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Home Work 

An ambitious, groundbreaking show on a theme close to the heart

Wednesday, Feb 4 2004
The Big Ballyhoo is a local collective whose members describe themselves as "seven queer feminist artists committed to using art to call public attention to environmental and social injustice." The group's first show, prompted by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, was an installation in the bathrooms of the Lexington Club on the theme of biological warfare. Soon after that display opened, Big Ballyhoo put out a call to women artists for an exhibit built around the theme of "home" -- works that would, in the words of the exhibit statement, "dismantle" and explore definitions of domestic life and, by extension, a host of living spaces (including nests, bodies, desks, beds, and prison cells), related themes (like eviction, exile, safety, and confinement), and activities (such as birth, meals, washing, and sewing).

The collective selected works by 70 artists and crafters -- local, North American, and international. Its members have curated an ambitious, groundbreaking show titled "Inside of Inside," currently on view in the Mission District at the Lab, the Bay Area's oldest nonprofit gallery and performance space, as part of its 20th-anniversary celebrations. For the viewer, it's a challenging ensemble by established and emerging artists representing diverse media: handmade furniture and textile art, video installations, photography, painting, sculpture, and zines, occupying the Lab's entire ground floor. The challenge is not only in how the exhibit redefines, collectively and individually, the meaning of home in our lives, but also in its deliberate juxtaposition of fine art with homemaker crafts, of individual, professional art with amateur, collaborative work by women in prison. The interactive character of many of the pieces invites us to explore our own relation to domestic spaces and to decide how they define our mental interiors, a conceit suggested by the show's title, taken from a line in Kathleen Fraser's poem "La La at the Cirque Fernando, Paris" (its title taken from a Degas painting):

I sink down

between ice and lightning; go inside

of inside (echo & over),

forget to be "me" drifting sugar

in wide bitter sea

One work that explores interior spaces is Betsy Boyle's collaborative installation with Lissy Ivy Tiegel, Put It Back Where You Found It, which features a teenage girl's wooden desk belonging to a fictional character named Ada. At first glance, it seems a deceptively familiar emblem of adolescent life: The desk is an assemblage of keepsakes, found objects, snapshots, schoolwork, and record covers -- a poem of disorder crammed into drawers and onto surfaces and bulletin boards. But its contents are arranged into a disconnected narrative of Ada's world, with each object defined and cataloged by identification tags. Above her desk is a coin collector's board titled "The Life Cycle of a Penny"; appended to each indentation for a missing coin is a tag that recounts the penny's history: where it was minted, how it came into the pocket of a relative, how it was spent, etc., a seemingly aleatory narrative that might also represent chapters in Ada's accidental life. A yearbook-size photo of a classmate is labeled "Several months from now, Ada will discover that Peggy is a compulsive liar." By invitation, we further invade Ada's private world by opening drawers, reading her correspondence, and checking out a freshman English assignment -- a box decorated to show how Ada believes she is perceived by others. Removing the lid, we discover a leaflet on bisexuality and a page on Spanish verb conjugations. Yet the further we penetrate her milieu, the more mystery her identity assumes. "The truth is Ada is obsessed by pennies," reads a tag attached to a roll of them inside her desk drawer. We wonder why and how, like a parent clandestinely reading a child's diary, seeking links among the detritus of a life we don't really understand.

"Your father is a motherfucker," Bernadine Mellis recalls being told in the six-minute color film Born, a bittersweet narrative of the moviemaker's home birth on her parents' bed. It is a story of adultery, evoking the cruelty, mystery, and humor of a delivery that Mellis claims to remember, attended by her mother and father and his mistress. She recalls it as if she were both inside and outside the event, sees her mother's "eyes like hammers, many Russian hammers," confronting her father's infidelity; Mellis recollects how she burst from the womb like a charging lion, and how the amniotic sac was peeled off her "like a talisman." So acute is her memory, she would have us believe, that as she turns over cards from a tarot deck she claims she can recall her previous incarnation as a man who died of a broken heart. Indeed, she's haunted by the question "Am I really special?" and "burns with annoyance at her father for not paying attention."

If Born explores the primal transition from a comfortable internal space to a dysfunctional home, artist and writer Dori Midnight evokes the makeshift domesticity of a traveling life. Her assemblage (Untitled) is constructed of pine poles, ribbon, thread, and fabric with a pallet of dirt and straw underneath. Similar to Born, Midnight's teepeelike structure plays with notions of inside and outside: Its skin is covered in silk lingerie and panties. "In transience," writes Midnight, "home is carried like a secret treasure that is unfurled each night."

Tammy Rae Carland's series of gelatin silver prints, On Becoming Billy and Katie, 1964, is a meditation on gender and the inherited construct of personal and social identity. In it, the photographer assumes her parents' roles in imagined scenes from their life. The pictures are based on the only existing black-and-white image of her parents together, standing on a porch and holding a child. Carland writes that she has "re-created, re-performed the original image as well as four portraits in which I am becoming both my mother and father." Stylistically, they evoke the social portraiture of German photographer August Sander and the Depression-era images of Dorothea Lange, as Carland attires herself both as her working-class, construction-worker father and her mother, a waitress and housewife. How separate is her own identity from this imagined, if documented, family history? And by extension, how separate can any of us be from the destiny embedded in our parents' accidental pairing?

Jenny Hart's hand-sewn portrait, White Girl, presents the bleached, naked upper body of a young woman with a 1950s wavy coif. Meticulously stitched, flamelike patterns surround her, along with images of doves sewn onto the cloth; a rodeo-style banner across the top announces, "I Promise to Be a Good Girl," and another logo at the bottom reads, "Mais C'est la Douleur Exquise" ("What exquisite pain"). The girl's image is a portrait of sexual frustration and repression -- a clean-cut wallflower, embroidered with sequins on cotton. (Hart's craft design company Sublime Stitching has been written up in the Wall Street Journal; it specializes, she writes, "in hip, updated craft patterns for hobbyists.") This stitched portrait, with its allusions to whiteness and purity, reinvents a Colonial American homemakers' craft with a postmodern sense of irony.

Far and away the grittiest and most courageous work here is the installation WeAreHere, conceived and constructed by Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough together with eight women incarcerated at the Central California Women's Facility, a maximum-security prison in Chowchilla. For the better part of a year, Yarbrough visited CCWF every other weekend, working with inmate-artists Destinni, Michelle, Kimberly, Lindsey, Donna, Buttons, Kelly, and Angel to create five-minute digital video segments, in which the women got to present themselves and their work with few limitations as to content. The segments appear on monitors placed on shelves inside a cubiclelike structure that's a reduced version of the 16-by-16-foot cells these women inhabit. (Usually eight women, diverse in age and sentence, live in a single cell, with small TVs blaring their favorite programs.) As Yarbrough insists in her artist's statement, "[T]he project is not about these prisoners, it is about these individuals, these artists, these mothers, these women, who like the rest of us are confronted with the culmination of their choices, past and present."

In the videos, we hear the women talk about self-acceptance, random acts of kindness, their personal and artistic growth, and why they are incarcerated -- in ways that humanize their situation and challenge outsiders' assumptions about what it means to live "on the inside." As Yarbrough says, "They put themselves out there. They walk their talk." In one video, Kelly uses two hand puppets to give us a "gallery tour" of her artwork and library. She also reveals that she committed "heinous crimes. ... I molested my children." She communicates her remorse and says, "They are starting to forgive me." Then we watch her best friend Buttons, herself a victim of incest, talk about Kelly moments after Kelly has revealed to her for the first time why she is incarcerated. "We can heal," says Buttons, who calls Kelly "my dearest sister from God." It would be hard to imagine two male prisoners with comparable histories speaking with such compassion. Another woman, serving a life sentence, tells us how she fells more free in prison than she ever did outside, where her humanity was constantly stripped away. "Don't regret what you did," she tells us, "but what you haven't done, because every day we're alive is a gift."

And so are this work and this inspired, cutting-edge show, which the Big Ballyhoo has put together with what it calls, deservedly, "reckless reverence for the art, labor, craft, and history of women artists."

About The Author

Carl Nagin


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