Womanhouse and The Mood Back Home

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Womanhouse and The Mood Back Home

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Suzy Spence

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The idea that art could carry a political sentiment seemed revolutionary to my teenage self in 1985. When I saw the film Womanhouse by Johanna Demetrakas at a small college theater in Maine, I had no prior context for the piece. Other than my mother's own feminist inclinations and some exposure to figurative painting, my vernacular went no further than the work of Kathe Kollowitz and Georgia O'Keefe. Watching it I could see the sisterly collective at Cal Arts had been something potent – dangerous -- but in a good way. Womanhouse made me squirm and feel exuberant at the same time, and it still has that affect on me. Early exposure to such experimental, no-holds-barred political expression inspired me to become an artist, and I eventually meet up with some of its creators.

Two years later (to raised eyebrows) I transferred from Smith College to art school in New York. I knew I’d be competing with men in a realm that would prefer their ideas, concerns and style of expression over mine, but what I didn’t know, is that I’d be greeted by a cadre feminists who would help. The upshot of an art world that undervalued the work of women in the early 90s, was that some of the finest had become teachers. Art school was a disproportionately star-studded affair in terms of female professors. In my four years at Parsons/The New School I studied with Mira Schor (Womanhouse), Maureen Connor, Jackie Brookner, Joan Snyder and Rona Pondick. I took an introduction to philosophy class with Ti-Grace Atkinson, who shared some of her radical feminist thought alongside the actual syllabus (a lecture about Plato or Descartes could easily turn into a heated discussion about, say, the burdens of breastfeeding). As a group of students we had access to incredible intellectuals and artists, and we were experiencing art history from a feminist perspective. As a model for co-education, I think it still has great merit.

A few years later, Meg Linton and I were working at the New Museum while Marcia Tucker prepared “Bad Girls”. Meg introduced me to the artist and curator Leslie Brack, who became a fixture in my creative life. After years of studio visits and exchanging ideas, we decided to work on a collaborative project. “The Mood Back Home, an exhibition inspired by Womanhouse” (momentaart.org/cur_pro/mood.html), sought to examine how our generation was faring as artist/mothers; how the division of labor at home was being dealt; how the art world's perception of motherhood had affected our own; and similar permutations. An important aspect of this was to commemorate Womanhouse itself, in part by uploading some of the important visual documentation remaining, so that it could be seen universally online. (womanhouse.refugia.net) Evidence of a general interest in Womanhouse was felt the night we organized for Faith Wilding and Mira Schor to speak publicly in conjunction with our exhibition. It was 2009, a Saturday night at Momenta on Bedford Street in Brooklyn, and we were unprepared for the range of people (all ages and genders) who wanted to learn more. So many people came that I cringe when I remember how the speakers were nearly pinned to the wall, and how we wished we’d had a larger venue. Some attendees sat cross-legged on the floor, others stood sardine style, while still more flowed out of the main entrance and onto the sidewalk. Mira shared rare footage of a PBS documentary of the project, and both women answered the audience’s questions with great generosity.

In retrospect, Womanhouse might have entered my subconscious early to create a mental monolith particular to my own experience. But when I consider it a pre-cursor to the contemporary vogue of artist collectives, as a series of important performances, or for its extensive use of installation, Womanhouse still seems groundbreaking. At the risk of being sentimental I’d like to thank that generation for their work – I couldn’t have made mine without them.

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Suzy Spence, "Womanhouse and The Mood Back Home," in Woman's Building: Doin' It in Public, Item #65, https://wbexhibit.otis.edu/items/show/65 (accessed November 22, 2017).

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