Gender/Decoration Confusion

December 20, 2008

My first access to contemporary art history came from Irving Sandler’s big book on ths subject, available at the public library in the town where I lived.  Sandler conveniently breaks the lasty fifty years of US art-making down into precise movements, as does the (now forgotten)  textbook on modern art I had for an undergrad class at a tiny Catholic college.

Things are a lot more messy than that, of course, but one thing that always intrigued me that seems to have gotten short shrift as a “movement” in contemporary art was 1970s “Pattern and Decoration” stuff.   At first glance, a lot of it looks like a missing link between Warhol and Mike Kelley–using “household” materials as both subject and object of art–but there’s a lot more there in the agency behind doing what Kelley later more pointedly did: take debased/effeminized forms of art/decoration and submit them to rigorous modernist production and analysis.

Kelley largely ignores the question of the feminine nestled in the history of the abject, though, but that’s what most interests me.  My mother had a mimeographed sewing magazine in the ’70s and my grandma owned a craft shop where you could buy upscale versions of the kind of stuff Kelley would later annex as conceptual art material.   I think this comes down, in my world, to the sock monkey: my mother made them when they were popular, and it was a kind of figurative sculpture, but it was made out of private/domestic materials (socks) and never meant to fulfill any terms greater than the pleasure of having/making a sock monkey.

But, working as a post-postmodern artist with no sewing ability, I can’t simply reproduce sock monkeys as a means of accessing that time and aesthetic, and neither am I particularly interested in kitsch.  What I’m interested in is how Pattern and Decoration came about in tandem with feminist art as a sort of bigger, more commericalized version of turning “women’s work” into a field of exploration for an artist with a skeptical, post-Butler view of gender construction.

So: on and off I began to work with scrapbooking materials.  They’re cheap and they’re available everywhere (i.e. the local Target or Michael’s) and they come already stamped with feminine/craft as well as utilitarian associations.  But I’m not interested in memory-making or in mimicking/mocking someone’s hobby so the question remains of what I can do with these materials that highlights their highly gendered status while problematizing them sort of along the lines of Kelley but via the technology of photography and a little less grandiosely.

Here’s an example:


The idea here was to distort the feminine/abstraction of the original so that the pattern became a kind of meaning that couldn’t be read entirely.  There’s two different kinds of abstraction going on here: absence of representation and messing around with representation to loosen it from its documentary constraints.   I hadn’t thought about this stuff much until Michael’s recent post, but now, as I’ve been casting around for a new long-term (vs. one-off) project, this seems like interesting terrotiry to explore with respect to queer abstraction. 

The million dollar question being: is it possible to queer the gender-read of particular objects/images without de-gendering them, which is the same thing, basically, as rendering them in a heteronormative frame of “absent” gender?

Time to get out the camera and try to figure that one out.  I also just bought a Nixon paper doll book so there’s that.  And I should probably discuss my ’70s fixation in a future post.


3 Responses to “Gender/Decoration Confusion”

  1. Will Says:

    If I understand you rightly, the photo you have here is a great
    (but very subtle) example of queering the gender of the pattern,
    as to me it looks very much like a cut sheet of steel: a ‘masculine’
    production of a ‘feminine’ object. It should be easy to shift
    typically gendered objects that way, but all the ideas that spring
    to my mind are representational.

    Of course, the language aspect of this is interesting to me, and
    I think of parallel sets of objects which could be abstracted
    and separated into masculine and feminine according to
    their usage in a romance language, not the object itself. This
    is often reversed, e.g. the French word for a man’s shirt is feminine
    while a woman’s shirt is masculine.

    This is probably no help at all, but it’s interesting all the same.

  2. mbuitron Says:

    I never thought of pattern and decoration when looking at this work, probably because of the (lack of) color.

    Did I ever mention that my sister went to Chouinard in the 60’s? After she became pregnant and got into difficult financial times, her work was all about pattern and decoration. Part of this was due to her inability to afford traditional art supplies. She was making her own clothes at the time, and would use remnants to make her art. When she finally went back to complete her degree (at Cal State Northridge) they had a fiber art department. My sense is that the department grew out of the woman’s movement and the stuff that was going on in the early 70’s, but it was also about making art from whatever was at hand.

    In relation to your work, it seems to be an art that arises out of economic circumstance as much as addressing issues of gender.

  3. Thought you might like to see my work. “Women’s Work”

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