In her collection of essays Break Every Rule, experimental novelist Carole Maso describes finding a sense of home in multiple circumstances. She finds home in two tiny rooms in Greenwich Village. She finds it in her lover’s arms. She experiences it in language and in her imagination — “anywhere my mind catches fire, my body.”
An exhibit titled Home at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery uses a similarly expansive concept. Devoted to female artists, the show includes work by six Southern photographers and one Los Angeles videographer. According to a gallery statement, “the artists explore the concept of ‘home,’ locating this increasingly ephemeral idea in the context of physical buildings or, as a last refuge, in the self.”
Stephanie Dowda’s chromogenic color print From Here You Can See Everything suggests the ambivalence we can feel toward home as a repository of memory. A young woman stands looking contemplatively at a rundown bungalow. Her legs fade into a grassy half-mown lawn. An overcast sky, the trash spilling off the front porch, and the stained façade all suggest that home is never an ideal but a reservoir of joy and pain. (Disclosure: Stephanie Dowda is a member of this publication’s Board of Directors.)
Beth Lilly explores memory, perception, and consciousness in Dream of the Red Elephant, a series of staged tableaux with related narratives. One archival pigment print depicts a little girl pausing in a darkened vestibule, enchanted by an antique clock with figurines. This quiet domestic scene expresses nostalgia for the magic of childhood and feeling of time suspended.
Lilly’s collaborative project called The Oracle @ WiFi explores the magical thinking of adults and the quest to find meaning even in random events. On a specified day of every month, the Atlanta artist takes phone calls from friends and strangers with pressing concerns. She takes three pictures with her cell phone and emails the pictures to the caller in exchange for their question. As Lilly explained in a 2009 interview with BURNAWAY, the photographs are “a contemporary form of divination, like giving tarot card readings.” While the connection with the home theme is oblique, Lilly’s triads of images offer a kind of consolation akin to the solace of home.
Confounding the search for meaning, Laura Noel pairs two seemingly unrelated photographs, leaving it up to the viewer to find the connection. In Connie/Laughs, Noel shows two young women laughing playfully as they dress up in hoop skirts in a parking lot, apparently preparing for a Confederate-themed event. In the opposing image, a vintage portrait of a woman is caught in shuttered light in a quiet corner of a room. The two images converse as we find traces of nostalgia. The image on the left, Connie, suggests a nostalgic view of the past. The image on the right reenacts the historical past in the present moment. Noel cleverly collapses time juxtaposing these two images.
In her video 50 Ways to Set the Table, Judy Fiskin follows two jaded female judges as they evaluate tables in an annual “tablescaping” competition at the Los Angeles County Fair. Rows of elaborately decorated tables are appropriately enclosed in a white picket fence in a yawning exhibition hall. The competition recalls the 1950s American dream of the perfect household right down to the perfect table setting.
While criticizing the decorations, the judges become paralyzed in deciding best in show. “The same thing that you like about this is something that I don’t like, so it’s just personal taste,” one says about a Valentine-themed setting. They finally abdicate responsibility by asking a security guard for her opinion.
Fiskin illustrates the difficulty of forging a consensus even in something as standard as a table setting, yet the 26-minute documentary is not only about subjectivity. It also makes a feminist statement by ending with the women giving away their power. The work invites inevitable comparison to Judy Chicago’s iconic work The Dinner Party, which set the table for the history of women. (To view an excerpt of Fiskin’s video, click here).
Susan Harbage Page addresses women surrendering their power in an installation of vintage linens onto which she has stitched “I’m sorry” or “I’m not sorry” in pink thread. In her 1996 essay “I’m Sorry, I Won’t Apologize,” linguist Deborah Tannen notes that “many women say ‘I’m sorry’ as a conversational ritual.” Using textiles and homemaking as the traditional domains of women, Page suggests an unhealthy dialectic in which women are forever diminished.
Nostalgia pervades images of the Southern landscape. Large wisteria photographs by Page pull us in until we succumb to the verdant wilderness of lavender and green.
Meryl Truett achieves a nostalgic effect by transferring photographs of the coastal and rural South onto antique tin ceiling tiles. Her Cotton Field with Shadow has a painterly, even impressionistic effect, recalling Claude Monet’s poppy field paintings.
One of the delights in the show is Truett’s collection of 18 photographic transfers of famous female literary figures. Portraits of Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, and others on pocket-sized ceiling tiles echo the preciosity of 19th century tintypes. Aligned in a grid, the images recall a wall of family portraits.
Tobia Makover sheathes photographs in wax and resin for haunting, otherworldly effects. Enveloped in opaque white, Shroud – Dorchester Academy evokes the passage from life to death as a woman walks down a corridor toward the white light of an open door. While death can be interpreted as a “coming home,” other encaustic work by Makover, such as a photograph of a person of unknown gender pouring sand over his/her body, seem to bear little relation to the theme.
For all its diverse expressions of home, this show foregrounds a prominent nostalgia for Southern landscapes and scenes of childhood wonder. While numerous works focus on the past, the exhibit tends to ignore the issues around the present-day circumstances of women and the home. Nevertheless, Home is worth seeing for its many intellectually engaging works and its contribution to an evolving dialogue.
The group exhibition Home continues through April 18, 2011, at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.
On April 7, 2011, the gallery will host a panel discussion, “Female Photographers: Is There a Gender Voice?” from 7-8PM. Panelists include curators and critics Rebecca Dimling Cochran, Lisa Kurzner, and Michael David Murphy and artists Stephanie Dowda and Laura Noel. Hagedorn gallery director Brenda Massie will moderate the discussion.