Patterns of subversion

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

Miriam Schapiro's works put up at a University of Iowa Museum of Art exhibition reveal the visual strategies and ideological concerns of the feminist artist.

MIRIAM SCHAPIRO, along with Judy Chicago, is an important pioneer of first wave of the feminist art movement in North America during the 1970s. The two artists also co-directed the now famous Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1971. The University of Iowa Museum of Art provided a brief overview of Schapiro's recent works through "Miriam Schapiro's Art: A Journey" (November 2-December 15, 2002). The form and content of a large number of Schapiro's works in the show elaborate on her concept of `femmages', her own term, and also reveal her chief visual strategies and ideological concerns: "I have included their stitched and crocheted works in my art (femmages) as a dedication to these women who went before me," says Schapiro, referring to her female ancestors, in the accompanying catalogue.

In view of the limited number of works displayed, the exhibition offered basically a glance at Schapiro's formal and conceptual preferences. However, a couple of her recent works in the show shift attention to the much-needed larger perspective in which Schapiro's oeuvre needs to be seen. These exceptions include works such as `Marooned' (2001), which has references to the culturally uprooted people, and `Inferno' (2001) and `Sorrow and Joy' (2002), both of which respond to the overwhelming tragedy of September 11.

Consider, for instance, `Marooned' (2001). The work, to be sure, invokes the techniques of collage and also directly involves digital manipulation of images. However, it resists the fragmented and flat surface of a collage and insists on a rather subtle unacknowledged `order' that has survived and challenged the predominant pictorial fragmentation or unities in the familiar art history: the work, through a set of brilliant ironies, leads us basically to an apparent, discordant and conflicting space determined by an eclectic choice of random shapes and colours. The composition appears, basically, to be a chaotic jungle of trees and flowers inhabited by a set of digitally manipulated images of dolls that are stuck on the surface. The manipulation of the dolls is rather ironical. It is not a strategy to force these images into a coherent or harmonious pattern, nor does it lead to a visual discord. These images are not string puppets in the control of the artist either. They are not dolls per se, to begin with. They are, in their technologically altered state, rather in control of the artist. "Many of these dolls in `Marooned' are lost people who haven't assimilated themselves into their present culture" as Schapiro points out about the work in the accompanying catalogue. In any event, the dolls are not manipulated in such a way as to blend and merge. They stick out with their static poses and a haunting distant look against the backdrop of the vibrant and dynamic space that they occupy. The work overlaps the intimidating chaos of a forest with the seductive appeal of a garden in this deceptive `landscape' with an apparent sky over a horizontal spread of flora and fauna. They are `lost' in a paradoxical `stage' that acts simultaneously as a trap. It is interesting to note here a confession that Schapiro makes in respect of another work, `The Garden of Eden', included in the show: "My unconscious self is as strong as my learned self. So if my hand knows where to go, it will ultimately bring me to understand why I just did what I did."

The point is that Schapiro's art does not represent mere reactionary antagonism to the male-dominated paradigms. The centuries of parallel history of the women's art practices, on which she draws, are much too rich for that. The show, although by default, brings into sharp focus the larger perspective in which Schapiro's works need to be viewed. In turn, it provides an opportunity to reassess certain key issues of the feminist movement: is Women's Movement in art necessarily a reactive one to the male-dominated `order' and `elegance' of, say, Minimalism? What is the precise character and importance of the women's art movement? In the light of these `femmages', the artist suggests certain alternative ways of redeeming feminist art from being either merely reactionary to the male paradigms or a set of biological metaphors. In fact, there is nothing `pastel or passive that is, stereotypically "feminine" - in the collages' of Schapiro, as Linda Nochlin, an important feminist art historian, observed in 1973 in her study of Schapiro's works for Arts Magazine. It is, of course, important to see that her works draw upon certain `crafts' associated with women. Schapiro reinvents decorative patterns through her `femmages' to interrogate the male-dominated paradigms represented by the modernist myths of aesthetic autonomy and purities of the medium. However, it is equally if not more important to see that Schapiro's works show a remarkably larger perspective than that.

Schapiro's important contribution to the debates on the gender issue is, I believe, in her ironical appropriation of the genre of painting. Her works appear basically to re-enact the genre through the dominant use of acrylic pigments and through the ways in which they are conventionally mounted, framed and displayed in a gallery or a museum. The `femmages' trap the apparently chaotic and astonishingly wide-ranging decorative `excesses' in domestic crafts through the recurring motif of a stage. Her works let go of the `sloppy' excess and disorder in this overwhelming range and quality.

She deploys the genre more as a trap to articulate this `excess' than as a window or a mirror. At a formal level, through the visual metaphor of theatre, these works enact the tension between a frozen moment and a dynamic space. Works such as `Yard Sale' (1993), in fact, owing to their exceptional scale (82x90"), lend themselves to be used as stage props or background panels. They are literally dynamic.

Schapiro's `femmages' is not so much a neologism as a political and aesthetic act. It enacts the eclectic patterns of women's arts to subvert the exclusive idea of unities that is part of the male gaze in the framed pictures: her works do not resort either to the simplistic biological metaphors or to stylistic solutions to the male paradigms. Similarly, they do not either represent or abstract the fragmented worldview of a collage; nor do they make vain attempts at `framing' the discord and chaos in the world around. They suggest, through a set of complex ironical strategies evident in `Marooned', a reconsideration of the very contemplative act of looking at art in the light of the inclusive art world of women.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment