Women House: Beginnings

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations.

Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74

One of the leaders of the 1970s feminist art movement, Judy Chicago (b. 1939, Chicago, Illinois) is considered one of the most innovative and influential artists of the period. Like many other feminist artists, Chicago was interested in raising craft, or “women’s work,” to the status of fine art. In the early 1970s she began studying china painting. Her Butterfly test plates feature a synthesis of vulvar and butterfly imagery, celebrating the female form from a woman’s perspective rather than through the male gaze.

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Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

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Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

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Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

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Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

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Judy Chicago, Butterfly, test plates, 1973–74; China paint on porcelain; Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Chicago’s plates were a precursor to The Dinner Party (1974–79), permanently housed at the Brooklyn Museum. The installation consists of 39 ornate place settings, each dedicated to a significant historical or mythological woman, including Sacajawea, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Virginia Woolf. The place settings exhibit a variety of craft techniques, including needlework and china painting. Women celebrated in the installation. Over the course of nearly five years, and with the help of hundreds of volunteers, Chicago executed one of the most iconic artworks of the 20th century.

Johanna Demetrakas, Womanhouse, 1972

In 1971, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro established a feminist art program at California State University, Fresno. For their project Womanhouse, which inspired NMWA’s Women House, Chicago and Schapiro rented a dilapidated mansion in Los Angeles. Along with 23 of their students, they transformed it into a unique exhibition space “suitable to the dreams and fantasies they envisioned for what would be an exclusively female environment.” Womanhouse consisted of workshops, performances, and installations that critiqued gender roles and explored the relationship between women and domesticity. Believing that “society fails women by not demanding excellence from them,” Schapiro and Chicago encouraged their students to push themselves beyond their boundaries.

Award-winning filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas (b. 1937) chronicled Womanhouse in a documentary of the same name. She filmed various workshops, performances, and audience reactions to the installations. The documentary has been screened at NMWA as well as the Whitney Museum, the Venice Biennale, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. To learn more about the inspiration behind NMWA’s current exhibition, watch an online preview of the Womanhouse film and visit the official Womanhouse website to learn more.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women House: Construction as Self-Construction

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Ana Vieira’s room-sized sculpture raises questions about the safety and certainties of home and the differences between public and private space.

Ana Vieira, Ambiente/Sala de Jantar (Environment/Dining Room), 1971; Metal structure, nylon net, acrylic paint, tableware, cutlery, lighting elements, and audio, 98 ½ x 118 ⅛ x 118 ⅛ in. (exterior) 98 ½ x 39 ⅜ x 39 ⅜ in. (interior); Calouste Gulbenkian Museum—Modern Collection; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Ana Vieira’s Ambiente/Sala de Jantar (Environment/Dining Room), 1971

In the 1970s, some women artists rebelled against the lack of access to space—physical space in which to work or exhibit as well as the symbolic space of recognition—by making building-like installations.

Ana Vieira’s (b. 1940, Coimbra, Portugal; d. 2016, Lisbon) room-sized sculpture Environment/Dining Room (1971) is now seen as a statement of its time. “The ‘Environment’ of 1971 was the beginning of my work on three-dimensional painting, which was also another obsession of mine,” said Vieira. “I did not want there to be only a (two-dimensional) image but the body of the image, visible through the body of the spectators, because you do not see only with your eyes but also with your entire body.”

Vieira built the space from gauze panels screened with silhouettes of objects from a bourgeois interior. The work feels both familiar and strange, raising questions about the safety and certainties of home and the differences between public and private space. The barely visible objects inside the panels and the clinking soundtrack are fragments that the viewer has to actively connect and follow, like clues being decoded. Viewers remain outsiders. Although people would like to enter the structure and participate to know more, they are kept out.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

Women House: Marks

Nazgol Ansarinia, Membrane (Unbleached Silk), 2016; Paper, glue, and paint, 216 ½ x 65 ⅜ in.; Courtesy of the artist, Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan, and Collection Enea Righi, Bologna

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Works by Nazgol Ansarinia, Isa Melsheimer, and Heidi Bucher speak of absence and the haunting quality of domestic spaces.

Nazgol Ansarinia’s Membrane (Unbleached Silk), 2016

Nazgol Ansarinia’s (b. 1979, Tehran, Iran) work testifies to rapid changes in Tehran in recent years. An urbanization process has led to the destruction of small, low-rise houses in order to make room for large residential blocks.

The artist sees this massive demolition as erasing collective memories forever. Developed through a 3-D scanner, Membrane is the monumental impression of a structural wall exposed when an adjacent building was demolished.

Isa Melsheimer’s Dachgarten/Treppe (Roof Garden/Stairs), 2010

Isa Melsheimer, Dachgarten/Treppe (Roof Garden/Stairs), 2010; Concrete, metal, and Sempervivum, 21 ¼ x 35 ⅜ x 16 in.; Fonds municipal d’art contemporain de la Ville de Paris

Isa Melsheimer’s (b. 1968, Neuss, Germany) model represents part of a no-longer-extant roof garden near the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Designed by Le Corbusier in the 1920s for the art collector Charles de Beistegui, the space had walls five feet high but no roof.

Directly open to the sky, the room offered glimpses of just the tops of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower. On view nearby is Melsheimer’s related work, Beistegui, which includes an embroidered textile showing these views. This work also features a stuffed cockatiel, an imagined resident of Beistegui’s open-air living room.

Heidi Bucher’s Psychiatrische Anstalt in Kreuzlingen—Schloss Bellevue “Fenstertüre” (Mental Institution in Kreuzlingen—Bellevue Castle “Window”), 1988

Heidi Bucher, Psychiatrische Anstalt in Kreuzlingen—Schloss Bellevue “Fenstertüre” (Mental Institution in Kreuzlingen—Bellevue Castle “Window”), 1988; Organic latex on canvas, 102 ⅜ x 65 in.; The Approach, London

To explore the body’s relation to architectural space, Heidi Bucher (b. 1926, Winterthur, Switzerland; d. 1993, Brunnen, Switzerland) covered the surface of rooms in her native Switzerland with liquid rubber and pigments. Once these leathery “skins” solidified, she slowly peeled them away, a process captured in the video on view nearby. She chose architectural locations full of history, such as the Bellevue psychiatric clinic in the town of Kreuzlingen, where this work was made. A place of control, the mental hospital symbolizes a structure of power that Bucher questioned in her art.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

Women House: Home is Where it Hurts

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Birgit Jürgenssen, Mona Hatoum, and Monica Bonvicini explore the implicit and explicit oppression of domestic space and the desire to escape.

Birgit Jürgenssen, Ich möchte hier raus! (I Want To Get Out of Here!), 1976/2006

Birgit Jürgenssen, Ich möchte hier raus! (I Want to Get Out of Here!), 1976/2006; Black-and-white photograph, 22 7/8 x 18 7/8 in.; Estate of Birgit Jürgenssen, Courtesy of Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna; © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna

“Woman is so often the subject of art but only seldom and reluc­tantly is she allowed to speak for herself or to produce her own pictures,” wrote Birgit Jürgenssen (b. 1949, Vienna, Austria; d. 2003, Vienna, Austria). Jürgenssen and her feminist contemporaries had to write themselves into a male-dominated narrative of art history.

Jürgenssen portrayed herself as a stereotypical mid-20th-century housewife in the photograph Ich möchte hier raus! She appears silenced and trapped, with her face and hands pressed against glass. The message scrawled across her neck and lace collar, means “I want to get out of here.” The translucent glass alludes to a physical and metaphorical barrier between the housewife and the outside world.

Mona Hatoum, Home, 1999

Born in Beirut to a family of Palestinian exiles, Mona Hatoum (b. 1952, Beirut, Lebanon) “always had an ambiguous relationship with notions of home, family, and the nurturing that is expected.” Like other Palestinian refugees forced from their homes in 1948, Hatoum’s parents were never able to acquire Lebanese identification cards. When civil war broke out in her home country in 1975, Hatoum settled permanently in London.

Mona Hatoum, Home, 1999; Wooden table, 15 steel kitchen utensils, electric wire, three light bulbs, software, and audio; Courtesy of the Tate; Purchased 2002; Photo: James C. Jackson

Reframed in the context of exile, the word “home” can connote instability, lost identity, and even danger. Hatoum’s complex relationship with domesticity manifests itself in the installation Home. Ordinary kitchen appliances, including a colander, a whisk, and a cheese grater, sit atop a long wooden table. Connected by live electrical wires, the appliances are potentially deadly to the touch. Hatoum’s interpretation of the kitchen as a place of literal danger “shatters notions of the wholesomeness of the home environment.”

Monica Bonvicini, Hammering Out (an old argument), 1998

Monica Bonvicini, Hammering Out (an old argument), 1998; Color video with sound, 18 min., 45 sec.; Collection 49 Nord 6 Est, Frac Lorraine, Metz

Multimedia artist Monica Bonvicini (b. 1965, Venice, Italy) views the built environment as a metaphorical representation of cultural and political constructs, particularly gendered power structures and social class divisions. Bonvicini says, “There is no such thing as a neutral architecture. Nothing is neutral from the moment you open a door and go in somewhere.”

Hammering Out (an old argument) is an 18-minute video in which a woman’s arm repeatedly strikes a wall with a mallet. The wall’s underlying brick foundation is gradually exposed, symbolizing the hidden ideologies within the architecture. While inherently violent, the act of destruction can also be empowering and liberating. Within the context of Women House, this video demonstrates a forceful reaction against the restrictive gender roles traditionally associated with the home.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women House: Femme Maisons

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Louise Bourgeois and Laurie Simmons conceptualize the female body as the archetypal form of home.

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1994; White marble, 5 x 12 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.; Collection of Louise Bourgeois Trust; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo by Christopher Burke

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Maison, 1994

“Art is not about art. Art is about life, and that sums it up,” said Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911, Paris; d. 2010, New York City), whose traumatic childhood experiences informed much of her work. Bourgeois created her own formal language to express her emotions, returning to the same themes repeatedly throughout her career. One of her most common subjects were nude women whose heads have been replaced by houses, which address themes of domesticity and female identity. She first employed with this motif in the 1940s in a series of paintings titled “Femme Maisons” (women houses).

One of Bourgeois’s women houses on view is a small, snowy marble sculpture showing a woman seemingly stuck within the structure of a home. Her head dips toward the ground and her legs are positioned higher than her head. Her torso and arms are completely hidden, making the figure seem altogether immobile and positioned at what would be an uncomfortable angle.

Laurie Simmons, Walking House, 1989

Laurie Simmons, Walking House, 1989; Chromogenic print, 64 x 46 in.; Collection of Dr. Dana Beth Ardi; Photo courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Laurie Simmons (b. 1949, New York City) is best known for her eerie and unsettling photographs of anthropomorphized objects, particularly dolls, that explore the relationship between human and object in consumerist culture. Her series “Walking and Lying Objects” (1987–1991) features images of various everyday items fixed atop human legs. The first photograph in the series, Walking Camera I (Jimmy the Camera), features one of Simmons’s friends dressed in a camera costume. For her other photos, she attached doll legs to miniature household objects, including an hourglass, purse, and toilet.

In the large-scale photograph Walking House, a woman appears to have been consumed by a typical suburban home. Her only recognizably human features are her slender legs, which appear to be in motion. Simmons wanted the house on legs to represent an iconic American dream home. She says, “Starting in post-World War II America up to the present, the way a person lives is so identified with who that person is. We live in a blazingly consumer-oriented society, where the things around us control us, and I think these images are about the way a person can be subsumed by what’s around them.”

Both Walking House and Femme Maison conflate the female body with domestic architecture. In each work, the woman is inseparable from the house—both metaphorically and literally.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women House: A Doll’s House

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Miriam Schapiro, Laure Tixier, and Rachel Whiteread use miniaturized depictions of the house and household objects to satirize stereotypical gender roles.

Miriam Schapiro, Dollhouse, 1972; Wood and mixed media, 79 3/4 x 82 x 8 1/2 in.; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Gene Davis Memorial Fund

Miriam Schapiro, Dollhouse, 1972

Miriam Schapiro (b. 1923, Toronto, Canada; d. 2015, Hampton Bays, New York) was a pioneer of the 1970s feminist art movement. Male-dominated art forms such as painting and sculpture were considered “high” art. Craftwork, traditionally created by women, was considered merely decorative. Schapiro and other feminist artists employed materials traditionally associated with craft into their art to elevate “women’s work.”

In 1972, Schapiro and Judy Chicago founded Womanhouse, a collaborative installation that challenged the dominant art historical narrative. Schapiro’s Dollhouse, first exhibited at Womanhouse, “combines the beauty, charm, and supposed safety and comfort of the home with the unnamable terrors existing within its walls.” In Shcapiro’s Dollhouse, a rattlesnake lurks in the parlor corner, men glower through the kitchen window, and a monster sleeps in a cradle. Schapiro turns a symbol of domesticity into a literal house of horrors. Schapiro also reverses the archetypal roles of male artist and objectified female model. In the artist’s studio, a nude male model stands on a wooden platform, while Schapiro herself assumes the role of artist.

Laure Tixier, Plaid Houses (Maquettes): Blue Japan House, Blue Art Deco House, Red Deconstructivist House, White Hut, Acid Green Dome House, Brown Usha Hut, Pink Tower, Turquoise Blue Colonial House (Barbados), Orange Breton House, 2005–11; Wool, felt, and thread, dimensions variable; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Les Amis du NMWA, Paris, France; © Laure Tixier

Laure Tixier, Plaid Houses, 2005–2011

Laure Tixier (b. 1972, Lichfield, England) combines childlike imagination with specific references to architectural history in her drawings, maquettes, and large scale sculptures of buildings. Plaid Houses is an eclectic neighborhood of miniature dwellings inspired by various cultures, including an art-deco house, a primitive yurt, and a minaret. In reference to blanket forts built by children, Tixier constructs her monochrome homes by stitching together pieces of fabric. Like blanket forts, these houses appear cozy and welcoming, despite the structural vulnerability of their textile walls. The drooping fabric makes the houses appear animated and alive, as if they “are bodies with a felt skin.” Tixier’s use of felt continues the feminist practice of blending craft with fine art, a practice now embraced by the contemporary art world.

Rachel Whiteread, Modern Chess Set, 2005

Using resin, metal, and plastic, Rachel Whiteread (b. 1962, London, England) creates casts of domestic interiors and furnishings. She often focuses on the negative space around and within objects and buildings to explore their physical relationships to the human body.

Rachel Whiteread, Modern Chess Set, 2005; Carpet, linoleum, plywood, beech, plasticized resins, foil, white metal, fabric, enamel, varnish, aluminum wire, brass, ink, chrome, gloss paint, metal wire, foam, and fabric handles, 26 3/8 x 26 3/8 x 1 1/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York; © Rachel Whiteread; Courtesy of the artist; Luhring Augustine, New York; Lorcan O’Neill, Rome; and Gagosian Gallery

Modern Chess Set was originally commissioned for a 2005 exhibition called The Art of Chess, which featured 10 unique chess sets created by contemporary artists, including Barbara Kruger and Yayoi Kusama. Whiteread created casts of her own childhood dollhouse furnishings for the chess set, turning a domestic space into a battleground where household objects are pitted against each other.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women House: A Room of One’s Own

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Zanele Muholi, Francesca Woodman, and Claude Cahun reimagine the domestic space as a source of inspiration and self-reinvention.

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, ext.2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007; Lambda print, 30 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.; Private collection

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007

“At present South Africa has no anti-hate-crime legislation. Rampant hate crimes make us invisible. Coming out exposes us to the harshness of patriarchal compliance. We are also at risk when we challenge the norms of compulsory heterosexuality,” says Zanele Muholi (b. 1972 Umlazi, Durban, South Africa).

Muholi combines art and activism to bring awareness to violence against the LGBTQ community in South Africa. By capturing her subjects in moments of intimacy and affection, she emphasizes their humanity. Nestled into the corner of their kitchen, the couple in this photograph are concealed from the violence and hatred of the outside world. Their home is a liberating space in which they can express themselves.

Francesca Woodman, space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–78, 2000–01; Gelatin silver print on barite paper, 10 x 8 in.; © George and Betty Woodman, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Francesca Woodman, space², Providence, Rhode Island, 1975–78, 2000–01

While studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Francesca Woodman (b. 1958, Denver, Colorado; d. 1981, New York City) set up a photography studio in a dilapidated room above a dry goods store. Woodman incorporated her decaying surroundings into her self-portraits. Using the space’s crumbled moldings and peeled wallpaper, she explored the relationship between the body and the built environment.

In space², Providence, Rhode Island, Woodman covers her face and part of her nude body with pieces of wallpaper. Her ghostly figure seems to fade into or emerge from the wall, making her part of the space.

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait (in a cupboard), 1932; Digital reprint of vintage gelatin silver print, 4 ⅜ x 3 ⅜ in.; Courtesy Jersey Heritage Collections

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait (in a cupboard), 1932

“Under this mask, another mask; I will never finish removing all these faces,” said Claude Cahun (b. 1894, Nantes, France; d. 1954, St. Helier, Jersey). Challenging the concept of a fixed identity, Cahun adopted various personas to explore notions of gender, self, and reality. Using makeup, costumes, and a Surrealist visual language, Cahun flowed between masculine and feminine identities in her photographs, embracing ambiguity and androgyny. While her male Surrealist contemporaries objectified the female form, Cahun subverted traditional perceptions of gendered bodies. Her characters invite viewers to question perception and reality.

For Self-Portrait (in a cupboard), Cahun assumed the role of a young girl. She appears asleep and tucked away onto the shelf of a cupboard—perhaps during a game of hide-and-seek. The cupboard, though an unusual place to nap, is a quiet sanctuary that Cahun has claimed as her own.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women House: Mobile Homes

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Lucy Orta, Nil Yalter, and Sue Williamson re-frame the notion of home and community in the context of nomadism and exile.

Installation view of Lucy Orta, Body Architecture—Collective Wear 4 Persons, 1996; Aluminum-coated polyamide, microporous polyester, telescopic aluminum armatures, and grip soles; Courtesy of Lucy + Jorge Orta; Photo: Traci Christensen, NMWA

Lucy Orta, Body Architecture—Collective Wear 4 Persons, 1996

In 1992, Lucy Orta’s (b. 1966, Sutton Coldfield, England) “Body Architecture” series (1992–98)  examines individual and communal space. Body Architecture—Collective Wear 4 Persons is simultaneously a sculpture with a pointed social statement, four individual wearable garments, and a movable home.

The lightweight tent consists of four body suits zipped together and can easily be assembled and disassembled at will. Individuals could wear the garments and move around independently, but they can also come together to combine their suits to create a shared living space. The union of individual garments into a shelter emphasizes the importance of community to survival. Orta’s prototype dwelling brings awareness to social issues such as poverty, homelessness, and immigration.

Nil Yalter, Topak Ev, 1973; Metal structure, felt, lambskin, leather, text, and mixed media, installation view, 98 x 118 in.; Vehbi Koç Foundation Contemporary Art Collection

Nil Yalter, Topak EV, 1973

“Through didactic use of craft skills, using felt, goat hair and sheep skins brought back from Turkey, I developed a physical climate based on a deep awareness of ethnology, the sociology of customs and beliefs,” says Nil Yalter (b. 1938 Cairo, Egypt). Voluntarily exiled in France since the 1960s, Yalter began to incorporate anthropological themes into her work in the early 1970s.

Yalter explores physical and metaphorical female space in her work. Topak EV is modeled after an Anatolian yurt, a portable abode used by nomadic cultures. Decorated by women for a future bride, the yurt symbolizes socially constructed female traits such as fertility and domesticity. Yalter notes, “the women who build these round tents in the shape of a womb practically spend their whole lives inside of them, sheltered from the real world outside.”

Installation view of Sue Williamson, What About El Max? V (Tell Your People—Close Up), 2005; Pigments inks on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag paper; Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery; Photo: Traci Christensen, NMWA

Sue Williamson, What About El Max? V (Tell Your People—Close Up), 2005

Cape Town-based artist Sue Williamson (b. 1941, Lichfield, England) uses politically charged photographs as a conduit for cultural resistance, highlighting the issues marginalized communities face.

What About El Max? V (Tell Your People—Close Up) is one of 11 photographs from a series that documents a mural program Williamson initiated in El Max, a small fishing village in Alexandria, Egypt. She collaborated with residents, who have been threatened with eviction by the military stationed near the harbor. The texts painted on the town’s walls express the community’s shared connection to their homes and their desire to remain. The painted phrase “Tell your people this place is perfect” expresses devotion to the community and resistance to expulsion.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women House: Desperate Housewives

Questions about a woman’s “place” resonate in our culture, and conventional ideas about the house as a feminine space persist. Global artists in Women House recast conventional ideas about the home through provocative photographs, videos, sculptures, and room-like installations. Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, and Karin Mack use cliché and irony in their photographs to deconstruct stereotypes of women as submissive housewives.

Installation view of Martha Rosler, Woman with Vacuum, or Vacuuming Pop Art , 1965–74; Photomontage; Private collection

Martha Rosler, Woman with Vacuum, or Vacuuming Pop Art, 1965–74

Martha Rosler (b. 1943, Brooklyn, New York) constructed Woman with Vacuum, or Vacuuming Pop Art with images clipped from magazine advertisements which engaged in “shameless stereotyping.” Rosler says, “I felt that the emergent pop painters also repeated those tropes but always denied any depth of social critique beyond an ironic wink.”

The smiling woman in the photomontage appears content. Although she is vacuuming, her clothes are crisp and her hair is styled. She is both a hardworking housewife who is happy to serve and an object for the male gaze. While the smile plastered on the woman’s face coupled with the bright colors of the art on the walls radiate cheerfulness, the narrow hallway is suffocating and restrictive—almost cage-like. Whether or not she is resigned to her role as housewife, the woman cannot escape.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #35, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 15 7/8 x 12 3/8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #35, 1979

Drawing from pop-culture clichés, Cindy Sherman (b. 1954, Glen Ridge, New Jersey) explores notions of femininity and the construction of identity. In a series of photographs created from 1977 to 1980, Sherman evokes familiar images of women in stereotypical film roles, ranging from seductive bombshell, to subservient housewife, and ingénue.

The subject of her own photographs, Sherman uses wigs, costumes, and makeup to embody each character. Untitled Film Still #35 depicts a young woman wearing a dress, apron, and headscarf. She seems frustrated and dissatisfied with her limited role as a housewife, representing a stark contrast to the figure in Rosler’s work. Sherman says, “I definitely felt that the characters were questioning something—perhaps being forced into a certain role.”

Karin Mack, Bügeltraum (Iron Dream), 1975

Installation view of Karin Mack, Bügeltraum (Iron Dream), 1975; Black-and-white photographs
© Karin Mack / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Woman and ironing board become one in Bügeltraum (Iron Dream), a series of four black-and-white photographs by Karin Mack (b. 1940, Vienna, Austria). The artist, dressed in a black shirt and jeans, irons a gingham cloth. By the third image, Mack trades her casual outfit for a black dress and the cloth becomes a sheer black veil. In the final photograph, Mack lays on top of the ironing board with the veil draped over her head, symbolizing the death of the housewife.

Her body becomes part of the ironing board, highlighting her identity as an object rather than a person with agency. Mack’s subversive work underscores the struggles of many women artists in the 1970s who found their role as homemaker monotonous and often an obstacle to being taken seriously in a male-dominated art world.

Visit the museum and explore Women House, on view through May 28, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the 2018 spring publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.