THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS at THE LAB 1/9/99 and MIRROR IMAGES: WOMEN, SURREALISM, AND SELF-REPRESENTATION at SFMOMA 1/10/99
by Eleanor and Emily Burgard
My twin sister and I are sitting around our big rambling victorian-era house drinking tea and champagne and banging our heads against the wall with some of the girls, feeling kind of trapped in that cozy fluffy way one feels (two feel) trapped when the sun is rolling through a bitter winter sky like a melon-ball through ice-cold vodka and one is warm and slightly drunk at home but feeling guilty, as if life were really, as in the old saying, “passing by.” So we’re sitting on our ankles in the window seat staring out at all the men, the extroverts, the men with penises and the men with vaginas, clicking their heels against the concrete pedways like miniature Michael Flatleys, step-dancing their way through a preposterously overblown and vapid cultural “myth.” Life is here all around us all the time; it’s people who are “passing by.” But some of us are Bored Of The Dance and have taken a moment to rest and breath deeply. There across the street there’s Liza May Post, also sitting on her ankles, wearing something white and fleecy-fluffy, something that’s a cross between footsie pajamas and a mid-sixties women’s business suit, with fitted jacket and awfully tight skirt. The same white fleecy material covers a tea set which rests on the ground next to her like a pet, say a small white poodle, or like something she’s trying to sell, or more likely something she’s tired of carrying and has simply set down, a weight she’s momentarily put down. She’s sort of leaning against a sapling which is trying to grow tall though it’s bounded within squares of cement sidewalk tiles. The world here in this large photograph or description is geometric and hard-surfaced, maybe it’s Brasilia though it could be anywhere, it could even be today. Sitting there on her ankles, she can’t run and she doesn’t even seem to be trying. She’s just sitting there and looking at something out of the frame, something we can’t see, though we can imagine some things she might be looking at, anything, though really it doesn’t matter too much exactly what it is. This is a question we girls have been asking ourselves frequently as we liberate bubbles from bottle after bottle. The round dents in the plaster walls are getting deeper and we still haven’t reached any concensus. Phoebe Gloeckner thinks it is important what one is looking at, and her clearly-articulated drawings look frankly and directly at the outside of the body, the inside of the body and some things that we do with these bodies which are usually done in private. In this particular installation, pieces which are normally strong and complete on their own serve here as framing devices, surrounding excerpts from Phoebe’s cartoons of childhood abuse and resentment with graphic depictions of sexual physiognomy and sexual phobias. This frame clearly underscores the therapeutic rationale for such an invasive procedure. Because we girls delight so much in the exercise of our wit, especially under the influence of champagne, we are tempted now to bandy about any of many medical metaphors which come to mind. Alas, this central metaphor, of invasive western medical practice and perspective, has been de-frocked, so to speak, and to continue to juggle our balls in that circus tent would cast unfortunate shadows upon a body of work which is primarily about the chasing away of shadows. Yet there certainly lingers something heavy and tragic; there is no real sense that the exorcism is complete; maybe it’s worked for Phoebe but these drawings of adults hurting children have a golem-like life of their own and threaten to crawl away, lurch away under their own power, to haunt bedrooms and kitchens and enact retribution. This is a long story Gloeckner’s telling; it started a long time ago and it will go on forever. So Gloeckner’s addition of an upraised, enlarged, celebratory, fragilely optimistic drawing of her own newly-minted baby daughter Persephone has a delicate shimmer of hubris to it; it is a hopeful gesture made possible only because of the shadow-dispelling effects of her frank investigation and articulation of her own past. There but for disclosure go we. This way of putting it, “disclosure,” seems to apply to much of the work in the Mirror Images show. Dorothy Cross’s brilliant xray piece features a fetal skeleton curled inside an adult skull, an image that trips so many wires, sets off so many flashbulbs, that to list a handful of them would be tediously academic. Suffice to say that this is an image which was meant to be made; it is easy to carry around with us (inside our own skulls) because it fits perfectly into the cognitive niche which has been waiting for it for years. In her other SFMOMA piece, a sort of wedding-dress “married to” a cow skin with prominent teats (teats for brains?), the Irish Cross displays an equal talent for doing the opposite, ie. for shoving something into our brains which doesn’t fit comfortably but which makes us squirm with equal parts dis-taste (lactose intolerance?) and prurient complicity, again disclosing connections between disparate elements, though with different results. Like Gloeckner, Francesca Woodman and Claude Calhoun both offer up a more personalized sort of disclosure. Calhoun’s photographic self-portraits offer up glimpses of an isolated self making sense of itself through caricature, costume and role-play. It is a poignant perspective somewhat undermined by the work’s proximity to Cindy Sherman’s. Make no mistake: my twin sister and I revere Sherman as something close to a deity, but the way these two artists are hung together serves to do nothing so strongly as to suggest that Calhoun’s work is mere quaint forebear to Sherman’s, and we think this a shame, for Calhoun’s work is fascinating in its own right and deserves more cognitive room to rattle around in than the SFMOMA show provides. Woodman’s photographic self-portraits are also concerned with the self rattling around in a hostile environment; in this case one consisting of mirrors, fireplaces and crumbling stone houses. Calhoun manages to survive through the agency of intensive persona(l) manipulation, Woodman goes it alone, naked, often on her hands and knees like the feral thing she seems to become as she writhes within the ruined walls of a civilization which holds little relevance for one engaged in such ferocity. These photos are far less the chronicles of a self failing to come to terms with her culture (Woodman suicided) as they are the evidence of a culture whose aesthetic, political, sexual and ethical rules are often irrelevent to the human experience. Though, as Leona Christie devastatingly and gorgeously points out, we humans are amazing precisely because it is our special talent to create lives and myths for ourselves out of the absolutely most irrelevant and self-destructive shards which are handed to us or which we uncover in our daily foraging through the trash-heap we live in. We humans could live on pond scum, sand and nettles if we had to; we could live on helium and be happy but at the same time we are capable of committing suicide or sitting with our fleecy poodle and our fuzzy cups of nettle tea, watching life “pass by.” Christie’s astonishing “Helium Wars” pieces scavenge H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, Rodchenko, Flash Gordon, Lang’s Metropolis, Taitlin, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, the “Shmoos” of L’il Abner and other cultural debris in order to create image-inative references and reverberations which surround her tragi-comic epic of slavery and rebellion. In the first of the two pieces, Carmen Miranda, Rita Hayworth, and Susan Hayward (as we imagine) are among the millions (as it is suggested) of drugged and/or bored stenographers who, already abjectly dressed up for their pathetic nights out “on the town,” are slumped over worm-like com-tubes in a 50's vision of corporate transcendence in the year 2000. Around this etching and the central etching of the second chapter of this distaff Illiad (Distilliad?) hover a dozen or so smaller etchings which look like swollen stomachs, flying haggis (haggi?), or melting bunsen burners. In one such orbiting etching, an encased and specimen-pinned brain-like object rises turgidly from a triffid-like structure reminiscent of banana-peels splayed out from a circular ashtray. (Here you might be able to imagine our barely-containable, champagne-fueled glee at seeing such a thing.) In the central image of the second piece, it seems the women of the secretarial pool have risen in solidarity like amazons to combat the balloonish, spheroid, bulb(ous) floating creatures by using them as pincushion targets for the women’s needle weapons, which carry thread unspooling from various breast-, buttock- and intestine-like objects. Yay for the girls, sure, but this is very tricky work, very smart work but work which also allows for the intrusion of elements from the subconscious and from way deep back in childhood fantasizing. So there’s a lot of suspicion here, because what looks simple surely isn’t. The dictaphones look far too much like the floating enemy windbags, and the amazons are as gender-segregated as the stenographers, and helium’s a resource and the people who fight wars over resources are rarely the people who control the resources or who benefit from winning such wars. So the impulse to cheer dies out quickly because chances are the warrior-women are just as enslaved as the secretary-women. But there’s some real energy interchange here in the collision of gendered icons of adolescent development, and that impulse to cheer, to stand up and join the fight, remains very close to the surface and invigorates us. Thump thump. Emma Thompson as Flash Gordon. Thump thump thump. We are in danger here of running out of champagne, but we will never run out of walls to bang our heads against.