Tag Archives: feminist art

Women’s Work / Artist’s Work (Pinboard #2)

Mary Kelly (b. 1941) is an American conceptual artist. Her work is frequently text-based, or text-heavy, with what she describes as “a specific relation between the meaning of the text, its materiality, and the site.” [1] It is also highly theoretical, reflecting her second occupation: Professor of Art and Critical Theory at UCLA.

Detail from Post Partum Document, 1974, Perspex unit, white card, diaper linings, plastic sheeting, paper, ink

The image to the right is a detail from Post Partum Document, a six-part installation that documented Kelly’s relationship with her son from birth to age 6. Post-Partum Document became a seminal work of “feminist art” – although Kelly herself prefers to think of it as “art informed by feminism.” [2] Post Partum Document is seen as a physical testament to the feminist slogan “the personal is the political”; the work has been perceived as a political statement because it brought “private” elements of female experience – aspects of womanhood that have historically been marginalized – into a public space. When the installation was first shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) in 1976, Post Partum Document was considered highly controversial. Viewers were shocked by the display of dirty diapers, obsessive diary notes, and other material artifacts of motherhood.

Here, a soiled diaper on which Kelly has neatly typed the date, information about her son’s nutritional intake, and details of his bowel movements. Kelly’s obsessive documentation suggests maternal fetishization of the child, but Kelly ultimately investigates herself more thoroughly than her child. Her exploration of the everyday rises to the level of art precisely because of, rather than in spite of, its banality. Kelly’s compulsive, comprehensive attention to minutiae recharacterizes the value of “women’s work” by transforming it into “artist’s work.”

[1] Mary Kelly, interview with Klaus Ottmann, Journal of Contemporary Art Online
[2] Mary Kelly, in Chloe Wyma, “23 Questions for Mary Kelly”, Artinfo.com

Juxtapositions and Absences (Pinboard #1)

Sarah Charlesworth, Figures (from Objects of Desire I), 1982-83, Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame

Sarah Charlesworth (b. 1947) is a New York-based conceptual artist. She is frequently referred to as a photographer, but she claims that “I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I’ve engaged questions regarding photography’s role in culture…but it is an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.” [1] Her work frequently isolates, highlights, and explores subordinated messages and themes in popular culture, media, and art. Often, these messages and themes are related to feminine experience.

Charlesworth’s Figures (1983-1984), from her series Objects of Desire, is a photographic diptych. In the left panel, a dramatic silver dress is suspended against a black background. The figure’s truncated appearance, reminiscent of a fragment of classical sculpture, provokes the viewer’s imagination. The garment appears to be supported by a human body – the curves of breasts, hips, a navel, and a poised thigh are clearly visible – but the figure lacks a head, arms, and feet. On the opposite side of the diptych, a prone figure bound in silver fabric hovers against a red background. The bindings and dress fabric appear to be identical.

In Objects of Desire, Charlesworth engages questions about the roots of attraction. By appropriating and intensifying the products and strategies of advertising, Charlesworth questions the origins of desire as well as its objects. Images in the series – taken from magazines, altered, re-photographed, saturated, and blown up larger than life (here, 42” x 62”) – appear iconic due to their scale and intensity. However, the uncomfortable juxtapositions and absences employed by Charlesworth ask us to question the relationship between the desirous and the desired, suggesting that our longings may be motivated by perceived lacks, unacknowledged perversions, or deeply embedded cultural messages.

[1] Betsy Sussler, interview with Sarah Charlesworth, Bomb (Winter 1989/1990), 32-33.