Critical Eye: Close Stitching

View of Suzanne Bocanegra’s installation La Fille, 2018, mixed mediums; at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Photo Carlos Avendaño.

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IN 2015 the artist Suzanne Bocanegra created a one-on-one performance piece called Studio Visit. You could make an appointment to meet her at her Brooklyn studio, a room in a huge converted factory in Gowanus. Outside was a bustling Whole Foods and a stinking industrial canal, but shut away inside was a warren of production spaces and ateliers, as meditative and geometrical as a cloister. Bocanegra is a serene, warmly clerical presence. When she ushered me down a long hallway and into her tiny workspace, I felt my internal clamor quieting to match her calm.

Each session was unique. Bocanegra’s workshop was separated into a small foyer with table and chairs and a larger dark storage space beyond. Despite ranging from fine art to performance, her practice has always had an accumulative aspect: while still in high school in Texas, she made Pink Box (1975), a box packed tightly with stacks of smaller boxes, each with a little pink doodad inside. After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute, she moved to New York, where in the ’80s and ’90s she made wall-mounted assemblages from objets she found on the street and hauled home. For the last decade, she has been increasingly involved in performance, developing sculptural costumes for troupes like Big Dance Theater and the 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co., and writing a trilogy of slippery, postmodern artist lectures. Despite this diversity, all her works—from catalogued mess accumulations to Rerememberer (2009), an orchestral musical piece written collaboratively by its many attendees—have evoked the pleasures of collection and abundance.

Even now, the artist has a squirrel’s intensity whenever she handles something small—a bead, a grain of rice, a straight pin. In her studio, the myriad components of two decades of her work are jumbled together and piled, higgledy-piggledy, into towers higher than a person. Bocanegra walked around the heaps of stuff with a little bag, selecting a tiny jar of millet, a toe shoe, or a magazine cutout as each struck her fancy, browsing her old artworks as if she were shopping in a dark market. Then, back in the anteroom, she briefly narrated the part each object had played in her oeuvre. This container of grain had been part of the massive project Mother and Child: All the Food for One Adult and One Child for One Year (1999); that dyed toe shoe was part of Little Dot (2010), in which she asked dancers to bourrée en pointe in response to the carefully counted out dots in a Seurat painting. As she talked, you got a glancing portrait of the artist herself: a life explained through works.

Bocanegra’s show “Poorly Watched Girls,” on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia this past winter, had the same contemplative quality as Studio Visit, even though large public galleries replaced the private chapel of her work space. The show’s title is a loose translation of La Fille mal gardée, the bucolic 1789 ballet (choreographed many times over two centuries) about a peasant girl who evades her mother-chaperone and allows herself to be seduced. The girl is “poorly watched” in two senses: she’s available for predation when she’s out of her mother’s sight, but she’s also watched by men with bad intent, who lust after their stereotype of the randy rural maiden. (It’s a comedy!) Bocanegra’s introductory wall text explained her interest in “how our entertainments theatricalize women in trouble,” and thus her museum-wide installation dealt with the ways in which the vulnerability of women creates and feeds certain aspects of culture. What her text didn’t mention was the way that her artist’s attention served throughout as a sort of balm for that exploitation, reconstructing the “poorly watched” women and girls with her own careful gaze.

 

BOCANEGRA’S FOUR pieces took over the public spaces of the Fabric Workshop, which inhabits a lovely old building (formerly a flag factory) in downtown Philadelphia. The first work you encountered was the video installation Lemonade, Roses, Satchel (2017), a room containing just the wall-size projection of singer-songwriter Shara Nova (of My Brightest Diamond) wearing one of Bocanegra’s pastiche costumes. Nova sports long fake plaits, a bundle of twigs on her head, and an exaggerated peasant costume that looks equal parts Polish, German, and Russian, though, on closer examination, her apron is clearly just a red-and-white checked tablecloth. She sings a song that sounds like a new setting of an old folk song: “Would you like some lemonade, meine kleine mädchen? My roses are so pretty! If he’d just give me some money for my satchel.” She sings these three lines over and over, to a haunting and pretty tune, strumming her zither. It’s not a folk song, though. According to the wall text, the lyrics are three phrases that Bocanegra’s grandmother repeated while suffering from dementia. The old woman’s mind paces around inside a tight circle: She offers lemonade to her granddaughter; she loves her roses; she thinks her husband is keeping money from her; she offers lemonade. The recording of Nova’s voice echoed out of the gallery, down to the foyer and the museum shop, and the plaintive melody began to worry itself into your own deep memory.

Just beyond the room with the Lemonade video, a heavily curtained doorway led into Bocanegra’s Dialogue of the Carmelites (2018), a dimly lit installation inspired by Francis Poulenc’s 1953 opera, which dramatizes the execution of a group of sixteen nuns during France’s Reign of Terror. Bocanegra asked her partner, composer David Lang, to write a pointillist response to Poulenc, so you heard a recording of Lang’s spare composition featuring vocalist Caroline Shaw’s sometimes isolated and sometimes refracted voice singing wistful phrases like “I still find it very difficult to keep my hands steady” and “I am alone” and “I really prefer traveling.”

Bocanegra “casts” her Carmelites from the 1955 Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States. Dozens of the book’s unframed pages, each with a photograph of a nun and a description of her order’s requirements and habit, were placed on wooden shelves running along all four walls. In tribute to the tradition of convents doing hand- and lacework, Bocanegra had the Fabric Workshop and Museum Studio staff embroider the pages, sometimes with just a line of thread to heighten the blackness of a fold or add a touch of silver to a pair of glasses. These small glimmers coax you to lean in close to look at each sister, some of whom are wearing habits that have been unchanged for centuries. The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, for instance, deliberately dress like peasant girls from 1633, with starched white wimples like sails billowing around their faces. Bocanegra’s interest in the line between clothing and costume is at play here, as well as her fascination with austerely designed idylls. The words associated with the nun’s clothes (guimpe, cincture, pelerine) are archaic, but some of the women (novices could be anywhere from fifteen to thirty) seem as fresh as Eve.

As she did in the Seurat piece, Bocanegra has deconstructed overwhelmingly dense sources (both the opera and the book) so that we can look at them piece by piece, detail by detail. This creates a secondary, delayed impact—we’re lured into looking, only to be hammered by the art when we get close. As we delight in the sweetness and handmadeness of the embroidered images, the actual fate of the Carmelites flares up in our minds. We think of these nuns, lined up along four shelves like the girls in the Madeline books, and imagine them walking up the scaffold one by one.

The mood was lighter on the second floor, even though Bocanegra continued to play with the frisson of prurience people feel about a woman suffering in public. In the low-beamed gallery, running nearly the full length of the building, was Valley (2018), an eight-channel video installation that looks at first glance like a more organized version of Blade Runner’s neon adscape. As you came off the elevator, you saw a space full of huge images of women turning, speaking, smiling, and modeling colorful clothes.

Bocanegra pointed projectors at the two long white walls, filling them baseboard to ceiling with eight short video sequences, re-creating, in octuplicate, Judy Garland’s famous costume tests for Valley of the Dolls. Garland, drug-dependent and fragile in 1967, was cast in and quickly fired from a movie she had partly inspired, but she was on set long enough to film these fittings. You can see the footage on YouTube of Garland modeling a red skirt suit, an orange caftan, a copper sequin suit, a white drop-waist dress—all while trying to appear casual but betraying agitation and instability. Under Bocanegra’s direction, Fabric Workshop employees remade the costumes in three sizes, a painstaking process that included screenprinting and hand-embellishing new fabrics to match the originals. Bocanegra then cast eight powerful women—including poet Anne Carson, choreographer Deborah Hay, producer/actor Tanya Selvaratnam, and artist Carrie Mae Weems—to play Judy. All eight try to imitate Garland’s nervous gestures exactly in the meticulously re-created footage, but there’s undeniable buoyancy here, even silliness. I think Bocanegra is commenting on our vampiric obsession with poor, undead Garland, but the projections themselves are full of life and color and saturated gorgeousness. When she was fired, Garland took the outfits with her and wore them in concert, making costumes into clothes, which became costumes again. There’s a sense in Valley too of beautiful things being rescued from the flames, of defeat being repurposed into strength.

Far above, on the eighth floor (the other floors are accessible only as part of the Workshop), is another long gallery, higher-ceilinged and boxier, that contained La Fille (2018). This installation is Bocanegra’s silent, static version of the “romantic, agricultural idyll,” with dress forms modeling her heavily layered, quilted, pieced-together burlesques of eighteenth-century pastoral chic. In silhouette, they’re historically accurate (big panniers, corset waists, elaborate bonnets), but on closer inspection you could see she used plastic dolls, corncobs, button bags, toe shoes, aprons, and torn-apart shapewear to mimic ballet’s old shepherdess drag. The six dress forms gathered in a loose klatch at one end of the room, turning away from four large flats that faced the long wall—a backdrop “set” that was out of place. These panels were covered with what looked like grubby white bedspreads, sepia-colored pieces of paper, and colorful waxed strings. Looking closer, though, you could see that the bits and pieces tacked to each flat were components of older Bocanegra works. On one, bunches of painted petals hung like tails pinned to a donkey—these must have been recycled from All the Petals from Jan Brueghel the Elder’s “Flowers in a Blue Vase, 1608” (2008)—and on another you could find a small stitched-on pocket with pictures of dancers wearing Bocanegra’s peasant finery. Completing the installation, on the “blind” side of the scenery, Bocanegra placed a little bust of a laughing girl. The artworks on the flats were pointed away from her. The “dancing” dress forms weren’t trying to see the art; the girl wasn’t trying to see it either.

 

THERE WAS another poorly watched girl here: Bocanegra herself. A deep tension exists in her work between wanting to be seen and wanting to disappear. Since 2010, she has written three solo shows, vivid “artist lectures” with slides—but they are performed by actors who wear earpieces and play “Suzanne.” Bocanegra herself always sits out of the light, murmuring her autobiographical talks into a microphone. The avant-garde theater actor Paul Lazar played her in When a Priest Marries a Witch (2010); Frances McDormand played her in Bodycast (2013); Lili Taylor played her in Farmhouse/Whorehouse (2017). Having seen the self-portrait of Studio Visit, I was also prepared to interpret the physical materials of her work as a fourth “performer.” Does Bocanegra feel seen? Throughout the museum, she choreographed sightlines: Shara Nova looking into the eyes of the viewer, the congregation of nuns looking lovingly at one another, the Judy Garlands smiling at a director behind the camera. Yet here, where there was a kind of retrospective of Bocanegra’s work on display, all the gazes turned away, glanced off, looked down. The floor felt disturbingly lonely.

The organization of “Poorly Watched Girls” meant that you experienced the show’s thematic and emotional path quite differently depending on whether you went from bottom to top or from top to bottom. Would you go from music (first floor) to speech and laughter (second floor) up into cathedral silence (eighth floor)? Or would you descend from the diffident and self-referential La Fille through the nervous chatter of Valley and end with the quite desperate emotionality that underlies both Carmelites and Lemonade? Ascending was meditative; descending was devastating.

For all its intensity, though, Bocanegra’s exhibition was deeply calming; visiting it was like taking the veil for an afternoon. Every exhibit took its inspiration from bad outcomes—ravishment, dementia, drug addiction, slaughter. Yet, just like Bocanegra’s studio in Gowanus, the museum contained total refuge and steadying self-absorption. I went in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, which meant that I was almost completely alone there. At the door of each room was a guard, all of them women, I think, but I watched them poorly, and I can’t be sure. I do know that I came away with a deep sense that I had been among sisters. Behind the museum’s walls, you found a convent of restful work, where the hum of activity was bent completely on female self-knowledge and artisanal beauty. Close contemplation of fabric art often makes us think of the hand of the artist as it stitches and folds. Here, the entire installation had given me that feeling. I had been held gently but firmly. I had been—for an afternoon—a soul in someone else’s care.