloying or menacing atmosphere, both repellent and seductive.” (from here)
Shani Rhys James is originally from Australia, but has lived and worked in Wales for since 1984. A more complete history can be read here.
If I may inject a touch of subjectivity, with the disclaimer that my mind often goes to dark places: when looking upon James’ people, I was reminded of an exchange in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, where the painter Dan McRaith finally shares some of his work with the main character Morag Dunn. McRaith figures, in the Gunn’s initial response, have ‘eyes [that] seem distanced, distorted–no, not distorted; the flesh mirrors the spirit’s pain, a greater pain than the flesh even if burned could feel. A grotesquerie of a woman, ragged plaid-shawled, eyes only unbelieving empty sockets, mouth open in a soundless cry that might never end, and in the background, a burning croft. Morag turns and looks at him, after looking at this last painting. “The dispossessed.”’
“Shani Rhys James is arguably the most exciting and successful Welsh painter of her generation. Her considerable reputation, both in Wales and beyond, continues to grow apace. She has exhibited with Martin Tinney Gallery since 1993 and subsequently her work has appeared in exhibitions throughout Britain and mainland Europe. William Packer, the distinguished art critic, has spoken of her as a painter of remarkable power, whose paintings are as convincing as anything currently being produced in Britain.” (from here, where you can see more of her fine works and learn about her many accomplishments)
Shani Rhys James’ site is here. She can be found on IG here.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More