BELEN, NEW MEXICO — It’s been 50 years since then women’s shelter debuted under the baton of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. The installation and performance space opened in a run-down Hollywood mansion in 1972 as a result of Chicago’s year-long experimental Feminist Art Program at California State University in Fresno and her co-teaching with Schapiro at the California Institute of the Arts. On this occasion and with a contemporary perspective, the exhibitions Flashback to Womanhouse and Wo/Manhouse 2022 can be seen in Belen, New Mexico, Chicago’s adopted home for 30 years.
Flashback to Womanhouse will be installed in its second year at Through the Flower Art Space, Chicago’s non-profit gallery, and will contain reproduced historical photographs and original ephemera from women’s shelter. Photographs show installations and the artists who made them, which Chicago still refers to as the “Fresno Girls” even though they’re now in their ’70s. In a corner of the gallery, Chicago has recreated the Menstruation Bathroom,” Last seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1995.
The installation features a toilet, an overflowing wastebasket, and a variety of menstrual products, including bloody pads and tampons. The label on one of the product’s boxes uses co-opted language of the pro-choice movement, borrowing from the slogan “Your body, your choice,” an unfortunate marketing decision that conflates physical autonomy with purchasing power. This is all the more relevant since the US Supreme Court voted to go on strike Roe v. calf on June 24, 2022, after 49 years of protection. Along with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the events serve as outstanding guides through which to experience both exhibitions.
A few blocks from Through the Flower is the art installation and performance venue of Wo/Manhouse 2022, in which 19 New Mexico-based artists created site-specific artworks in each room of a typical 1950s-style home. Gender roles, identity, family unity, work, sex, desire, abortion, birth and death are explored throughout – even ceilings and the bottom of the pool have been touched with paint.
The house alone serves as an appropriate place to reflect on the gender roles played within its walls and reflected in its architecture. Some aspects of the home decor, including the pink and blue bathrooms, are symbolic of societal ideals and the nuclear family. From today’s perspective, the house raises the question of how our relationship to living and working – once two clearly separate places for non-houseworkers – has changed, especially in recent years. In our pandemic era, the phrases “necessary labor” and “work from home” have become more prominent in our vernacular, conjuring up images of healthcare providers and Zoom calls in makeshift home offices.
not how women’s sheltermade up mostly of white women in their early 20s, the artists of Wo/Manhouse 2022, selected through an open call, range in age from 17 to 74 and include more colourists and artists from across the gender spectrum. While the current exhibition is more inclusive, it would still benefit from more BIPOC artists, broader intersectional dialogue, and a greater breadth of lived experience.
What it means to feel at home in your own body stands out as a powerful insight throughout the exhibition. “Trans Bathroom”, an installation by Vladimir Victor Dantes in the pink bathroom, contains infographics on the effects of testosterone, a collection of syringes and shimmering pink and blue fabrics that fill the bathtub and sink. A strong element of the installation are breastplates embroidered with flowers in the form of surgical scars. These pieces could stand alone, but minimal isn’t their style Where/man house on the whole. The ethos of most installations tends towards “more is more”; Installations sometimes contain kitsch – which the house lends itself to – and are overly didactic.
The use of text works successfully in some spaces – including Jen Pack’s participatory installation 그림자가 핀다 (And the Shadow Blooms) which uses written Korean and English to address complex personal narratives shaped by imperialism. Stephanie Lerma’s Dirty Laundry features child-sized handmade paper clothes hung on a clothesline and embroidered with phrases and statistics about gun violence, domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse. It is a visually arresting meditation on how home and school can be both places of refuge and sites of violence, and its location in the laundry room serves as a metaphor for potential renewal.
Nearby is Helen Atkins’ “Divinity Bathroom”, a Blue-toned, sacral-looking installation with original paintings that print pairs of naked women on wallpaper, as if to suggest multiple parts of themselves, siblings, or ancestors. The installation feels like the “backstage” of the house – where women go to get their hair done, for advice and to be with themselves and each other.
Bedroom closet installation “Pleasure Closet” by Apolo Gomez explores queer desire, shame and Christianity in a visual mash-up that combines a confessional booth, glory hole and altar. “My Life as a Bed” by Kara Sachs shows the artist’s childhood bed with a TV monitor embedded in the headboard, as if to convey the viewer’s perspective of the bed. On Loop is a series of short films about everything that happens in a bed.
Performances take place in the backyard every weekend and have the feel of a neighborhood theater workshop with adult content. rosemary carroll, Performing solo and with collaborator Bett Williams is particularly compelling to watch. In the solo piece “Hairy Testimony,” Carroll sits facing the audience behind a curtain of long, flowing, red locks, head bowed. In a firm and powerful voice, she describes surviving the rape and how her community failed her in going public.
During opening weekend only, two original Fresno girls – Nancy Youdelman and Karen LeCocq – recreated their play “Lea’s Room.” While Youdelman read an original, updated monologue about the aging body, LeCocq sat behind her and applied makeup at a vanity. (Youdelman also served as an artist liaison in 2022, bringing her perspective as an artist, educator, and former student from Chicago to the group.)
Other women’s shelter The original, updated in 2022, is “Cock and Cunt Play” written by Judy Chicago and performed by Faith Wilding and Jan Lester in 1972. It is currently performed by two men, Jerah R. Cordova, former mayor of Belen, and Logan Jeffers. With large plush genitals around their waists, they argue in exaggerated singsong about gender, sex and the dishes. Jeffers also performs solo with his piece “Crying,” in which he sits in front of the audience and weeps, evoking a mixture of empathy, satisfaction, and uneasiness. Also of note is that a selection from International Honor Quilt, a feminist quilting project that began in Chicago in 1980, is on display in a separate room in the backyard.
That almost six decades separate the oldest and youngest participating artists is one of the strengths of the exhibition, with perspectives on social and political issues from each generation. The work of Where/man house suggests parallels between house and body. At the most basic level, both operate autonomously, but within much larger networks, neighborhoods, and societies. What goes on inside them is constantly changing, as is how they are governed and how safe they feel. Additionally, the house-as-art installation and the themes it addresses evoke important conversations about the housing crisis across the country, increasing numbers of homeless populations, and, to zoom out, climate catastrophes in our shared home on earth. These issues, coupled with attacks on reproductive and LGBTQIA rights, are having the greatest impact on BIPOC, signaling the need to include more voices in the space or home as it is.
The project as a whole offers an opportunity to reflect: do we have a suitable language, objects or imagery to describe the beauty and complexity of the ever-expanding spectrum of identity? What could the title of this project be in another 50 years? What does it take to survive?
Flashback to Womanhouse and Wo/Manhouse 2022 Continue through October 9 at Through the Flower (107 Becker Avenue, Belen, New Mexico).