Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not.
~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 1997
The 1960’s brought the death of the author and the death of painting, two untimely deaths that occurred at a time when minorities and women were demanding recognition as producers of culture. Years later, a famous Time Magazine cover from 1998 asked, “Is Feminism Dead?” One would not think so, but something that looks like the ghost of feminism has haunted the Pattern and Decoration Movement.
Curators and critics, such as Anne Swartz and Temma Balducci, have written thoughtfully about the relationship between the P&D Movement and the Feminist Art Movement. Susan Isaacs, an artist associated with the P&D Movement, curated Exuberant Pattern in 2009 at the Towson University and stated:
“The first wave of feminist artists succeeded beyond their wildest imagination with today’s generation of artists feeling free to find inspiration from many sources without sensing any kind of prejudice or consideration from the larger arts community that their work is considered particularly feminine (used as a pejorative) or second tier.”
Beyond the art community, P&D work has encountered other reactions. In 2007 Benjamin Genocchio, of the New York Times, loftily dismissed the Hudson River Museum’s exhibition titled Pattern & Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art as second-rate by claiming: “Many paintings here look like a cross between the wallpaper designs of William Morris and chintz samples from a Laura Ashley catalog. This is the real downside of Pattern and Decoration, which at its worst can seem like empty decoration — drapery or wallpaper passed off as painting.” Moreover, a positive review of Isaac’s show, which appeared on the blog Bmoreart, was met with a hostile reaction. One reader inquired, “Is good (not great) craft and obsessive practice, enough? The ‘first wave of feminist artists’ working in this manner at least had something to say.”
In contrast to the dismissive tone of negative responses such as the one above, positive responses to P&D often drip with adjectives like alluring, seductive, and enticing; suggesting a sexualized and consumable art to which the title of this reverie refers. In a catalogue essay written for the Hudson River Museum exhibition, John Perreault went so far as to suggest a paradigm that he calls “the mistress narrative” since he considers decoration to be the art lover’s secret. Whether positive or negative, the responses seem imbued with intuitive reactions to gender and perceived politics. They bespeak complex relationships with past and present feminism, and often seem to exalt the feminism of the past at the expense of the present moment.
To better understand these ghosts that haunt the landscape of contemporary artistic practice and politics, I spoke with several young artists to find out whether they felt unencumbered by the prejudices of the past, as Isaacs optimistically described, and whether feminism does indeed have something to say today.
Liz Linden and Jen Kennedy’s ongoing project Contemporary Feminism explores these very questions. “It’s interesting,” Kennedy says, “there are very few words that are not allowed modifiers. There’s not a lot of breathing room around feminism. So many people tell me the project is career-killing.” She goes on, “while we are deeply indebted to the first wave, it’s frustrating when people are constantly waving their hands over our generation without seeing the challenges we’re facing.” For their part, Isaacs and other first-wavers are aware of the ongoing struggles of female artists. According to the authors of After The Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, “women still have roughly one opportunity for every four of the opportunities open to men.” I attended one of Contemporary Feminism’s New York Times Feminist Reading Groups in March 2010 at the P.P.O.W gallery in Chelsea. A diverse group of participants, mostly strangers to each other, sat in a circle and discussed the news of the day while being surrounded by Dinh Q. Lê’s Elegies exhibition; perhaps a reminder that, as Linden puts it, “feminism affects more than just people who are female.”
Painter Anna M. Sauer, whose dreamlike, narrative-driven work shares many visual motifs and source inspirations with P&D, agrees with Isaacs that artists today feel free to appropriate from a variety of sources including decorative arts and design books, which she admits to having a guilty fondness for: “I started looking to pattern and decorative painting as a simplified way of expressing memories, whether it was reproducing the specific plaid of my catholic school uniform, or the herringbone pattern of the coat my father was buried in.” She wonders whether the often overlooked artists of the P&D movement may have been referring to deeply held personal, or even spiritual, things in their use of these apparent topical surface treatments. When asked about gender in relation to her work, she answers in formal terms:
“In my own work, there’s been a tremendous shift in scale since I started incorporating more patterning and decorative motifs. I think there’s something specifically nurturing (and dare I say ‘feminine’) about working on small hand-held paintings and the act of meticulously and rhythmically applying paint to the surface of a panel. The paintings become little entities in themselves, to be held close and cared for.”
Golnar Adili, who works with paper and pattern, gave up her career in architecture four years ago to commit herself to art. Currently she is investigating letters her mother wrote to her father. But while the source is very personal, she says what initially grabbed her was “the very formal aspect of the Farsi Arabic alphabet, the pattern and relationship between form and meaning.” Although she has drawn no conclusions about feminism in the art world, she sees a trend that embraces feminine arts for both men and women. She is weary of such trends, however, saying “anything with weaving, today is hot. What about tomorrow?” She goes on to suggest that for both men and women, what is oppressive in the art world is the lack of financial support. Perhaps ironically, one of the ways she supports herself is by making handmade painted wallpaper, which she describes as being very close to her art.