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Issue 46 May 1999 RSS

Mimi Smith

Anna Kustera Gallery, New York, USA

Mimi Smith is best known for her clothing pieces made in the early 60s. Steel Wool Peignoir (1966), a see-through dressing gown luxuriously trimmed with thick rolls of steel wool and lace, was an early example of a literalist form of slapstick humour deployed by Feminist artists of the 70s. So too was Maternity Dress (1966), a silver-vinyl micro-mini worthy of Edie Sedgwick, complete with a see-through plastic moulded dome that fits over the belly. Although both works provoke a kind of dopey, out-loud laughter, responses to them provided early indications of social analyses of Feminist art. Both works expose the complicated dichotomous relationships between public and private, work and leisure that shape women’s roles in patriarchal culture - no sex without cleaning up, no youth culture without mommies. These pieces were also prescient in their acknowledgement that fashion is part of what helps to construct women’s individual and social identities.

Smith’s Recycle Coat (1965), made from the kind of plastic wrapping that packages paper napkins and toilet paper, suggested that bound up in the vagaries of ever-changing fashions were possibilities for renewal and self-fashioning, as well as frivolous and conspicuous waste. But like Steel Wool Peignoir, this coat again implicated the structural relationships between the traditional women’s work of cleaning, shopping, and maintaining the home, and the necessities and luxuries that such labours make possible.

Lesser known are Smith’s ‘Knotted Thread Works’ from the 70s. In these pieces Smith made scale wall drawings of all of the rooms in her home, along with their various pieces of furniture (the kitchen and the bedroom were on view here). Furniture and architectural features such as doors and windows are outlined with tape measures, marking the precise dimensions of each piece. The interior elements - dresser drawers, hob, refrigerator handles - are all fashioned with thread that has been knotted so repeatedly it appears to be rigid. The individual pieces are subsequently arranged on the gallery walls in a ghostly replication of the rooms of the house.

These works have a curious subtlety - not visually overwhelming but spatially quite complicated in the way in which the objects are rendered simultaneously flat and oddly vertiginous. They never appear fully three dimensional, although look as if they’re about to pitch outwards into the space of the viewer. The curious perspectival and visual tricks of the work evoke the consummate concerns of post 1945 art: gestalt; the classic issue of figure and ground; the problematic flatness in Modernist painting (particularly in its Greenbergian formation), and the obsessional character of much Conceptual art. That Smith chose to situate her work in this intellectual playing field has been consistently overlooked. As with many Feminist artists of her generation, the work tends to be discussed purely in terms of its domestic content. Obviously, this content is there: everyday household objects are used to re-articulate ideas about domesticity. But to focus solely on this aspect is to neglect Smith’s involvement in the more general concerns of Conceptual art: the relationship, for example, of her wall drawings to those of Sol Lewitt, or to Mel Bochner’s measurement paintings. This renders her work exclusively Feminist, and leaves it open to marginalisation, which in turn ignores possible discussions about the importation of extra-aesthetic content into the field of Conceptual art and, prior to that, into Modernist art practice generally.

One of the things that Smith’s ‘Knotted Thread Works’ allow us to think about is the reciprocity between kitchens and art galleries. It is important to understand that aesthetic discussions about inside and outside, flatness and depth, figure and ground might correspond to larger notions of public and private, outside and inside, gallery and home. In other words, Smith’s works, like those of many Feminist artists of her generation, ask us to consider the terms of everyday life and particularly their connection to women’s experience. However, by importing explicit content into practices that were once exclusively formal, they also ask us to try and think through shared concerns and structural relationships between art and life - as opposed to merely staging the problem as an avant-garde slogan.

Helen Molesworth

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First published in
Issue 46, May 1999

by Helen Molesworth

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