Chapter 8. Feminist Art: Kitchen Testimony
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part III  The Kitchen Intersections between the Private and Public Spheres 143 Chapter 8 Feminist Art Kitchen Testimony Jody B. Cutler In the United States, “first-generation feminist art,” recognized initially in the context of white, middle-class women, coalesced in the early 1970s largely through themes and images of the home and the female body, often merging the two.1 Feeding and eating, not surprisingly , were prevalent subjects that intersect in the kitchen with myriad notions of domesticity in two now celebrated works of the era, both of which have received increasing art historical attention in recent decades. The first, generally known as Nurturant Kitchen and attributed to RobinWeltsch andVicki Hodgetts (1972,Plate 8.1),a temporary , site-specific installation for the landmark Womanhouse exhibition (1972) survives through relatively substantial documentation.2 The other, the six-minute, black-and-white video, Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975; below, Semiotics) by Martha Rosler (b. 1943), has become widely accessible in exhibitions,museum collection materials, and on the Internet (Plate 8.2).3 The considerable scholarship and criticism on the social and artistic nature of these two works and the broader issues broached by them begins with Lucy Lippard’s brief essay,“Household Images in Art” (1973, first published in Ms. magazine), which mentions the Womanhouse kitchen, and culminates in a number of ways in Helen Molesworth, “House Work and Art Work” (2000), which includes a comprehensive analysis of Rosler’s video.4 Following their lead, I hope to further the heuristic scope and historical impact of these works through the shared centralization of a physical kitchen space 144 The Kitchen as ­ overdetermined feminist content, along with two later feminist projects approaching similar iconic status in the next generation: the Kitchen Table Series (1990–1991, Plate 8.3) by Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953), a cinematic group of twenty black-and-white photographs and twelve text panels; and the room-scale,bead-covered trompe l’oeil sculpture, Kitchen (completed 1995, Plate 8.4; Whitney Museum of American Art) by Liza Lou (b. 1969).5 While obviously not the only contemporary art projects on the kitchen theme during the period covered herein to receive some exposure (even excluding individual related images, as photography became dominant by the late 1980s),these four stand out as concerted explorations, differentiated from concurrent feminist and other art activity incorporating food as medium. In this sense, the largely (not entirely) ahistorical“conversation”I develop below between them suggests a narrowed social as well as artistic history within the expansive cosmos of domesticity (food, cooking, cleaning) taken up in much postwar feminist art,as mentioned.Meanwhile,this intergenerational overlay draws from and furthers a growing revisionist discourse on oversimplified stylistic and regional dichotomies in the historicization of feminist art.6 (Rosler,Weems, and Lou each were working in proximity to art academia in California,a milieu known for facilitated feminist art pedagogy and production from the time of Womanhouse, at the time that their kitchen projects discussed herein were conceived, yet,each was equally abreast of and hedging the mainstream art world centered in New York.) Conversely,several distinctive tendencies and directions of feminist art in the last quarter of the twentieth century are also illuminated. Divergent in approach and aesthetics, the four projects of focus testify to a range of lived and mnemonic, shared and personal experiences for American women in proximity to the mass-mediated postwar “American kitchen.” As such, the term “kitchen testimony” in my title alludes to this collective record, although it originated as a reference to literary accounts by slave and servant witnesses to digressions of their owner/employers, who tried to suppress them by casting doubt on the capacity of their “inferiors” for judgment and truthfulness.7 However, my usage implies discursive overlaps with this past insofar as female domestic labor and truth telling, turned Feminist Art 145 inward among women in kitchens in many cultural traditions,features prominently. Kitchen Confines Womanhouse is most commonly known as the first exhibition of feminist work, collectively, to receive wide attention, the results of a larger project, the short-lived Feminist Art Program founded by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro under the auspices of CalArts (California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, 1971–1972).8 Soliciting and reconstituting a vacant Hollywood mansion into art studios, the (female) students transformed the site into “an elaborate and complex example of household fantasy” and, in the process, themselves into feminist artists.9 Women baby boomers were sensitive to the psychological...