Cheim & Read
547 W. 25 Street N.Y., N.Y.
New York 10011
November 20 – January 5, 2002
Louise Bourgeois is 90 years old and still going strong. Critics have called her art the product of “inner necessity” and a “Sisyphean effort to work through psychic material that is not ordinarily worked through successfully in art.” She has explored the same themes in a number of different mediums and has stated that “If we are very, very compulsive, all we have at our disposal is to repeat, and that expresses the validity of what we have to say.” Statements like this encourage people to think that Bourgeois’s art is confessional, and she has been pigeonholed as an existentialist, someone who releases “anxiety into a form of perfection.” But these recent works suggest that there is a sheet of glass between her art and her private life. Her work is more than a form of therapy.
She has been labeled a Primitivist, a Surrealist, a Conceptual Artist, an Installation Artist, a Feminist Icon and a Minimalist. Through the years her techniques have included carving, welding, casting and assemblage. She has kept written, spoken/recorded and drawing diaries since the age of 12. The habit of recording her thoughts and feelings has had a bigger influence on her art than any childhood traumas. Lucy Lippard noted in her book From The Center, that Bourgeois is preoccupied with “dependence and independence, enclosure and exclusion, the aggressive and the vulnerable, order and disorder.” Her subject matter never strays far from the human anatomy. Although critics have used psychoanalytical methods to examine her work, her relationship with her parents has been overemphasized. .
All of the pieces on show at Cheim and Read were done in 2000-2001. C’est le Murmure de L’eau Qui Chante (It is the murmur of the water that sings), 2001, fills the entire gallery next to the front desk. This gallery has a very high ceiling. Diffused white light illuminates the shiny oval mirror towards the center of the room and two small but sturdy handmade wooden chairs spaced five or six feet apart a few feet in front of the mirror. Between the whiteness of the walls and the diffused white light, the room feels cold. In each corner of the room there is a small white speaker. The audio component of this artwork is intermittent. At times sound comes out of more than one speaker, but for the most part only one speaker is used at a time. We hear a female singing in French, and the voice is soft and child-like. I believe it is the artist singing. She occasionally claps her hands while she sings. These recordings sound like they were made with a small hand-held recorder. They may be snippets from the artist’s recorded diaries. When seated in one of the chairs you can, with the help of the mirror, see the person seated in the other chair. The mirror distorts the objects it reflects, so that things are much shorter and wider than they are in real life. The sing-song voice comes and goes. The fragments of singing pumped into the space vary in length but some are very brief and almost all of them are followed by a period of silence. There is also no clear pattern. You are not sure which speaker the sound will emerge from next. Therefore, your state of mind can be violated at any time. You are at the mercy of the creator. The voice also adds a layer of intimacy to the work that plays off of the antiseptic atmosphere. If both chairs are occupied a sense of discomfort sets in because both people are forced to examine the shifting blob seated in the opposite chair. When seated in a chair you can’t make out your own reflection in the mirror. We don’t feel introspective while seated in the midst of this installation. Bourgeois invites confrontation.
Obese, Bulimic, Anorexic, 2001 is three separate sculptures. They are each made from washed out, pink pieces of terry cloth, which are sewn together and stuffed. The stitching is visible on these emblematic dolls. The expression on each doll’s face is one of disgust. Perhaps they are disgusted with themselves. These naked figures have no arms, nipples, hair, or toes. Each fuzzy figure is on display in a glass box with thick, worn wooden slats on the bottom of them. The figures are free standing. We can’t figure out how they are propped up. All three figures have large breasts. The dolls are not overtly feminine, but the breasts distinguish the gender. The first two figures, Obese and Bulimic, are reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf. The bulimic’s tongue is sticking out (A gesture perhaps borrowed from Mayan sculpture.) and her stomach is pouch-like, distended. She is looking down as if she is retching. As we move from left to right, from Obese to Anorexic the figures change shape, the bulging bellies found on the Obese and Bulimic dolls disappear. Bourgeois has stated that “To me, a sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture.” Contemplating eating disorders while staring at stuffed dolls is an odd experience. The blending of a child’s universe with the awful realities of distorted self image and self destruction is unsettling.
Rejection, 2001, is made of scraps of different colored terry cloth that have been sewn together by hand. The use of different pieces of fabric adds to the anguish of this soft bust. It has a certain Frankensteinian quality to it. It is a neck and head stuck on a wood block pedestal and enclosed behind a steel and glass display. The large head (73″ x 27″ x 27″) is tilted slightly upwards and the eyes stare into space. There is no hair or ears. You can barely make out a set of pupils, represented by different colored circles of fabric stuck in the middle of the eye-slits. There is something timeless about this monument to pain. Terry cloth reminds one of robes and towels, domestic objects that comfort one. This adds to the contradictory feelings generated by this piece, in that the softness of the materials undercuts the tortured facial expression.
The six pillow totems in this show, all of them untitled except for one, relate to Bourgeois’s early, primitive wood sculptures. These soft monoliths are fetishistic and delicately balanced. They are comprised of tiny round or rectangular fabric lozenges piled one on top of another or interlocking. The joyful colors of the fabrics remind me of Venice. The sculptures which are tapering are people-like or spine-like. Some of them have indentations in the center of them because the pillows are notched. We see, not for the first time in the artist’s oeuvre, the combining of abstract concepts of the male and female genitalia. These pillow sticks (each of them is over 6 feet high) lead a precarious existence. The first impulse one has when seeing a stack of pillows is to knock it over. They are strange alien sentinels. The only pillow totem that is not untitled, Do Not Abandon Me, 2001, made me feel a stab of pathos. This terry cloth and velour pillow structure, is colored shades of brown and tan. The words “Do Not Abandon Me” are stitched directly into the surface of one of the pillows. We are not sure if this quiet call for help has been made by the ominous pillow creature. I developed a certain camaraderie with these sculptures as I spent more time with them.
In the rear east gallery the most joyous artworks in the show, the paired dolls made in 2000 and 2001 (each pair is called Couple), can be found. Four terry cloth couples are suspended from the ceiling on thin metal wires, and slowly revolve in the air. The stitching holding the dolls together, welding their bodies together is visible. The stitching is a different color than the fabric used for the bodies. Each floating couple consists of a man and a woman. Their arms are locked around each other. The males have penises and balls that can only be seen if you look closely at the small spaces in between the entwined bodies and the females have large breasts. The nearly erect penises lightly touch the vaginas, but there is no penetration. The penis and breast shapes are not radically transformed or detached from the body. No longer do we see organic abstractions, made from cold bronze or marble, covered with labial folds and spiky, prick-like or breast-like protuberances. Bourgeois has chosen to leave the human figure more or less intact. Donald Kuspit stated that, “In Bourgeois’s sculpture the power of man and of woman integrates violently yet seamlessly.” This constellation of fuzzy couples pays tribute to the concept of mutual support. Instead of repressing human anatomy, abstracting the genitals, the artist creates a truly moving tribute to companionship.
Cell XXV (The View of the World of the Jealous Wife), 2001 is a blueprint for misery, but also something more complex. Legless, armless, and headless female torsos are imprisoned in a cylindrical cage. There are three of these dismembered female mannequins, adorned with pretty frocks. The one towards the center of the prison-like structure has two big white spheres underneath it. It is hard not to imagine that the spheres are balls and the limbless mannequin in a dress is a shaft or cock. Hanging a bit higher up in this suggestive birdcage is a fragment of a female mannequin, the shoulders, chest and breasts, also clothed in flowery fabric, and surrounded by translucent, plastic bell shaped beads hanging from thin wires. Each of the mannequin fragments are suspended from the top of the structure by metal rods with small blunt hooks at the ends. Unlike the other galleries in this exhibit, this one has mood lighting. The cage takes up most of the floor space in the room but the edges around it are dimly lit. Ominous shadows are cast on the walls. We wonder how these strange feminine presences relate to one another. Interpreting this piece as a form of autobiography, an abstract commentary on the affair the artist’s father had with the family nanny, is not fruitful. So what if these mannequins are intended to be the artist’s mother, the mistress, and the artist in her youth. This interpretation certainly doesn’t enhance our experience of the artwork. This piece is a dramatic presentation that communicates solely by signs, and at first the signs don’t add up to much. Initially I found the piece impenetrable. I had to work hard to see it as more than a monument to the tortured feelings of a jealous woman. The stillness of the objects in the cage and the increasing sense of uneasiness combined with a death-like calm, eventually won me over. There was just enough specificity to focus your attention on, to balance the frightening sense of emptiness the cell exudes. The longer you looked at it the more you felt as if you were inside the cage. The way the forms are arranged within the cage acts as a strange lure. The cell and its contents slowly expand. The viewer is absorbed by it.