Posts tagged American Art History
FEMALE STUDY: JUDY CHICAGO'S MENSTRUATION BATHROOM
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I had known of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party piece before I moved to Brooklyn, where the installation is now housed permanently at the Brooklyn Museum. But in a classic information age fashion, I had seen The Dinner Party at The Geffen Contemporary at The MOMA in Los Angeles during the WACK! exhibition in 2008 (an exhibition that in many ways influences this periodical regularly) and had read about how important The Dinner Party was, and had learned how flawed first wave feminists were college, so I decided Judy Chicago's work passé. I admit this is a bad habit, even if I can point to it being a combined result of too much information and progress within the feminist "movement."

For those who are unfamiliar, The Dinner Party is an homage to feminist pioneers in the form of a dinner table, shaped as an equilateral triangle to (symbolize equality). Each place setting has a motif that nods to the work of the female being honored with a placemat bearing their names. No two settings are alike, but each one is very intricate.

But the other night I found an installation by Judy Chicago that I had not seen before, and given that women are just starting to talk about their periods in everyday conversation, I thought I'd discuss Judy Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom.

Chicago (born Judith Cohen in 1939) created the first feminist art collective called Feminist Arts Program, or FAP, at Fresno State (CA) in 1971. A year later, they brought the program to the California Institute of Art outside of Los Angeles.

FAP's first piece was a collaborative installation, Womanhouse, was made by various female artists. The installation was a multi-media/performance art piece where each room in an abandoned mansion on Mariposa Street in Hollywood represented different living conditions of home-makers (which lest we forget, was still very much an occupation for women in 1971). Within Womanhouse, The dilapidated house was transformed by 23 women using construction tools for the first time in their lives. As the manifesto for the installation put it, Womanhouse became "the age-old female activity of homemaking... taken to fantasy proportions."

In Womanhouse Chicago created an otherwise sterile bathroom scene with the trashcan overflowing with bloody menstruation pads and a few bloody tampons, blood stains on the tile floor, blood-drenched pads neatly hanging from a clothesline, a heating pad hanging near the toilet, and the shelves covered with sanitary products for mensuration.

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Considering how little we discuss periods today, in 1971 this was a subject that was not discussed in public whatsoever, so the shock value, as well as the statement made by this work was immense. 

During the 1970s and through the 80s, women claimed blood as an artistic symbol of femininity and feminism but until this point no one had so overtly and visually discussed menstruation. And given the bloody nature of our cycles, I think a visual representation says a lot more than words can.

Today I can look on Instagram and see thousands of visual representations of menstrual blood, as well as nipples, pubic hair, vaginas, etc. But the timeliness and straightforwardness of Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom has a much greater impact. I'm trying to imagine what society's reaction might have been like in 1972 if photographs of this installation had the ability to be distributed at the rate in which photographs are today while maintaining the shock value of this being the first time something like this hit the public eye.

Now living in "fourth-wave feminism," (oh god, they say it's hashtag feminism) sometimes I look back at first wave feminists and think them silly, but it's because it's easy for a woman my age to forget how fucking oppressed my people were just 40 years ago. I think the use of blood as a symbol of femininity is still powerful because women are depicted as delicate and sweet, but it seemed so easy to me to use the female experience in one's work. I guess it feels naive, but that's because the first feminists were just working out the ideas that I now take for granted.

In the original essay that accompanied Womanhouse, I am struck by one key point:

[At the inception of Feminist Arts Program]...the women students had spent a lot of time talking about their problems as women before they began to do any work. We wondered if those same problems could be dealt with while working on a project.

Female art students often approach artmaking with a personality structure conditioned by an unwillingness to push themselves beyond their limits; a lack of familiarity with tools and artmaking processes; an inability to see themselves as working people; and a general lack of assertiveness and ambition. The aim of the Feminist Art Program is to help women restructure their personalities to be more consistent with their desires to be artists and to help them build their artmaking out of their experiences as women. Womanhouse seemed to offer the perfect context for this educational process.

What this excerpt suggests is that in general, women in 1971 didn't see themselves in the work field, let alone the art world. I have the hindsight to know celebrated figures like Anni Albers Georgia O'Keeffe, and Eva Hesse, but beyond them, it's hard for me to name off female artists who worked before the 1960s, and yet I'm still shocked to learn this perspective of women in the 70s. 

It doesn't take a scrutinizing genius to infer that Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom came out of frustration, (I just read that the average woman undergoes menstruation over 400 times in her lifetime, and while some females are somehow lucky and experience little issue in their cycles, not even a trans woman, when she experiences the ways in which women are treated as lesser or an object, can ever know the frustrations that female born women go through with their periods), but I can only imagine what kind of frustration women must have felt during this era where we were largely still asked to stay home. Rosy the Riveter got to work during WWII but she quietly went back to childrearing and homemaking "when the boys came home."

The early feminists commonly believed that a woman's body, specifically her vagina, was her source of greatness, which later feminists brushed off as erroneous biological or genetic essentialism. But I am seeing an uptick in modern gender essentialism with the hashtag feminists. Vagina cupcakes for international women's day! Free the nipple... (but then slut shame the shivering club girl in her tube dress, fake eyelashes and cheap stilettos). Today we are all about body positivity and the desexualization of the female body. In some ways, first wave feminists were trying to do the same things, but society hadn't been primed for the discussion. The first wavers hadn't cultivated the dialogue yet, so their ideas seem rudimentary. But out of all the "feminist" artwork I see out there on social media, I can't think of anyone who's rivaled the 'in-your-face-ness' of Judy Chicago's Menstruation Bathroom.

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Also, PS Judy Chicago made a piece called Red Flag as a parody of the Red Scare (of which her father was a victim of) in 1971 that was even more in your face.

 
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Courtney Cady, © 2018



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INSTALLATION STUDY: CLAES OLDENBURG'S CONSUMER GOODS
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In elementary school I had the same art teacher from Kindergarden through the 5th grade. One year, she taught us about pop art. She told us to think of ordinary objects that we could make out of clay, so I made a glass 7 up bottle with a crack in it. (I decided since pop art was a movement from the 60s, I should do a vintage ordinary object. Plus my dad had a cool 7 up wooden crate and I wanted him to like my work, so it seemed linear at the time). The broken bottle was my favorite sculpture I ever made, but I was as terrible at glazing then as I am now, so it came out 'statue of liberty green,' leaving me slightly disappointed. This was one of my first lessons in how difficult it is to get something you see so vividly out of your head correctly.

Looking back at pop art is not always easy for me because a lot of what popularized it is really terrible in my opinion. And some of what pop artists did later in their careers (during the 90s especially) is unforgivable. But, growing up in Southern California, I've always had a thing for fake food displays, which were found at fast food restaurants like Foster's Freeze's. These little displays always seemed like accidental pop art to me.

 
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In the vein of Foster's fake food displays, while poking around on pinterest recently, a friend of mine (Dorothy Hoover) posted a picture of Claes Oldenburg's The Store. I had never heard of Claes Oldenburg, but his work caught my eye, so naturally, I began researching.

The Store, 1961-1962 First Claes Oldenburg work to catch my eye

The Store, 1961-1962
First Claes Oldenburg work to catch my eye

Claes Oldenburg was born on January 28, 1929 in Stockholm. Son of a Swedish diplomat, Oldenburg spent his early years in New York until 1936, when his family moved to Chicago. In early adulthood, Oldenburg studied literature and art history at Yale between 1946 to 1950, and continued his education back home at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1956, Oldenburg moved to New York where he worked in the library of the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. After three years of working in this enviroment, Oldenburg started to make figures, signs and sculptural objects out of papier-mâché, and everyday materials. This work led to his first exhibition, The Street in 1960-1.

 
 

The Street exhibited at the Judson Gallery (at the Judson Memorial Church, my favorite location for art in NY during the 60s and 70s). The exhibition showcased ordinary objects and everyday consumer goods made from cardboard, burlap, and newspaper that recreated scenes from street life in New York City.

Abstract Expressionists are credited for having introduced ordinary objects in their artwork beginning in the 1940s, but it wasn't until pop art hit New York that these ordinary objects were not only depicted, but they were also used as medium. During this time, Oldenburg fueled a movement that influenced other artists through the 1970s, opening up a variety of media as fair game.

The Store - First Gallery Exhibition at Green Gallery

The Store - First Gallery Exhibition at Green Gallery

In 1962, Oldenburg created my favorite exhibition, The Store, which was a comedic display of a somewhat distopic throwback to New York's Five and Dime stores where everything from mops and men's shirts, to canned foods and seasonal decor could be purchased. In a rented store front in the East Village, Oldenburg again used materials from everyday objects. 

Years after the exhibition, a compilation of Oldenberg's writings were published as Writing on the Side, including a 1961 diary entry where he discusses his concept behind The Store:

The Store, or My Store, or the Ray Gun Mfg. Co., located at 107 East 2nd St., NYC, is eighty feet long and is about ten feet wide. In the front half, it is my intention to create the environment of a store by painting and placing (hanging, projecting, lying) objects after the spirit and in the form of popular objects of merchandise, such as may be seen in store windows of the city, especially in the area where The Store is (Clinton St., for example, Delancey St., 14th St.).

This store will be constantly supplied with new objects, which I will create out of plaster and other materials in the rear half of the place. The objects will be for sale in The Store.

From the entries published in Writing on the Side, we learn that leading up to his creating The Store, he meticulously catalogued every sandwich, can of beer, box of cigarettes and brand of soap he purchased, as well as every cafe and restaurant he visited as a reference for his body of work. 

From here, Oldenberg continued to create and work with ordinary objects, making an ongoing series known as Soft Sculptures. These are some of the funniest pieces in my opinion, because with the help of his first wife, he sewed oversized everyday objects such as cake (which he hilariously calls Floor Cake), toilets, and household appliances. Considering the early 60’s was still feeling the affects of the 1950’s futuristic, perfect, automated, domestic ideologies, Oldenberg's almost grotesque, and very hand-made portrayal of these objects was a jab at the American Status Quo, and perhaps at the same time, an homage to what seemed like a dwindling way of American Life.

Around the same time that Oldenberg started making sculptures, he also participated in performance art at the Judson & then later at The Store. These performances made by pop artists were known as Happenings, and Oldenberg's particular theatre was called Ray Gun Theatre. The main idea behind pop art was to take art out of the 'white walled gallery' and 'off its pedestal;' an idea that had not yet become palatable to the everyday art lover. By turning the audience into "just another object" the performances were meant to express the frustrations artists had with the status of the art world at the time.

From the attention received between The Street, The Store, and Soft Sculptures, as well as his time working at the Judson, Oldenberg is now credited with helping create the Pop Art movement, which began in New York. But shortly after his first exhibitions, Oldenberg moved to Los Angeles in 1963, "because it was the most opposite thing to New York [he] could think of." (Funny because I left LA for NY for the exact same reason). 

 
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Once in LA, Oldenburg created a performance called AUT OBO DYS, a quintessentially Los Angeles performance done in a parking lot. After this work, Oldenburg shifted his focus to sketching and idealizing large-scale sculptural monuments in public spaces. In 1967 his first sculpture was afforded by New York city cultural adviser Sam Green. This was Oldenburg's first outdoor public monument known as Placid Civic Monument, which was a performance made behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a crew of gravediggers digging a 6'x 3' rectangular hole in the ground.

Oldenburg was met first with criticism and opposition, because his works he wanted to create were gigantic public sculptures of ordinary objects. But today, most of Oldenburg's recognizable work comes from this period and is displayed in public spaces throughout the United States.

To be honest, I appreciate his progression, but I LOOOOVE the 60’s work and just don't appreciate his later work as much. For this reason, I'm not posting any pictures here but you can find them very easily on the internet.

However, fast forward more than 50 years and Oldenburg's Store is showing up as a major influencer for in recent exhibitions, including a fake Bodega in NY's meatpacking district and at the Volta Fair in NY where clay/plaster mops, bottles of Tide detergent and an overturned studio stool covered in chewing gum directly recreate objects using Oldenburg's concepts behind The Store.

 
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Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo 2017



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