In the tradition of Lives of the Saints and, even more pointedly, Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Lives of Wives, visual artist Susan Bee and book artist Johanna Drucker have created a wonderful new “picture” book, Fabulas Feminae or fables of women. In fact these are rather “fractured fables” since Drucker has entered various biographical materials on each of their selected women into the Hapex Legomenon processing program, which, we’re told, “automatically condenses large quantities of text into an abstract.”
At first, I was a bit put off by Drucker’s “shape-shifting” text, as its telegraphic style appeared to garble information about these important women’s lives:
Born tenth in a well-to-do family speak of nobility no particulars
but 1106 to the monastery then founded and wrote.
on Hildegard of Bingen
Childhood hardscrabble father died life undone begging to play
doctor coming mother weeping. on Lucille Ball
or, as in the first sentence on Virginia Woolf
English and essayist writer foremost.
But after reading through them all, I became quite delighted by some of the unexpected metaphorical combinations generated by the process. For example on Colette, two sentences announce her as: “Clever intimate explicit because eyeing passersby and stray. Last years in the garden.”
The entry on Lizzie Borden begins somewhat predictably, “Allegedly an ax forty whacks mother done forty one,” but later ends most unexpectedly, “Circumstantial contradictory and implausible no handle no blood. Defense a handful the alibi suspect a maniac or devil not his client and physically impossible. Take me home. A relief Lizzie returned.”
It is fascinating to imagine about Sarah Bernhardt that “Tragedy dedicates elaborate headdress sorceress offstage posing later starring.” Or that Cleopatra might have been “Hatched to sneak into the palace,” and that in her life “Luxury less an indulgence, refused to speak, than a political tool as well as Egyptian languages.” Did Cleopatra refuse to speak, we might ask, or did the Egyptian language, based as it was on images, itself refuse to speak?
Natalia Goncharova “Shocked and seized a scandal, nudes, and cohabitation.” Susan Sontag was “Fluent in the America of cities,” and for Billie Holiday “Abuse and mother prostitution [was] difficult on the passenger railroads absences and leaving her.” Transportation, of course, was also a problem for Rosa Parks, who was “Supposed to give up as the bus continued.” Nearly every one of the fabulas is filled with such dissociative gems, which truly does help the fables to become fabulous.
Susan Bee’s truly fanciful painting-collages are especially charming. Billie Holiday is shown in multiple guises: a baby butterfly, a frog king, and a singing beauty with a rose springing from her mouth. Patches of deep purple, red, blue, and green are arrayed around what could be a burning bush of orange, yellow, gold, and pink.
A stolid picture of a seated Susan B. Anthony is topped by swirling shapes that suggest potent interconnections, including a young woman joyfully fleeing an older one screaming in fright. Sonia Delaunay is represented by a glorious collage of colorful forms (circles and a maze of rectangles) and textures evoking patterned fabric. Annie Oakley (“little sure shot”) is portrayed in her usual cowgirl blouse and hat, accompanied by a multi-colored striped pastel skirt. Her gun firing a rainbow of whooshing colors is typical of Bee’s painting. The image of Lady Murasaki is an intricately beautiful as a Japanese screen.
Of course, everyone will be disappointed that some of their favorite feminine saints are not included. I missed seeing Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, as well as Laura Riding, who herself wrote a ground-breaking miniature of just such a book. Clearly, the authors attempted to include a wide range or artists, activists, and leaders, leaving out numerous figures they undoubtedly also admire.
With its somewhat whacky, but yet readable text, and its energetic bounty of images, Fabulas Feminae seems to be the perfect book for mothers to read to their young daughters — and, hopefully, caring fathers to share with their sons. Indeed, these fables might truly bring the whole family together. As the Lady Murasaki text asks, “how would we ever pass the time without stories?” And these are such lovely, real-life ones.
Your list of must-see, fun, insightful, and very New York art events this month, including art made during the first stock market crash, a homage to feline friends, and the 10-year anniversary of a crucial public art initiative.
Astrid Dick was told that she could not paint stripes because Sean Scully and Frank Stella have done so before her, a patently foolish statement.
Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic’s editor-in-chief, is one of the guest jurors reviewing applications for the two-month residency in Utica, New York.
Paddy Johnson answers your questions about art fairs, visibility, and frustrating studio visits.
The 26th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival’s Philippines retrospective highlights early documentation of the country, local responses to the Marcos dictatorship, and contemporary work.
Hear a band of improvisers led by Rajna Swaminathan and a performance of Morton Feldman’s “For John Cage” in programs inspired by the exhibition, “New York: 1962-1964.”
The country music legend says the museum will be part of a “Dolly Center.”
Herzog and de Meuron’s design for the Museum of the 20th Century in Berlin has been accused of poor energy efficiency and called a “structural nightmare.”
From residencies, fellowships, and workshops to grants, open calls, and commissions, our monthly list of opportunities for artists, writers, and art workers.
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SCAD’s booth at Design Miami/ features glazed tiles by alumni artists Nicolas Barrera, Lauren Clay, Gonzalo Hernandez, Cory Imig, Abel Macias, and Nikita Nagpal.
Plaintiff Cheri Pierson accuses the disgraced financier of a “brutal” sexual attack at the Manhattan mansion of Jeffrey Epstein.
At the heart of What if the Matriarchy Was Here All Along? is the idea that matriarchy never really died but rather has transformed.