Judy Chicago’s feminist trappings in 1979’s “The Dinner Party” were criticized for being over-the-top; those in SITE Santa Fe’s latest exhibition are understated. But if the exchange of famous vaginas for subtle, literary feminist allusions means progress, we’re in. Female artists Amy Cutler, Ruth Claxton and Runa Islam stage three structurally different but thematically related shows for a collaboration that will not be tied down, nor told what it is or how far it can go.
The painfully detailed gouache paintings of Amy Cutler could illuminate manuscripts, sans the serifs and Rococo sprawl. She depicts scenes of women performing a wide variety of tasks that could glibly—and incorrectly—be called whimsical. Like Cutler executing her phenomenal detail, theirs are acts of directed industriousness.
In Cutler’s world, women labor in an agrarian society mostly devoid of men (think Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and modern technology, a place straight out of feminist science fiction. Cutler amasses selections from the real world to create a designer new one.
Notable—if not conclusive—is the women’s relationship with animals. Women and animals tend to their tasks as societal equals. In “Siberian Jackfruit,” women riding reindeer pluck jackfruit from trees using reindeer-antler-like claws and wearing reindeer-fur adornments. The reindeer accordingly sport ornate cloth like that of the women. Meanwhile, in “Gorge,” women amble up two rocky cliffs with goats held on their backs, while they string Tibetan prayer flags on the gray expanse.
Sometimes the women are the animals or vice versa. In “Castoroide Colony,” women perform the work of beavers and are represented accordingly. Bucktooth ladies gnaw down trees, swim with just their foreheads above water, and assemble mud and sticks to form dams. “Octupi” shows the ridiculous red sea creatures struggling to fit their many limbs into women’s China-patterned vestments.
These situations explore an alternate, insular world of women, seemingly not bothered with the absence of men.
Amid tangled metal rings that hang en sculptural masse from the ceiling, Ruth Claxton constructs her own world. These platforms span SITE’s large back room—each metal ring suspended on a wavering axis to appear like unwound DNA spiraling out of control—and are large and lofty enough to stand inside (just watch your head). The structures are punctuated and augmented by the occasional mirror or colored pane, which appear like decorative drum heads. The multitude of angles and mirror placements scatter the viewer’s vision, so one can also see far into the spaces and even across the room.
Amid the chaos, Claxton posits prefab porcelain dolls enacting a wide variety of clichéd scenes. These cloying ladies and gentlemen bear 18th century regalia and thus the cultural constraints and sexist social requirements of that time period. By setting the figures within her sculptural rings, Claxton energizes the corseted ladies et al and divorces them from the Romantic era’s demands.
Claxton further undermines their idyllic lives by covering the figures’ heads, mostly with globular glass formations. The subjects already stood off balance, but now their doe-eyes are obscured. Though their lives might look fine, they view life through the depressive lens of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Runa Islam takes a process-oriented vantage. She dissects films—perhaps the epitome of escapism—in a way that is both meta and meticulous. There stands the film’s apparatus, there the stars, there the screens and there the people behind them.
In “The Restless Subject,” a hand-painted image of a bird and a cage spin in rotation and project onto a glass sheet to show the bird both free and caged—all along it chirps. The piece recalls Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and thus the constriction of women’s lives, especially women of color. The viewer learns not only why the caged bird sings but also how it’s filmed.
“What is a Thought Experiment, Anyhow?” playfully teases revered works of dead white men. The multiple projections were shot in The Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, where life-sized replicas of classical sculptures such as “Nike of Samothrace” and the “Laocon Trio” are located. Amid the sculpture, a handful of people prod colorful balloons—a visually thematic link to Claxton’s scattered colored panes—to contrast the world of serious art, while an art oft-considered less-than-serious records it on film.
“How Far to Faro” is a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s residence and the location of his film Through a Glass Darkly. One of the film’s many allusions is Gilman’s feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Through a glass smartly, Islam records the production of filmmaking, from the crew’s journey to the island to the actual tracks on which Bergman filmed. Islam films a film about filming a film.
In a lovely moment, one of the film crew looks out from behind a boat window onto the Baltic Sea. The crew member angles a water bottle so that it matches the horizon while, outside the window, another crew member gazes at the real horizon.
The action of tilting the bottle is a metaphor for the entire exhibition: The crew member replicates the outside world, but just eschew enough to provide commentary.