BELEN, NEW MEXICO — It’s been 50 years since Womanhouse debuted, helmed by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. The installation and performance space opened in 1972 inside of a dilapidated Hollywood mansion as a result of the yearlong experimental Feminist Art Program that Chicago led at California State University, Fresno, and her co-teaching stint with Schapiro at California Institute of the Arts. To mark the occasion and offer a contemporary lens, the exhibitions Looking Back at Womanhouse and Wo/Manhouse 2022 are on view in Belen, New Mexico, Chicago’s adopted hometown of 30 years.
Looking Back at Womanhouse is installed at Through the Flower Art Space, Chicago’s nonprofit gallery in its second year, and includes reproduced historic photographs and original ephemera from Womanhouse. Photographs feature installations and the artists who made them, whom Chicago still refers to as the “Fresno girls,” though they are now in their 70s. In a corner of the gallery, Chicago recreated “Menstruation Bathroom,” last seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1995.
The installation features a toilet, an overflowing wastebasket, and a variety of menstrual products, including fake-bloodied pads and tampons. Labeling on one of the product’s packaging uses co-opted language from the pro-choice movement, borrowing from the slogan “Your body, your choice,” an unfortunate marketing decision conflating bodily autonomy with purchasing power. This has become all the more topical since the US Supreme Court’s vote to strike down Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, after 49 years of protection. Along with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the events serve as salient guides through which to experience both exhibitions.
A few blocks from Through the Flower is the art installation and performance site of Wo/Manhouse 2022, in which 19 New Mexico-based artists created site-specific artworks in each room of a quintessential 1950s-style house. Gender roles, identity, the family unit, labor, sex, desire, abortion, birth, and death are explored throughout — even ceilings and the bottom of the pool were touched with paint.
On its own, the house serves as an apt site for contemplation about what gender roles were performed within its walls and reflected in its architecture. Some aspects of the home decor, including the pink and blue bathrooms, are emblematic of societal ideals and the nuclear family. Viewed today, the house raises questions about how our relationship to home and work — once two distinctly separate places for non-domestic laborers — has shifted, in the last few years especially. In our pandemic era, the phrases “essential workers” and “work from home” have become more prominent in our vernacular, conjuring images of healthcare providers and Zoom calls in makeshift home offices.
Unlike Womanhouse, which consisted of predominantly White women in their early 20s, the artists of Wo/Manhouse 2022, who were selected from an open call, span the ages of 17 to 74 and include more artists of color and artists from across the gender spectrum. Although the current exhibition is more inclusive, it would still benefit from more BIPOC artists, a broader intersectional dialogue, and a wider breadth of lived experience.
What it means to feel at home in one’s body stands out as a powerful takeaway of the exhibition as a whole. “Trans Bathroom,” an installation by Vladimir Victor Dantes in the pink bathroom, contains infographics on the effects of testosterone, a collection of syringes, and pink and blue shimmery fabric filling up the bathtub and sink. A strong element of the installation is chest binders embroidered with flowers in the shape of top surgery scars. Those pieces could stand alone, but minimal is not the style of Wo/Manhouse at large. The ethos of most installations tends toward “more is more;” installations sometimes include kitsch — which the house lends itself to — and are overly didactic.
The use of text works successfully in some rooms — including Jen Pack’s participatory installation “그림자가 핀다 (And the Shadow Blooms),” which employs written Korean and English to address complex personal narratives informed by imperialism. Stephanie Lerma’s “Dirty Laundry” features handmade child-size paper dresses strung up on a clothesline, embroidered with phrases and statistics about gun violence, domestic abuse, and childhood sexual abuse. It is a visually arresting meditation on how home and school can be both sanctuaries and sites of violence, and its location in the laundry room serves as a metaphor for potential renewal.
Nearby is Helen Atkins’s “Divinity Bathroom,” a blue-hued sacred-feeling installation featuring original paintings printed on wallpaper of nude women in pairs, as though to suggest multiple parts of oneself, siblings, or ancestors. The installation feels like the “backstage” of the house — where women go to do their hair, get advice, and be with themselves and one another.
Apolo Gomez’s bedroom closet installation “Pleasure Closet” explores queer desire, shame, and Christianity in a visual mash-up combining a confessional booth, glory hole, and altar. Kara Sachs’s “My Life As a Bed” features the artist’s childhood bed with a TV monitor embedded in the headboard, as if to give viewers the bed’s point of view. On loop is a series of shorts about all that happens in a bed.
Performances take place each weekend in the backyard and have the feel of a neighborhood theater workshop with adult content. Rosemary Carroll, performing solo and with collaborator Bett Williams is particularly captivating to watch. In the solo piece “Hairy Testimony,” Carroll sits facing the audience with her head down behind a curtain of long, curly, red locks. In a steady and powerful voice, she details surviving rape and the ways in which her community failed her when she went public.
During opening weekend only, two original Fresno girls — Nancy Youdelman and Karen LeCocq — re-created their piece “Lea’s Room.” While Youdelman read an original updated monologue on the aging body, LeCocq sat behind her, applying makeup at a vanity. (Youdelman also served as 2022 artist facilitator, bringing to the group her perspective as an artist, educator, and former student of Chicago’s.)
Another Womanhouse original that received a 2022 update is “Cock and Cunt Play,” written by Judy Chicago and performed by Faith Wilding and Jan Lester in 1972. Currently, it’s performed by two men, Jerah R. Cordova, former mayor of Belen, and Logan Jeffers. With large plush genitalia fastened around their waists, they argue in exaggerated sing-song about gender, sex, and the dishes. Jeffers also performs solo with his piece “Crying,” in which he sits in front of the audience and cries, eliciting a mixture of empathy, satisfaction, and discomfort. Also of note is that selections of International Honor Quilt, a Feminist quilting project Chicago started in 1980, are on view in a standalone room in the backyard.
That there are nearly six decades between the oldest and youngest participating artists is one of the exhibition’s strong suits, with perspectives on social and political issues from each generation. The work of Wo/Manhouse suggests parallels between house and body. On the most essential level, both operate autonomously but within much larger networks, neighborhoods, and societies. What happens inside of them is ever-changing, as is how they are governed, and how safe they feel. Additionally, the house-as-art installation and themes it addresses bring to mind important conversations around the housing crisis throughout the country, increasing unhoused populations, and to zoom out, climate catastrophes on our shared home on Earth. These issues, coupled with attacks on reproductive and LGBTQIA rights, most acutely affect BIPOC and signal the necessity of including more voices in the room, or house, as it is.
The project as a whole offers an opportunity to reflect: Do we have apt language, objects, or imagery to describe the beauty and complexity of the ever-expanding spectrum of identity? How might the title of this project read in another 50 years? What does survival require?
Looking Back at Womanhouse and Wo/Manhouse 2022 continue at Through the Flower (107 Becker Avenue, Belen, New Mexico) through October 9.