Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Time is Now: Revisiting The Women’s Convention in the Context of an Anthology about Feminist Art



“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” ~ Paul Robeson

In Feminism and Art History Now: Radical Critiques of Theory and Practice (I.B. Tauris, 2017), edited by Victoria Horne and Lara Perry, one of the points of discussion in a conversation between Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry is the opting out of feminism by female artists. Some artists will concede to being a feminist but will not take on the label of feminist artist, even when their subject matter is women. Some of them are closet feminists, Dimitrakaki’s term for those who steer clear of politics in art to protect their professional status. Whatever the motivations, opting out is a tendency that has been on my mind since I wrote a text for a forthcoming publication about deceased Canadian painter, Eleanor Mackey, who eschewed the ‘f word’ despite clearly articulating her concern for women’s rights and despite being active in left-wing politics generally. I focussed on her life during the Second Wave of feminism, and over half a century later, I find myself wondering if she would take a different approach were she alive today. I dedicate this post to her.

Attention is commanded by the cover design of Feminism and Art History Now. Against a background of faint brushstrokes, the whole title appears in gray letters except the word ‘now,’ which is emphasized by red type. Conveying a sense of urgency, it seemed suitable reading for the road trip back from the inaugural Women’s Convention (Oct. 27-29) in Detroit, Michigan. The convention, which was hosted by the Women’s March, was a call to action with the theme, Reclaiming our Time. Rather than summarize each of the essays as I set out to do initially, I will tie them back to the convention and by extension, the problems beyond the gallery system. The reason is that blogging about feminist art without acknowledging pressing issues for women feels like more than a luxury; it feels like a version of opting out.


Part I. Writing | Speaking | Storytelling

In “An Unfinished Revolution in Art Historiography, or How to Write a Feminist Art History,” Victoria Horne and Amy Tobin write of the importance of coming together in British feminist art history. The collective model (think consciousness raising sessions) has provided a safe place to unpack ideas outside of mainstream institutions. The problem is that early iterations focussed on gender-based oppression at the expense of other concerns like oppression based on race and class. This essay prompted me to remember the opening and closing remarks of the convention. A collective spirit was fostered from its onset, when activist Rosa Clemente asked audience members to stand (literally) with those who had loved ones in Puerto Rico, still in a state of devastation after Hurricane Maria; the projection of the crowd, numbering in the thousands, showed strangers placing their hands on the shoulders of one such woman. In the closing remarks, national co-chair for the Women’s March, Tamika Mallory observed that she had not necessarily found feminist gatherings to feel safe in the past and she thanked women of color for attending the convention. She revealed that she felt very conflicted by the disproportionate representation of women of color in the march in the days leading up to the largest known single-day protest in American history. Mallory cautions against splintering off within the movement and reminded the audience that collectively, “we are able to pull together our resources.”

In “I Want a Dyke for President: Sounding out Zoe Leonard’s Manifesto for Art History’s Feminist Futures,” Laura Guy analyses artist Zoe Leonard’s imploring speech for more diversified leadership in the UK. Because Leonard lists attributes associated with lack of privilege, I thought of an eye-opening exercise in the convention in which audience members called out all the ways they were ‘have nots,’ followed by all the ways they were ‘haves.’ For example, access to health insurance was identified by conference participants, and it was also identified by Leonard. Although Leonard has never identified the text as a manifesto, Guy notes that it has a manifesto-like quality because it projects into the future based on current circumstances. Reading this, my mind flashed back to a speech-writing workshop I attended at the convention. One woman’s contribution was, “I want to live in a world where when I say I’m dating someone new, the first thing people ask isn’t, ‘Who is he?’” This “politics of futurity” as Guy puts it, became contagious, appearing in other sample speeches. Leonard sees the text as a template to be co-opted, and I’m surprised that there wasn’t a pop-up reenactment at the convention.

“Our Stories are Our Life Blood: Indigenous Feminist Memory and Storytelling as Strategy for Social Change,” is written by artist, Cherry Smiley, who is from the Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) and DinĂ© (Navajo) Nations. Because one of the first works she describes is about the Indian Act in Canada, I recalled the opening prayer at the convention. This Canadian prayer-song about missing and murdered aboriginal women was led by Indigenous women from various tribes and nations (Sarah Eagle Heart, who is Lakota from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; Anathea Chino from Ana Pueblo, New Mexico; Gina Jackson, Western Shoshone, Te-Moak band, Nevada; Jennifer Fairbanks, Piikani and Anishinaabe from Montana; and Ali Young, who is Navajo). As the audience sung along, initially I thought of an Indigenous student of mine whose sister was almost abducted in Canada, and then I thought of the late Annie Pootoogook, whose suspicious death in September 2016 is still under investigation. Smiley relates Indigenous storytelling to Second Wave consciousness-raising. She finds that storytelling allows her to imagine a world free of systemic oppression. There is power in remembering, Smiley says, in feeling the strength bestowed by one’s ancestors and in counteracting forced identities with one’s own constructed identity. As Carla Storry Read, Principal & Executive Coach at Reed & Associates, stated at the convention, “Own your own narrative.”


Part II. Visibility | Intervention | Refusal

In “Making Visible Lee Krasner’s Occupation: Feminist Art Historiography and the Pollock-Krasner Studio,” Andrew Hardman considers the reinscribing of gender norms at the historic site of the house and barn studio in Long Island once shared by Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. Hardman observes that Krasner’s domestic responsibilities and/or proclivities compete with her artistic accomplishments through the emphasis of certain spaces and artifacts over others. The fact that I came away their gift shop with a spider plant descendent of Krasner’s own spider plant supports this perspective. Although Krasner doesn’t make me think of anything in particular at the convention, the fact that the author is one of two male contributors to the publication made me think of the dearth of men at the convention. Only one man, Abdul El-Sayed—who is running for Governor of Detroit—was slated as a speaker. Actually, Bernie Sanders was also scheduled but he withdrew due to a scheduling conflict and some surmise, due to controversy. (This is an oversimplification, but the controversy would akin to women being offended that I have begun this post with a quotation from a man). In the audience, there was a smattering of men, which led to some noteworthy interactions. For example, when people divided into caucuses based on state, a man came right out and asked if men were welcome. The answer was affirmative.

Giovanna Zapperi’s “Challenging Feminist Art History: Carla Lonzi’s Divergent Paths” examines an Italian art critic and later feminist who was on the fringes of both categories. Her interest was in inserting the self in feminist writing. In interviewing artists for her 1969 publication, Autoritratto, she probed not just their opinions about the art world, but also their views on politics. Additionally, she included personal photos of interviewees and she wrote about details of their personal lives. This made me think of one of my favorite breakout sessions, Speechwriting the Resistance. Professional speechwriters Kate Childs Graham and Clare Doody walked the audience through how to structure a personal story to use in a speech, by monitoring qualities like humility and brevity. With a tag team approach that maintained momentum, they explained that “statistics stick in your head but stories stick in your heart.”

I now return briefly to Dimitrakaki and Perry since their dialogue ends Part II. In the dialogue entitled, “This Moment: A Dialogue on Particpation, Refusual and History Making,” Perry suggests seeing reluctant feminists as allies and striving for empathy rather than feeling distressed about their choices. This recommendation caused me to think of another favorite breakout session, Becoming an Effective Ally: An Interactive Workshop, facilitated by Whitney Parnell, CEO of the the nonpartisan organization, Service Never Sleeps. She promoted allyship as a lifestyle, whether it’s navigating uncomfortable discussions at a family dinner or staging an intervention on public transit to shut down sexual harassment. She gave tangible advice, much of it involving empathy, for connecting with those who have opted out via a neutral stance; those whose opinions are not in alignment with your own but are not completely opposite (what Sally Kohn called “the moveable middle” in another excellent session); and those whose whose opinions are oppositional to your own.


Part III. Spatiality | Occupation | Home

Elle Krasny’s “The Salon Model: The Conversational Complex” looks at how curated conversations developed alongside exhibitions in modern Berlin and Vienna. In bourgeois homes, salons were frequented by both genders, but they were facilitated by women and they became a venue for creativity to women who were denied creative outlets elsewhere. She argues that the idea of conversation as an art form was quashed by men because it depended on multiple voices and therefore conflicted with the concept of individual genius. This made me think of the plurality of voices at the convention, not just among the speakers, but among the audience. I was surprised by the number of facilitators who paused their presentations to ask participants to communicate with the person beside them. In the first breakout session I attended, the hierarchy normally associated with conferences was obliterated in a touching moment of spontaneity. A single facilitator, Cathy McNally, had several empty chairs beside her onstage, which would have accommodated a traditional panel. When the room became packed, rather than turn people away, she invited several of them to take a seat onstage. Even with her back turned to them, as she was standing in front, she gave them the opportunity to speak when she offered up the mic to the audience in the final stage of what teachers call ‘think, pair, share.’

Hannah Hamblin’s “Los Angeles, 1972/ Glasgow, 1990: A Report on Castlemilk Womanhouse” examines installations about women’s relationship to the home and complimentary workshops for women and children, both held in a tenement building. Castlemilk Womanhouse was a project conducted by Women in Profile, a feminist arts group, as an homage to Womanhouse, a student installation in a California mansion spearheaded by Judy Chicago. The Second Wave feminist artist was unimpressed and seemed to regard the Glasgow Womanhouse as an act of appropriation that diminished authorship. However, as Hamblin shows, the artists did not make a derivative work. Plus, they were able to take Womanhouse to a new level by working more collectively and avoiding the top-down model that Chicago had used, and by broadening their concept of feminism to account for class-based oppression and not just gender-based oppression. This made me think of the closing plenary of the convention, when National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Executive Director Donnell R. White said of the importance of intersectional feminism to different demographic groups, “You can’t extract one from the other.”

Kristen Lloyd’s “If You Lived Here...: A Case Study on Social Reproduction in Feminist Art History” is about Martha Rosler’s 1989 exhibition—actually, exhibitions (plural), and associated programming—at the Dia Art Foundation’s Manhattan gallery. In this commentary on gentrification and homelessness, Rosler refrained from sugarcoating the situation; one wall quotes the mayor saying people should move if they can’t afford to live there. Because Rosler collaborated with so many individuals and organizations in an activist manner, If You Lived Here... defied categorization. Lloyd notes that as a result, it has been written out of art history—including feminist art history—until recently. This essay made me think of Detroit, with its swaths of uninhabitable housing, as the site for the convention. In the opening remarks, Michigan Women’s March Michigan president and founder, Phoebe Hobbs, says, “Detroit defies narratives. Detroit is strong and fragile and complex and fierce....We’ve got every ugly flavor of injustice that America has to offer. But above all, we are fighters.”


Part IV. Temporality | Ghosts | Returns

In “Temporalities of the Feminaissance,” Francesco Ventrella bemoans the trope of “progress, loss and return” that is applied to female artists. The urge to portray women artists as being in the shadows before finally being discovered is expressed by academics, journalists, and curators alike. An example is the Venice Biennale (2005), entitled Always a Little Further. Based on its title alone, it privileged the new over the old and put a high premium on progress. In looking at Italian exhibitions, she finds context is often missing. Artists are presented in a void, without connections across space or time. I admit that I have found it challenging when lecturing to move past the default narrative of the underdog woman artist. My justification for perpetuating the narrative was that glossing over their erasure and focussing only on their accomplishments doesn’t push against systemic oppression. I began to reconsider this conundrum when I attended the breakout session, Build Her Up; Don’t Tear Her Down: Avoiding Standing in Our Own Way. Car designer and Michigan senate candidate, Mallory McMorrow, recalls her interactions as an award-winner with the press. Rather than being asked about her work, she was asked about her gender, and it hit me how dismissive this approach can be.

Kimberly Lamm’s “Gestures of Inclusion, Bodily Damage and the Hauntings of Exploitation in Global Feminisms (2007)” looks at the Brooklyn Museum’s blockbuster feminist show, curated by Linda Nochlin, who died recently, and Maura Reilly. In spite of an transnational focus, hauntingly, it reinforced colonial stereotypes. For example, the catalogue begins with a juxtaposition of two images: Tracey Rose’s Ciao Bella Ms Cast: Venus Baartman and Adrienne Marie-Louise Grandpierre-Deverzy’s The Studio of Abel de Pujol. The first is a photo of the black artist as a seemingly savage women naked in the wilderness. The second is a painting of seemingly civilized white people (specifically, women in a painting class taught by a man, who was the artist’s husband). One of the most memorable #metoo stories shared at the convention was from Piper Carter, the first black female photographer for Vogue. She recalled being thrown down on a hotel bed containing her negatives by her boss and having to continue working with him. She shared that this was but one of many personal examples, and she expressed that there is a tradition of black women’s bodies being seen as there for the taking. “If you complain,” she says, “you are the one with a problem.” Thus, the convention’s goal of “centering the most marginalized voices,” as she articulated it, is critical.

In Catherine Grant’s “Learning and Playing: Re-enacting Feminist Histories,” she explores two works of art that exemplify Berthold Brecht’s concept of the ‘learning play,’ which involved activities preceding and succeeding the play itself. One is Killjoy Castle, by Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell, which was exhibited in Toronto, where they live. The campy lesbian funhouse was later referenced in the UK through a film and an installation of gravestones memorializing defunct feminist organizations made in collaboration with the curator. The other work is a tribute by Olivia Plender and Hester Reeve to the little known Emily Davidson Lodge, from c. 1940. In a zine, they note that they have reinstated the organization. Among the few details that are known, which were corroborated by Grant, as outlined in her play-by-play research quest: it commemorated a suffragette and members attended to “the needs of the hour.” My takeaway, given that Grant identifies Brecht’s interest as revealing change and the potential for change, is that feminism is constantly evolving and many initiatives will fade into memory, making it all the more important to document diligently. A photograph showing the tombstones from Mitchell and Logue memorialize, among other things, a march, which is my segue to say that I hope the details I’ve shared in this post will contribute in some way to the understanding of Reclaiming our Time organized by the Women’s March.

In the printed programme for the convention, a quotation from Paul Robeson caught my eye: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” When one is a gatekeeper (and in the library world that I inhabit, it’s a term that is applied frequently), there is a sense of obligation. There is simply no opting out.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

For Freedoms Immigration Town Hall at MOCA Cleveland

“...we are powerful together.” ~ Navid Tavoli



On Sunday September 17, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland hosted the first in a four-part series of For Freedoms town halls. Each of the town halls will focus on one of President Roosevelt’s inalienable rights* and this particular one explored freedom from fear through the lens of immigrants’ experiences. Panelists onstage included Leen Midani, who is originally from Syria; Glory Bisett, who is originally from the Congo; Hany ElHibir, who was born in Kuwait and who lived in multiple countries before the US; Navid Tavoli, who is oringally from Iran; and Murat Gurer, who is originally from Turkey. Panelist Abraham Cruzvillegas, who hails from Mexico, was seated front row center in the audience. Jorge Sanchez, who immigrated from Colombia, was the moderator.

For Freedoms bills itself as the “first ever artist-run Super PAC.” It is the brainchild of artists, Hank Willis Thomas (who introduced Sunday’s town hall along with Dan Moulthrop of the City Club, a partner for the event) and Eric Gottesman. The approach, called the Question Bridge—which Thomas introduced at a discussion involving African American men at the Cleveland Museum of Art (shout out to my new workplace!)—involves only taking questions from audience members who identify directly with the main speakers. At the MOCA, those who didn’t self-identify as immigrants were asked to refrain from asking questions. When trying to decide whether to attend the event, I mulled over the approach. I will admit to having felt a slight pang. I thought, “But I’ve volunteered with immigrants. What if I had something to contribute?”. However, reflecting on the television show, Dear White People, whose main character is a captivating radio host, I could see that having the mic completely out of the hands of those in power can be eye-opening, and that the Question Bridge was a reasonable way to subvert marginalization.

There was a time lag before I realized that I am more immigrant than non-immigrant, because I live the US on a non-immigrant visa that can entail the intent to immigrate. That I didn’t realize my own arguable eligibility to participate in the discussion reveals my privilege (as a Caucasian person from Canada). I pass for an American and home is a day’s drive away. What do I know of being restricted by the Muslim ban, having a bystander not help during a medical crisis because of racism, or being a victim of war—heartbreaking stories about which the panelists shared? Nothing. To say that I am immune to fear, though, would be inaccurate. Earlier this week, I had a dream that I was killed deliberately for my political beliefs. But dreams and waking life are apples and oranges; actually, an entirely new metaphor is needed because they are so disparate. Sanchez notes that that “picking one’s battles is a luxury.”

Thomas aims to “bring people together through what divides us.” It’s a noble goal, and the personal accounts shared by the panelists could melt the iciest of hearts, but only if they are heard. Midani says, “...we can’t run away from these topics,” but it seems that many people do just that, refusing to see that as Bisett says, “The US is for everybody.” Moulthrop recognized the value in having immigrants remind non-immigrants of fundamental rights. ElHibir shared an anecdote about not knowing which box to check on an immigration form to indicate his ethnicity, because he didn’t feel that any of them were the right fit; these are the types of details that someone who has lived here for a long time might not twig to without hearing it from a newcomer. Still, if the audience was filled with immigrants and pro-immigrant citizens, as I imagine was the case, does an event like this effectively preach to the converted? Gurer advised against “stay[ing] in your own corner and complain[ing].” Does an event like this perpetuate the corner or does it become a non-corner by virtue of the institutional connection? MOCA Deputy Director, Megan Lykins Reich, spoke of providing a “safe space” for these discussions, to bring the community together. As Tavoli said, “...we are powerful together.” The content was raw, and I imagine there weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the audience, but there was certainly laughter, affirmative snapping, and applause in response to the panelists’ spirited determination.

Because For Freedoms has also conducted activities that dovetail more with the traditional programming of galleries, such as participating in exhibitions and performances, I found myself wondering if the role of art would surface in the discussion. Although it did not, I understand that this was addressed in a For Freedoms town hall that took place last November, three days before the federal election. At any rate, it got me thinking about the radical Marxist perspective that making art about social justice is too removed and that it’s preferable (probably too gentle of a term) to be an activist rather than an artist-activist. Degrees of removal have been on my mind since I wrote a catalog essay about the fable-inspired drawings of animals by Canadian artist, Amanda Burk, for her solo show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The artist identified concerns with American politics as a motivating factor in her work, and I explored the connection head-on. Fables have been palatable historically because of their distance from the issue at hand, and there’s something to be said for using whatever tools will elicit a response. On the other hand, there’s also merit to dealing as directly as possible with a subject, even if the connection to an institution’s mandate might seem tenuous. Just as Sanchez emphasized that there is no right way to be an immigrant, there is no right way to be an artist.

*in addition to freedom from fear, these include freedom from want, freedom of speech and freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cameron Armstrong at Ferneyhough Contemporary

“Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie...” ~ Patti Smith

Cameron Armstrong, my fellow White Water Gallery board member over the past year, died unexpectedly in March at the age of 47, shortly before his solo show was scheduled to open at Ferneyhough Contemporary in North Bay, Ontario. The family’s wish was for over over (April 1-19) to proceed—an excellent choice and a fitting tribute, judging by the nearly impenetrable crowd at the opening.

Gallerist Joan Ferneyhough describes Armstrong’s style as a “layered approach” involving “several ongoing images.” (1) In 2007, Armstrong explained that his work features a combination of graphic and painterly imagery, with the former acting as a counterpoint. (2) To elaborate, typically in Armstrong’s paintings, the majority of the canvas is consumed by a close-up of a face, an object or objects (sometimes a still life), or a scene from nature. These dominant images tend to be rendered in grey and white or an understated combination of colours, in a painterly style reminiscent of Gerhard Richter. The muted palette and loose application of paint infuse his work with an ephemeral quality. The dominant images “reveal themselves slowly,” says Ferneyhough. They feel like they could dissolve if it weren’t for the presence of virtual anchors. Functioning as anchors—or perhaps ‘stabilizers’ is a better term—are tag-like markings; scribbles; dribbled paint (evocative of abstract expressionism); lines (both diagrammatic lines and those that feel excerpted from hard edge painting); cartoon-like elements; and representational images, such as a contoured crowd scene recalling Peter Max’s Yellow Submarine illustrations. Ferneyhough says, “It’s like he had this mental stockpile of images from 70s television and he continually drew from that.”

Also in 2007, Armstrong noted that the anchoring elements were the starting point for his work. (3) Although they are small, they feel like they have elbowed their way to the surface of the painting. Compared to the larger image consuming the majority of the canvas, they appear more finished, with thick outlines and punchy contrast. Because of placement and finish, they push the focal point backward, and what might otherwise be considered the foreground becomes the background. Meanwhile, because the largest image is depicted close-up, three-dimensionality gives way to two-dimensionality, compromising the recession of space. Effectively, Armstrong collapses the picture planes, continuing the cubists’ quest from over a century ago in a most intriguing manner.

Art historical connections date back much farther than last century. Like marginalia on illuminated Medieval manuscripts, these “‘pseudo abstract’ portions emerging from the sides” (4) as Armstrong described them, act as curious interjections. For example, Ferneyhough says of the tag-like elements in Armstrong’s paintings, they prevent the work from becoming “too precious.” Having lived with a painting of Armstrong’s for the past decade—a sideways portrait of Patti Smith (who was a key influence for Armstrong)—I have found the visual anchors to be a source of constant surprise. When I try to picture the work precisely, inevitably, some detail eludes me. I suspect it’s because the multiple components compete for my attention when viewing the work and the multiple components compete with my memory later on. The inability to keep the entire work in my mind’s eye is a metaphor for the glut of images we encounter in the era of Pinterest. On a more somber note, it speaks to the role of memory in grief. When I was working at WWG and Armstrong’s father died, I shared with the artist how surprisingly vivid my dreams were of my deceased father, and I let Armstrong know that I wished the same for him. Vivid, precise: if only they were one and the same. But to quote Smith, “Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie nor retrieve a dusty spur, but we can gather the dream itself and bring it back uniquely whole.” (5)

Recently, the artist had revealed to WWG director, Serena Kataoka that he was experimenting with reversing his process. (6) One can assume that he meant the equivalent of swapping ‘bring to front’ with ‘send to back,’ in Adobe Photoshop parlance. Whether the totality of images in a single work was planned in advance throughout his oeuvre, Ferneyhough says, “I suspect that he let the paintings take him where they wanted.” Where this new approach would have taken him, unfortunately, we can only imagine.

The closing date has been extended to April 22.

Images:

Armstrong in his studio, 2004. Courtesy of Liz Lott.

The Viewmaster General, 2014, oil on panel, 42 x 42 inches. Courtesy of Ferneyhough Contemporary.

Sources:

(1) All quotations of Joan Ferneyhough: personal communication, 8 April, 2017.
(2) “Close your eyes around me” statement, Oct. 2007. Although Armstrong states that this is his approach from that point in time onwards, these statements arguably apply to previous works as well.
(3) A Retrospective of North Bay and Surrounding Areas, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=00000300&sl=9707&pos=1
(4) Ibid.
(5) Smith, Patti. M Train, 2016, p. 251.
(6) Kataoka, Serena. Personal communication, 10 April, 2017.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Queens Museum


“...Ukeles prompts us to critique ourselves...”



For quite some time, I’ve been meaning to write about Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art at the Queens Museum (Sept. 18 2016 to Feb. 19 2017). However, with being appointed Director of the Ingalls Library at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I’ve been sidetracked by the visa process, packing, seeking accommodations, etc. (the mundanity of which makes me think of Ukeles, who highlights labor and everyday concerns in her work). One of many appealing aspects of the CMA for me personally is its founding mission to serve all people, demonstrated by temporary initiatives like partnering with public transit during last year’s centennial celebrations as well as the ongoing policy of free admission. Thus, I was duly impressed that the Queens Museum offered free admission to current and past employees of the New York Department of Sanitation and their families for the duration of Ukeles’ retrospective.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Touch Sanitation Performance, 1977-80
"Handshake Ritual" with workers of New York City Department of Sanitation
color photograph
60 x 90 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

The connection to the Department of Sanitation is that Ukeles has been artist in residence there for almost 40 years. She is perhaps best known for a performance coordinated with them, involving all the “sanmen” in New York City. A dot matrix printout at the Queens Museum conveys her intent with this pivotal work, Touch Sanitation (1979-80): “For eleven months, I circled the city to face and shake hands with, and thank every sanitation worker, hoping to create a vision of the[ir] endless work energy...” Works like this or her ‘ballets’—which feature heavy machinery moving like synchronized swimmers (diggers bow to the audience!)—might seem merely celebratory in isolation. However, Ukeles has also exposed society’s dismissive attitude towards sanitation workers, making her exploration more nuanced. Initially on a gallery window and later at the Queens Museum via archival material, she shared a selection of derogatory comments sanitation workers had been on the receiving end of, including racial slurs, curse words, class-based slights, and comparisons of sanitation workers to refuse. She looks at the labor of not just sanitation workers, but also of other undervalued laborers like museum security guards and mothers. Ultimately, Ukeles prompts us to critique ourselves, and since society is slow to move beyond stereotypes, it gives her work a timeless quality (especially now, with frequent discussions about classism in the US). From a contemporary perspective, this evaluation of the self and of society is more unsettling than reconsidering what constitutes art. As context, in her 1969 manifesto, she committed to highlighting unglorified activities—many of them household chores—and “flush[ing] them up to consciousness, [by] exhibit[ing] them, as Art.” (1) Perhaps unsurprisingly, she thought of Marcel Duchamp as a grandfather. (2)

The exhibition, curated by Larissa Harris and Patricia C. Phillips, features works from 1962 to 2016 and is the first show of its size at the museum. Much has been written about this riveting exhibition, so I’ll focus on her early feminist work.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, 1973
Queens Museum Installation, 2016
black and white photos mounted on foam core with chain and dust rag
55 x 42 1/4 inches
Photo: Megan Paetzhold
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

In the spirit of social realist photography, Ukeles used the camera to underscore the challenges of being a mother and an artist. And, as many feminist artists did, she turned the lens on herself to embrace the personal as political. Another contemporary spin on social realism was adding a performative element that evolved into participatory art. The series entitled matter-of-factly, Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In (1973), documents the artist assisting her children; significantly, Ukeles is cropped partly or completely out of many of the images, referencing the invisible nature of much of mothering labor. Maintenance Art: Personal Time Studies (1973), meanwhile, shows how integrated mothering is with art-making: in this textual record of Ukeles’ daily activities, like a pendulum swinging, she describes her child’s bowel movement, then turns her attention to a woodcut, then nurses her child, then chooses an image for an exhibition catalogue, and then visits the playground. The boundary between her art about domestic labor and her art about sanitation is sometimes blurred. For instance, in Maintenance Art Event XI: “Washing” (1974), the act of her cleaning the sidewalk outside of the feminist gallery, A.I.R., then based in Manhattan, alludes to the tendency for women to do the lion’s share of housework in that era as much as it references the act of keeping public spaces clean. In all of the documentation images of this performance, her poses are utilitarian instead of distorted for male pleasure, and in shots containing male onlookers, they appear to be transfixed by her labor rather than her body. These images contrast how women had been objectified traditionally in art, yet an element of inequality lurks because of her laboring amidst those who are at rest. Similarly, in one of the images from Washing/ Tracks/ Maintenance: Inside (1973), she scrubs the floors of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut on all fours, at the base of an ancient marble statue of a female nude (Venus with Nymph and Satyr by Pietro Francavilla, 1600), juxtaposing realism and idealism; the nude Venus figure clutches fabric to create a pleasant effect of drapery pulled across her figure, while Ukeles, dressed in a simple t-shirt and pants, clutches a cloth to clean the floor. Ukeles is not fetishizing labor, Helen Molesworth clarifies (3), as with her avoidance of mere celebration in her ballets and Touch Sanitation. The sincerity of her virtually crying out to make women‘s labor visible compels the audience to take note.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Washing, June 13, 1974
In front of the A.I.R gallery on Wooster Street Soho
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance (Inside), 1973
Part of Maintenance Art performance series, 1973-1974
Performance at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

The catalogue, published by DelMonico Books·Prestel, contains an introduction by Laura Raicovich (President and Executive Director, Queens Museum) as well as essays by both of the curators and Lucy R. Lippard (who curated Ukeles into an important conceptual art exhibition in 1973, c. 7, 500), plus interviews by Tom Finkenpearl (past President and Executive Director, Queens Museum) with the Department of Sanitation commissioners. Also included are writings by Ukeles, a selected work history, selected bibliography, and a wide assortment of high quality images.

(1) Phillips, Patricia C, Mierle Ukeles, Tom Finkelpearl, Larissa Harris, and Lucy R. Lippard. Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, 2016. New York: Queen's Museum and Munich: DelMonico Books·Prestel, p. 211.
(2) Phillips, Patricia C, Mierle Ukeles, Tom Finkelpearl, Larissa Harris, and Lucy R. Lippard. Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, 2016. New York: Queen's Museum and Munich: DelMonico Books·Prestel, p. 30.
(3) Molesworth, Helen. "House Work and Art Work." October, no. 92, Spring 2000, pp. 71-97.