Last week I was notified that Exquisite Uterus: the Art of Resistance was to be the topic of a panel discussion at the upcoming National Women's Studies Association annual conference. In feminism-world, this is a big deal. The same project had beef turned down for panel discussion on "Crafting Community" at the College Art Association conference in February. Why would the women's studies world be more interested in this project than the college art crowd? Therein lies an interesting question about the function of art, and how we as artists often forget "regular people" need it too.
It was just a little idea we came up with to put in the gallery at UW-Oshkosh for the Wisconsin Women's Studies Consortium/LGBTQ co-conference two years ago. We'd been in the coffeeshop kvetching about what was happening to women's reproductive rights, unaware that we were just at the beginning of what some keep telling us is NOT a war on women (but sure feels war-like.) So we thought, we'd give women and men the chance to express themselves on a piece of cloth, with the image of a uterus - the idea was, it's your uterus, you can do what you want with it. We expected maybe 40 or 50 participants.The EU project now has about 200-225 pieces in the exhibition coffers. They are all based upon the original image that my curating collaborator, Helen Klebesadel, put up on SpoonFlower to start the project. We each got a few ourselves to give our friends.
So the thing is, not everyone who participated (or is still participating) was a trained artist. The uteruses we got in the mail came from skilled needle-workers, trained artists, crafty types, poets, tinkers, a couple curators, old women, young women, whole collectives of people, anonymous individuals...you name it. Therefore, if judged as "works of art" individually, some might disappoint the trained eye. Some are beautifully made, but don't carry a lot of content. Like my own, for instance, the only thing about me it reflects is that I happened to be talking about the Bayeux Tapestry to my textiles students and took the opportunity to indulge in a craving for a little crewel embroidery. But it does draw from a battle scene, and, well...my embroidery is very nice. But that's it.
My mom's was actually the last piece of art she ever made. When Helen and I presented in Oshkosh that fall, my mom was in hospice already. She died within a day of that presentation. However, hers, made when she was sick but we didn't really know it, is typical of her, though, when we talked it over she admitted she feared it was "too obvious." Hers has a little nest in the center, and expresses hormonal mood swings in the ovaries with a sunny side and a cloudy side. (She assured me that I probably came from the gloomy side. She was real funny, my mom.) No one else had a nest in the middle, with a funny bird in it, or weather ovaries, so I guess it wasn't as obvious as she thought. When I look at it, it bears all the hallmarks of my mother's professional artwork, but when I look at my own, I just think, well, that's where I was at that moment - grabbing inspiration from what was actually a distraction from real things that were happening then.
All together, the uteruses are most powerful as an army in the gallery. Many are more powerful when you read the statements, which in some cases are beautiful works of literature, or wonderful stories. It's all very personal, even those which are impersonal in their execution. But are they all "Art?" I don't know.
A lot of women who gave them to us said something: "I hope this is okay." What they meant was, I hope this is good enough to hang with the Art. The artists in the group were unconcerned. We got artist-made pieces that were all content, execution competent but not amazing. We got artist-made pieces that were expertly executed, and so far away from the work they exhibit, we did double-takes - an obsessively beaded one from a professional photographer jumps to mind. Helen herself, who normally works in lush full-color paint, made a three-dimensional mask shape in subdued Victorian cream lace. It was an opportunity to do something different, an invitation to freedom.
Which is why NWSA would accept this for their conference on Transgression, and CAA would not accept it for their panel on community. Yes, this is Art Activism, but it's not, in it's execution, academic, nor is it especially edgy, or cynical. What it is, is art for the makers, on an individual level; it's for the people only as a collective, like it or not. This is not a project that will get any one of us into an art history book, but the people who made their uteruses will remember it. The function of art is multiple, and in academia we shy constantly from the idea of the therapy of making. It's got to say something! But it's awkward when the art says something, and does so powerfully, but isn't...what? Expert? The artist didn't pay the emotional and psychic dues of art school? It's pure? It's unhooked from the history of art (that patriarchal linear march of time, Manet begat Monet who begat Cezanne who begat Picasso who begat Pollock who begat Rauschenberg who begat Basquiat, ad nauseum). The uterus project confronts those things we academics hate to hear from our students in critiques: "It's lavender because I like purple." But a big part of me hates this more: that it's considered transgressive to let people do what they want, and that there's really so little room for that in the Art World.
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