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Paper + People is a blog about the Smith College Museum of Art’s collection of over 18,000 prints, drawings, and photographs. Here you will find a diverse array of posts written by museum staff, students, scholars, and other paper enthusiasts about anything pertaining to the collection.

Any works you see featured here are available to view by appointment.

  • Friday, September 22, 2017

    On Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In” (or, Don’t Try This At Home)

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles. American, born 1939. Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In. 1973 (printed 1998)
    95 gelatin silver prints mounted on foam core with chain and dust rag. Smith College Museum of Art.
    Purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan, class of 1953, Fund.

    The essay “The Personal Is Political” by Carol Hanisch was published in the the volume Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation in 1969. Hanisch’s text sparked a global conversation around the importance of multiracial feminism and introduced the idea that a woman’s political and social struggle is dependent on her individual identity because women are economically oppressed by the government and its’ institutions. Implications of this issue can be seen in Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In (1973) by radical feminist performance artist and postmodern pioneer Mierle Laderman Ukeles. I would argue that this artwork is not about domestic femininity, but it is meant to open conversation about the capitalized female body within the broken economic systems that profits from its’ [the body’s] physical labour.

    The hurried, active quality of the photographs that comprise the work allows viewers a glimpse into what ‘motherhood’ could have looked like for a working female artist during one of the more pivotal moments of second-wave feminism in America.

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In (detail) 

    The images show the artist and her children in their apartment. Both children are seated, and appear to be waiting patiently as Ukeles helps them meticulously fasten Mary-Jane style footwear: a task that, perhaps by now is nearly ritualistic to them as a morning routine. Next, Ukeles is shown reaching behind the torso of one of the children to adjust the jacket — a gentle, maternal gesture, judging by the size of the tiny child in relation to both Ukeles and the coat. She then places the second coat on the second child, perhaps a bit more hurried this time as if they are on an actual schedule.

    Continuing the sequence, one of the children begins a small dance weaving a long scarf around her neck. Approximately three-fourths in the sequence, there is a visual shift as the children scramble to de-layer themselves again, discarding their clothes on the floor. Compositionally the photographs capture the task by using repetitive framing and sequential imagery. The actions in each image are more than a second in- time apart from each other, leading viewers to believe that Ukeles may have selected the photographs to emphasize that each still is equally contributing to the overall meaning of the work.

    Instead of a final picture in the corner, Ukeles has attached a chain and dust rag allowing the work to operate as a three-dimensional object, versus a two-dimensional window on the world.

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In (detail) 

    Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In was created only a few short years after “The Personal Is Political” was published, and the phrase became part of popular culture. Ukeles wrote her own artist manifesto that same year, (“Maintenance Art 1969!”) in which she outlined her proposal that labor, and in particular, women’s domestic labor, could be seen as art.

    The bulk of Ukeles’s other work is in performance, although her practice is generally grounded in social outreach ideas including paid maternity leave, a higher minimum-wage, and other humanist objectives concerning the social welfare of others. Her work can also be seen to relate to the systematic suffering and invisibleness of exploited work groups within the American economic system, which is how I am choosing to frame my discussion about this artwork. From factories to fashion workers: Women workers, broadly speaking, are the bodies that make up the physical infrastructure of capitalism. By creating pieces that expose labour fallacies artists like Ukeles may be able to reclaim some agency for those who are silenced. 

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In (detail) 

    Although this piece, and other works created by Ukeles, can be seen to comment on capitalism’s interdependence on domestic labour to fuel its’ mode of production, that is a topic that I don’t know if the artist is necessarily asking viewers to do here. Placing an artwork in a metaphorical box of social justice, and assuming that it is speaking toward a socio-political feminist ideology, is like assuming that all of postmodernisms — and its’ contemporaries— are a piercing call to justice, which, frankly, they aren’t. That act of classification is what a Modernist critic would refer to as a “cliche” or an inherent flaw: that identity will never be able to represent itself in full because the social construct of visual reality has made it nearly impossible to take ourselves (and our labouring bodies) out of the art discussion. This lobbies for the idea that art for art’s sake is nearly nonexistent, and that work will always have some sort of disturbing or challenging quality depending on one’s social understanding of it.

    And though the maker here is a woman, the work also reaches a level of understanding of the subordination of more than just those who share that identity. The phrase "The Personal is Political" was also adopted by multicultural feminist movements, which moved away from using the word "feminism" to mean only white women activists.

    Despite the fact that the images are drawn from the artist's personal experiences, I believe it is a mistake to assume that this work is about Ukeles's personal identity as a feminist, or that it is speaking directly to women's institutional oppressions. Thus, what is often lost when considering a body of work, such Mierle Laderman Ukeles's "maintenance art," is assuming that the piece is drawing from Western-feminism and ignoring other contemporary ideas. Art of any provocative nature will stir productive conversations, without making explicit statements. Mierle Ukeles'sDressing to Go Out/Undressing to Come Inthus engages ideas that were pertinent to her time and continue to be a rich subject for exploration today.

    Mierle Laderman Ukeles. American, born 1939. Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In. 1973 (printed 1998)
    95 gelatin silver prints mounted on foam core with chain and dust rag. Smith College Museum of Art.
    Purchased with the Judith Plesser Targan, class of 1953, Fund.

  • Friday, August 11, 2017

    Contemporary Black Women Artists in the Cunningham Center: Carrie Mae Weems
    Guest blogger Zoe Dong is a Smith College student, class of 2018J, with a major in studio art. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. This is the second of a three-post series on contemporary works by Black women in the Center's collection.

    Carrie Mae Weems was born in 1953 in Portland, Oregon and is a multimedia artist who works in text, video, textiles, and most prominently photography. She has won numerous awards including the MacArthur genius grant, the ICP Spotlight award from the International Center of Photography, and Harvard’s W.E.B. Dubois medal. Her work addresses racism, sexism, family relationships, class and power, her photographs spanning from intimate documentations of her family and community to powerful works that widely address the African-American experience.

    Carrie Mae Weems. American, 1950-. Jim, If You Choose to Accept, the Mission is to Land on Your Own Two Feet. 1988. gelatin silver print. SC 1990:20.

    The Cunningham Center has two works of Weems’: Jim, If You Choose to Accept, the Mission is to Land on Your Own Two Feet and Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen from Grace and into the Hands of Evil. Both created in 1988, these two works are carefully posed portraits of characters with accompanying text underneath that hint at a lengthier narrative than the ones presented in these square, black and white compositions. Weem’s famous Kitchen Table series uses similarly square, posed compositions, and much of her other work also uses mysterious, leading text that recalls fictional mythologies and unidentified stories.

    Carrie Mae Weems. American, 1950-. Portrait of a Woman Who Has Fallen from Grace and into the Hands of Evil. 1988. gelatin silver print. SC 1991:2.

  • Friday, August 4, 2017

    Contemporary Black Women Artists in the Cunningham Center: Lorna Simpson
    Guest blogger Zoe Dong is a Smith College student, class of 2018J, with a major in studio art. She is a Student Assistant in the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. This is the first of a three-post series on contemporary works by Black women in the Center's collection.

    Lorna Simpson was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, graduating with a BFA from the School of Visual Arts and receiving her MFA from UC San Diego. She rose to prominence in the art world in the 1980s for her art exploring black female identity and historical memory. Her work combines photography, text art and installation to create subtle and engaging works that are difficult to decode but meaningful in the effort it takes to understand them.

    Counting is an excellent example of Simpson’s style, which excludes the eyes of any subject, utilizes text as a central element, and features hair as a motif. Counting shows, from top to bottom, the bottom half of an unknown black woman’s face, a Carolina smokehouse once used to hold slaves, and finally a long coil of braided hair. Surrounding the images are coolly inscrutable phrases listing hours for an unknown event, numbers of years, an amount of bricks, numbers of “locks” “twists” and “braids.” Where Kara Walker’s work about the history of American slavery is starkly in-your-face, Simpson’s art eludes a simple meaning.

     

    Lorna Simpson. American, 1961-. Counting. 1991. photogravure with silkscreen text on paper. Purchased with the Janice Carlson Oresman, class of 1955, fund. SC 1992:2.

    Details is a series of 21 photogravures with silkscreen text. The series alludes to a story of a romance in muted, delicate, and mysterious language, focusing on hands and their gestures, flowers and furniture instead of the faces of the lovers who the story centers around. Each of the photogravures in accompanied by text underneath, hinting at the meaning of each carefully composed, Pictorialist-reminiscent smoky image. The absence of a face is per usual in Simpson’s work.

     

    Lorna Simpson. American, 1961-. soulful from Details. 1996. photogravure with silkscreen text on Somerset 300 lb. paper. Purchased with the Elizabeth Halsey Dock, class of 1933, Fund and the Carol Ramsey Chandler Fund. SC 2012:6-1.

    Lorna Simpson. American, 1961-. desired from Details. 1996. photogravure with silkscreen text on Somerset 300 lb. paper. Purchased with the Elizabeth Halsey Dock, class of 1933, Fund and the Carol Ramsey Chandler Fund. SC 2012:6-3.

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