Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blue Collar and Bluestocking: Janet Gilmore at Cleveland MOCA

Janet Gilmore, post-performance set for Love 'em, Leave 'em,MOCA Cleveland, 2013. Structure is 10' high and contains over 150 smashed
 ceramic vessels, many 
of which contained white, black, or pink paint.
Janet Gilmore: Body of Work assembles in one gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland five videos documenting the artist's performances of recent years. In a separate gallery, we see the installation that resulted from her recent commission at the museum. The performance, Love 'em, Leave 'em  occurred earlier in the spring, but its set remains until the show closes on June 9.

Piled inside the stage are smashed ceramic pots and dried rivers of the paint they held. Some of the paint flew out in great sweeping gestures when the pots were dropped through holes in the top of the set, causing grand, gestural marks of the sort we associate with Abstract Expressionist painting. It's hard not to make the association, at the same time that it's risible even to think it: The palette of white, black, and pink is so graphic that only artists of advertising or interior design might use it. Its delivery, too—via ceramic vases and vessels tossed through holes by a woman clad in stockings and shirtdress—is hardly the method of the heroes of modern art.

All the broken dishes makes me think of domestic spats heated to the point of china-hurling; of landfill; or of ancient Greeks casting shards to send a citizen into exile. Whatever was loved on this stage, was left abruptly, and with no love lost.

While there are probably positive things to be said about this set as a work of art, I wouldn't be the person to commend it. The video that was made of Gilmore's performance that resulted in what lies here—that is another, and exciting, thing altogether. At its beginning, the stage is completely white. Gilmore, barefoot in black stockings and a simple shirtdress (she could be a school teacher or an office manager), brings pots to one side of the stage, placing them on the tiered steps. After she arranges several as high up as she can reach, she begins to climb, carefully moving the pots ahead of her up the stairs. Then she scoots them along the top of the stage, scuttling behind them. She heaves them then, one by one, through the several holes cut for that purpose, before descending the opposite side, where she plunges immediately into the same procedure of collecting and moving vessels into position before throwing them to the stage floor.
From video of Love 'em, Leave 'em. Janet Gilmore
places vessels on stairs to be moved to top of
the set. Video courtesy of the artist and David
Castillo Gallery, Miami.

This performance lasts for just over one hour, during which time Gilmore doesn't depart for a moment from her routine of placing pots, moving and hurling them, then descending to repeat those activities from the other side of the stage.The viewer watches her grow sweaty and her hair get sticky and limp. The steps are steep and narrow. She has to avoid tripping in the the holes at the narrow top of the stage. Her work must be exhausting. It is tense and to watch.

Gilmore's labors are the opposite of artistic: They seem compulsive. At best, she seems duty-driven to consume or to rid herself of what I learned were over 150 pots: She sees this as her job. And it is an urgent, significant one for her. Despite the repetition, she doesn't perform her work mechanically, but with grit and determination and as fast as she can, with sweaty persistence. It is a deeply committed presentation.

But the performance is so repetitious that the watching grows tedious. After a while, I found myself restless and ready to move on to something else. Yet when it came to actually standing up, I just couldn't do it: I was too emotionally engaged by the doggedness of the performer. In a place beyond subject or meaning, the persistent activity was compelling in and of itself simply because she did not give it up. Gilmore executed every movement as if it were the climactic activity. Her apparent compulsion to execute whatever purpose drove her made it impossible to step away, for that would have been to consign her labor to the realm of the absurd. The video encouraged a bond between audience and protagonist through respect  for simple and determined daily effort for whatever banal, unspoken goals we set ourselves.

But Love 'em, Leave 'em is, like the rest of Gilmore's videos in Body of Work, open to all sorts of interpretations. It could be "about" the continuing influence of Abstract Expressionist painting and our acceptance of the idea of inspired sources. It could be, as Museum materials suggest, about gendered labor, the way this woman undertakes an extremely physical, demanding process in stockings and dress—in clothing that restricts her motion. Both of these threads are certainly present, working all together to elevate a dead set into a lively locus for ideas, when we know the history of its making.

Janet Gilmore, from My Love is an Anchor, 2004. Video with sound, 7:05 mins.
Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami.
In another gallery, five of Gilmore's earlier, edited videos are installed on side-by-side screens, each with its soundtrack playing. It was a great decision to show them this way, for they complement each other and the sounds reinforce one another's. In each film, Gilmore is in a situation of needing to endure some punishing circumstance in order to free herself. My favorite of these was the earliest, My Love is an Anchor from 2004.

In this film one hears the pounding of the hammer that beats and claws at the bucket of plaster that it setting around the artist's foot. (The gallery note informs us that this causes Gilmore's foot to swell, so it is in actuality imperative that it be released as soon as possible.) It was not obvious to me that she was making much progress, but the effort was massive: She pounds in frantic bursts, then pauses to wipe her hair out of her face and continues. Ah, love! Oh, love and marriage, love and commitment! Everyone wants to have it for life, until the "anchor" of permanence becomes the ball and chain—the bucket of cement in which we're fixed, at the mercy of others.

Janet Gilmore, Between a Hard Place, 2008. Video with sound, 9:43 minutes.
Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami.
Two more videos in which our heroine is struggling to free herself are 2008's Between a Hard Place and Standing Here from 2010. In Between a Hard Place, we watch her punch through walls only to find herself confronted with yet another gray wall, through which she beats her way to yet another...and on, presumably ad infinitum. Her equipment for this is only what she has on her. She is dressed in a formal, black dress, with sheer hosiery and high heels. In this shot from the film, she holds not a hammer, but one of her shoes: She uses its heel as a tool for battering the walls. 

Standing Here places Gilmore in a narrow box of a room, which she attempts to scale, towards the camera, continually sliding down again and having to start agin. The scenery , like that in Between a Hard Place, is colored for graphic impact, the yellow backs of walls contrasting to the dull surfaces presented to the protagonist. In this one, her clothing pops out  particularly—the red dress, black gloves and boots.
Janet Gilmore, Standing Here, 2010. Video with sound, 10:48 min.
Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami.

In this film we see Gilmore work unaided by even a spike heel. This is the most visceral and physical of all the films. She is driven by the force of  her determination and the strength of her body to punch, batter, and deconstruct the panels around her in aid of climbing up the tower she's confined in.

In these films, I easily, immediately find feminist content. Gilmore's lady-like costumes are ridiculously out-of-place, given her workmanly settings and large, aggressive gestures. Yet she labors with complete lack of self-consciousness, unquestioningly. If she doesn't notice the restrictiveness of her garb, who put her in it? Who handicapped her this way? As in Love 'em, Leave 'em, we see an indomitable person, determined to accept and perform a role that she has appears to accept and take seriously. 

A woman is given a Sisyphean task, to which she devotes steady, unflagging energy, even when there's no aid, resolution, or escape in sight. Where we expect to see a manly construction worker, we see a woman, working the constructed world apart by the strength of her own hands and body, perhaps to begin again to build something less confining, premised on ideas shaped by the power of feminine minds.

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