During September, RAID projects in Los Angeles hosted Tête à Tête, an exhibition that re-examined the 1969 feminist assertion that “the personal is political.” The show of work by all female-identified artists ranged from video to painting, and included two series of performances.
The Critical Feminist Theory seminar I took in college was carefully organized to diffuse power and encourage conversation—we met in a sitting room rather than a classroom, discussion was led by a different individual each week, and we discussed the curriculum collectively at the beginning of the semester to ensure inclusion. Artist Michelle Carla Handel’s curation of Tête à Tête worked in a similarly decentered mode as she invited a broad selection of artists and gave each the leeway to include the work that she found most appropriate to the subject matter. It was thus not so much one woman’s vision of contemporary feminism as a loosely orchestrated conversation—a dinner party with Handel as the host.
The show created a space in which female artists raised a spectrum of concerns related to, but not bounded by, their femaleness. It provided a snapshot of a group of women’s concerns, interests and experiences inviting the viewer to draw connections. Among the many threads of conversation were sex, power, control of the body, communication, motherhood, and re-examining history.
One of the quieter and more enigmatic pieces were Danielle McCullough’s small cyanotypes that depicted average measurements of the human body according to the American government. The government uses these figures to establish safety regulations and provide ergonomic standards, but taken out of context the diagrams remind the viewer of a capitalist’s society’s need to control and police the body, and the high value of conformity. One of the pieces in the show (not pictured here) depicted the average distance from fist to crotch, slyly suggesting the regulation of not just bodies, but sexual practices.
Gala Porras-Kim, an artist whose elegant conceptual work often involves language, chose to exhibit a drawing executed by the daughter of her partner. By presenting this piece, Porras-Kim generously and bravely revealed not only an element of her personal life, but her own trepidation and learning process in a semi-maternal role—admitting to doubts and ambivalence that it is still culturally inappropriate for women to voice. Also on the theme of motherhood, artist Jay Erker provided free childcare during the show’s opening reception, practically addressing the continued lack of support provided to working mothers.
Rachel Hecker’s painting of her enlarged business card tells the story of the interaction between herself and the woman she eventually hired to clean her house. In the biographical information provided in the gallery, Hecker elaborated on how the woman, the wife of a man she had hired to do work in her attic, came to solicit employment:
We spoke for a while and I explained that I did not need help, but that we should keep in touch. I handed her my business card, and asked her for her contact info. She took a pen out of her purse, began writing her info on my card, then handed it back to me — effectively turning my card into hers.
Hecker’s piece subtly points out the complex social, economic, and political issues that are woven into our domestic space–the reliance of our economy on immigrant and under the table labor; the reliance of many working women on other women to clean their houses; the personal branding and status manufacturing captured in a business card–and the shifting layers of power within which we operate–it is, after all, Marina who controls this interchange, not her future employer. That this whole story is captured within a small scrap of paper serves to enhance the sense that these complexities are often overlooked.
I regret that I did not see any of the performances, which included Marissa Williamson’s performance as Sally Hemings –Thomas Jefferson’s biracial slave and mistress of thirty years, Kim Ye & Veronique D’entremont ‘s question and answer podcast, and Molly Shea’s bra burning as a cave woman.
Bridging the gap between the contemporary look at feminism and the seventies feminism that provided Handel’s jumping off point, was Susan Mogul’s Novella Excerpts: Confessions of a… This piece humorously responds to the increased interest in Mogul’s work thanks to Pacific Standard Time (PST) but cleverly points out the different cultural attitude to nudity and the perceived inappropriateness of a middle aged woman performing nude, as well as the persistent cultural attitude that feminism and feminist art are in the past. The exhibition also included a photograph of Mogul’s guerilla PST poster. This poster pointed to the gender imbalance of the Getty’s advertising campaign that used contemporary male media icons to draw attention to older male art stars. This piece also nudged at what made Tête à Tête unique and important: despite progress, gender disparity persists in the art world.
Walking through Tête à Tête was like witnessing the kind of conversation I might have with a group of my friends—intimate, using self-deprecating humor to mask complex emotions, seeking advice on an uncomfortable situation, admitting our failings and anxieties, sharing hair care advice. Plenty of work by women would not fit this description and even the work within this show would not function quite the same in another context–but the whole point of this show was to look at that shared space and see if it still felt relevant. Answer: it does. Possibly uncomfortably so.