BY Juan Hugo in Reviews | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Division of Labor:'Women's Work' in Contemporary Art

BY Juan Hugo in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

They got to learn to use tools and make wooden pencil holders and metal paper bag sorters. We got to learn the mysteries of the sewing machine and the oven and made jumpers and tapioca pudding. They had Shop; we had Home Economics. Biology dictated academic destiny. Though 'progressive' schools tried to maintain an ungendered practice - and in pre-school/kindergarten, everyone got to finger-paint and glue glitter on macaroni - the old dichotomy still plagues us. Nature or nurture? Are we essentially or culturally determined? Or both?

You won't find much elucidation of these issues in the 'Division of Labor...' exhibition at MoCA via the Bronx Museum of Arts. First, there's the problem of the title. While intended to refer to gender-based practices, it borrows a well-established phrase that describes methods germane to the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, where manufacture was divided into separate tasks meted out to different workers in a Taylorist strategy designed to increase productivity. It's a phrase that's still rhetorically loaded, and, to my mind at least, clouds the issue.

The subtitle, '"Women's Work" in Contemporary Art', is not much help either. It evokes the full gamut of domestic skills - managing a household, educating children, overseeing health and safety, balancing the budget, attending to ecological issues and taking the car in for a lube job. Instead, the show's premise limits itself to a narrowly defined notion of process - viz. sewing, stitching, crocheting, embroidering, knitting, weaving, appliqué, quilting - what some have called women's 'white work' - along with cleaning, laundering, baking, cooking, motherhood, and the construction of household altars. An essentialist concept of domesticity hovers over the show, never clearly spelled out but implicit in both the inclusions and exclusions.

Among the missing: Helen and Newton Harrison, Nancy Buchanan, Rachel Rosenthal, Suzanne Lacey, Barbara Smith, Leslie Labowitz, Cheri Gaulke, Hannah Wilke, Eleanor Antin, Muriel Magenta, Annette Messager, and a score of others. And what about Claes Oldenburg's early soft sculptures, sewn by his first wife, Patti? Or Betye Saar, whose work has included handkerchiefs and sequin/beadwork by Haitian artists? Perhaps the most curious omission is the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Although film footage documenting its ongoing fabrication was shown, its display would have provided an interesting pendant to the 1973 film by Johanna Demetrakas documenting Womanhouse.

Womanhouse grew out of Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro's Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1971-72. In addition to consciousness-raising sessions and interaction with other feminist artists in the Los Angeles area, the project involved renovating a dilapidated bungalow in Hollywood over a period of several months, then creating site-specific installations and performance work relating to women's roles and activities, radically transforming a conventional domestic setting. In so doing, the students learned skills traditionally ascribed to men (construction, plumbing, painting). In addition to the film, several of the installations have been reconstructed, including Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom (1972, remade 1994-95), with its panoply of feminine hygiene products, soiled tampons and sanitary napkins set in a bathroom of blinding clinical whiteness and viewed through a white scrim. 'Why?' exclaimed one bewildered male viewer. The piece remains effective, it seems.

What the exhibition does attend to are two issues vital to any discussion of feminist/post-feminist art: the exclusionary attitudes prevalent, early in the movement, which proclaimed men the enemy; and the difficulty encountered in bridging class and race. Early feminists were perceived, despite the rhetoric about empowerment, as privileged, middle-class white women. While women of colour were never intentionally excluded, there were seemingly unbridgeable gulfs.

The earliest work in this exhibition is Yayoi Kusama's obsessive sculpture from 1962 of common objects covered with phallic protuberances of stuffed fabric. The majority of the works date from the 90s. Over the course of slightly more than three decades spanned by the show, it is possible to observe significant changes. There are Asians, African-Americans and Latinos in the show. And, for reasons to which I am not privy, several Germans. One, Oliver Herring, knits mylar strips into surprisingly compelling coats and coverlets displayed on the floor like trophy skins. A video of his disembodied hands laboriously winding strips over the knitting needles accompanies the installation. On the other hand, the inclusion of Rosemarie Trockel, whose work, along with Jim Isermann's, engages issues relating to abstract painting, semiology, (and in Isermann's case, kitsch) seems oddly out of place; an example of form over content.

One of the lessons of feminist art is that you don't have to be big to be strong. Case in point: Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody's Dollhouse (1972), in which surreal mini-dramas of domestic tranquillity and unnameable terror commingle in each room. Or Pat Lasch, whose fastidious memorabilia borrow a miniaturised vocabulary of the pastry chef. Another is the work of Joyce Scott, who works with leather and beads to fashion diminutive figurative vignettes which imply full-blown narratives. In No Mommy Me II (1991), for example, she depicts a black nanny who cossets a white child while her own sits forlorn at the hem of her skirt. It speaks volumes.

Of the 36 artists, 8 are men. Their inclusion is crucial because it repositions the idea of 'women's work'. What is posited, finally, is a sensibility, an aesthetic, which is no longer exclusionary. But this is hardly news. This is ultimately a disappointing show, despite the overall excellence of the work, because it eschews issues which have dominated post-feminist, gay, and ethnic practice in recent years - like the discourse of the body and identity politics - and because its narrow focus makes it unable to meaningfully serve as a foil to exhibitions like 'Black Male...'. It is probably unfair to fault an exhibition for not being something it did not set out to be. But as recent and continued efforts to dismantle affirmative action indicate, we must constantly reclaim the same ground. 'Division of Labor' is not at the barricades.