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Aguiñiga, Schaprio, Piper: a Refreshing Trio of Strong Women in Major NY Institutions Now
by Sally Deskins
Miriam Schapiro, The Beauty of Summer, 1973-1974
Feminist feelings flourish from major exhibitions on display at two mainstay art institutions in Manhattan: Surface/Depth: The Decorative after Miriam Schapiro (March 22, 2018 to September 9, 2018) and Tanya Aguiñiga: Craft & Care (May 8, 2018 to October 2, 2018), both at the Museum of Arts and Design; and Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Institution, 1965-2016, at Museum of Modern Art (March 31, 2018–July 22, 2018). Going from one to the next, experiencing prominent work by artists who happen to be women, celebrated in a large way, at once astonishes, refreshes, invigorates.
Seeing just one of Miriam Schapiro (American, 1923-2018)’s immense femmages (the term she coined to describe her distinctive hybrid of painting and collage inspired by women’s domestic arts and crafts and the feminist critique of the hierarchy of art and craft) is inspiring. The large format celebrates and makes beautiful the jobs and items that go with them that typically get shoved in closets or drawers—aprons, handkerchiefs, embroidered dish towels, quilt patches. Experiencing multiple femmages crafted with significant painted imagery, in telling shapes and sparkling glitter, alongside the inspired decorative work of nine of her contemporaries (six are women, if you’re counting), creates a superior festival of celebration. No longer, we feel, are these crafts deemed inferior.
The curatorial selection and juxtaposition of this exhibition is, too, superb. Jeffrey Gibson’s large abstracted figurative sculpture, Speak to Me In Your Way So I Can Hear You, (2015), richly hued and sparkling beads flowing onto wood, beads sewn with the title along the top and a ceramic head-like top; with Schapiro’s large fanned femmage of rich blues and greens alongside Sanford Biggers’ Ooo Outi (2017), a geometric work of textiles, fabric, quilt and sequins, behind it, behind it, altogether evoke a poignant discussion around definitions of art, gender, and identity.
Miriam Schapiro (left) : Mexican Memory, 1981, Acrylic, fabric and glitter on canvas.
Jeffrey Gibson (center): Speak to Me in Your Way So That I Can Hear You, 2015, Driftwood, hardware, wool, canvas, glass beads, artificial sinew, metal jingles, nylon fringe, acrylic, high fire glazed ceramic.
Sanford Biggers (right) :Ooo Oui, 2017, Textiles, fabric, antique quilt fragment, sequins.
Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.
Jodie Mack’s installation, No Kill Shelter (2013-18), of collaged animations of floral prints framed by stripes of floral fabric, across from Jasmin Sian’s intimately crafted, If I had a little zoo: Fennel and busy bumblebee (diptych) (2015), ink, graphite and cut-outs on deli bag paper, exude the impact of Schapiro through femininity, social significance and beauty.
There is not room to offer enough discussion on the architectural drawings and paintings of Edie Fake’s, which seem to reflect aesthetic style of Schapiro’s Womanhouse partner Judy Chicago. Fake, also from Chicago, depicts manifestations of queer spaces, exploring their meaning, blurring lines between connection and solitude, architecture and body. On their surface, their lines form luscious shapes with soft colors, a calming vibe for the in-depth intent.
Judy Ledgerwood’s work looms large, it seems literally painted on an entire gallery corner walls. Sara Rahbar’s intense mixed media flags use military fabric and ware, presenting a new side to decorative and political art. Ruth Root uses asymmetrical canvases to create subtle, minimalistic fabric work, and Josh Blackwell’s wool and mixed media sculptures evoke the grounded handiwork vibe.
Downstairs from this exhibition is Tanya Aguiñiga: Craft & Care, exploring beauty and femininity with immigration and identity. A true intersectional feminist experience, the exhibit includes work by the LA-based artist alongside community made work via her initiative, AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides that activates sites along the US–Mexico border through collaborative art-making and storytelling projects), and real-life video documentation, broadcasts and narrative context about border crossing and impactful issues, as well as an interactive component. The gallery experience is multi-sensory, walking at once through richly colorful fabric installations made from recycled dress and bathing suit straps tied by people crossing the border, and seeing photo documentation of border crossing experiences. Work is displayed floor to ceiling; Support, a floor installation of stacked fabric blocks of denim, salt, tice and leather explores sustenance; the wall sprawling Nopal (2017), of pulp, clay, wool, flax, hair and cold explores the artist’s identity, all flanked by bright pink walls reflecting a strong proud female sensibility.
Installation view of 'Tanya Aquiñiga: Craft and Care'
Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.
Moreover, a complementary exhibit, Encounters Along the Border, at the entryway to this exhibit, includes small work by jewelry artists from Mexico, Latin America, the United States and Europe exploring the idea of the international border and the American Dream. Each item is so different from the next reflecting the authentic awe-inspiring diversity of this nation we should be so proud of. US artist Demitra Thomloudis’ brooch, Reconstructed: Tied (2012) are three small items made of cement, silver, resin, steel, pigment, thread and duct tape. The tiny items are aesthetically refined and intriguing as the use of robust and practical materials, a grounded approach.
Down the road another artist who often takes a grounded approach to media, Adrian Piper’s retrospective at MOMA was wholly amazing. Piper (American, b. 1948), like Schapiro, both relative in age, also both began their art exploring minimalism, as exemplified in both exhibitions with early work. Piper’s emits philosophical curiosity at each turn, questioning and challenging the definitions of art, the gallery/viewing experience and ultimately our contemporary social experience in general.
Amazing as her work is its visible impact on its viewers; people moving along to her Funk Lessons (1983-84) and walking into her constructed environments, humming at her instruction, writing notes onto her invitational notebooks and even partaking in a ethical commitment. The noninteractive works such as Vanilla Nightmares (1986), the drawn on newspaper pages, have as much impact as the interactive and arrangement-as-art, such as the Aspects of the Liberal Dilemma (1978), pulling the viewer experience into the piece, make equal deep impact. The exhibit is stark at times (Everything Will be Taken Away, 2003-current) and warm and joyous at others (I am Somebody, The Body of My Friends #1-18, 1992-1995). The performance documentations track her steady career and social experimental intent, from Catalysis III, (1970, silver print, performance, Piper takes an outfit of hers and covering it in white paint. She then put a sign accross her shirt that said « WET PAINT » and walked down busy streets and went shopping at Macy’s) to the closing video projected on a large wall “Adrian Moves to Berlin” (2007, documentation of the street performance).
Adrian Piper. Adrian Moves to Berlin. 2007. Documentation of the street performance. Video (color, sound), 01:02:42. Video by Robert Del Principe. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Detail: video still at 00:38:09. © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.
With this elated closing music and dance comes an invitation for visitors to commit to an ethical promise with the The Probable Trust Registry. Visitors can sign the contracts for one of three: “I will always be too expensive to buy,” “I will always mean what I say,” and “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” Upon filling out the contract with contact information, visitors leave with a signed copy, invoking the seriousness of Piper’s intent beyond the gallery walls.
There is so much more to Piper’s exhibit which includes almost 300 works; the impact beyond the walls and into history and culture immense and so excitingly significant, in terms of gender, race, politics and just art in general. (An artist favorite may be the modest drawing in a case of a flower and amusing conceptual scripted query: “If I were to tell you that the empire state building is made out of the petals of violets, would you trust me to draw your picture?”, from The Context notebooks, 1970.)
This essay doesn’t do any of the three exhibits justice, and there has thankfully been a lot written about especially the latter. The experience of the trio of strong women’s perspectives in these major institutions is telling in and of itself and hopefully sets the ground for more growing space for artists who are women and people of color, those who document art and those just walking into a gallery healthfully jolted by an entirely new experience.
 Museum of Arts and Design, https://madmuseum.org/exhibition/surfacedepth. Accessed July 9, 2018.
 Western Exhibitions: Edie Fake. http://westernexhibitions.com/artist/edie-fake/. Accessed July 10, 2018.