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PHILADELPHIA — It’s cold and dreary on Arch Street, in the shadow of the Convention Center. A female voice and the strumming of an autoharp, piped outside the Fabric Workshop & Museum, summon us. Inside the building, the music takes us to a video of the singer whose hair, the color of orange pumice cleanser, is braided and tucked into a bonnet upon which is balanced a sheaf of wheat. Her clothing is a cacaphony of American heartland fabrics, her apron a red-and-white gingham dish towel.
The singer is Shara Nova, and the video is taken from Suzanne Bocanegra’s 2017 artist lecture “Farmhouse/Whorehouse,” first performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (It will also be performed on February 8 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with actress Lili Taylor.) This is the first installation we see in Bocanegra’s Poorly Watched Girls, her largest exhibition to date and the culmination of her collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum as artist-in-residence.
“Farmhouse/Whorehouse” suggests the bucolic life of a farmer. Bocanegra’s grandparents lived on a small rural farm in Texas just across the road from the site of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Visiting as a child, the artist was left with an idyllic impression of what she later understood to be a hardscrabble life. The lyrics Nova sings so beautifully are the words Bocanegra’s grandmother repeated when she was suffering from dementia. (The artist lecture is part of a series in which an actor listens to Bocanegra through an earphone and repeats her monologue to an audience.)
We leave the singing maiden and enter a darkened room for Bocanegra’s opera, “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” based on the 1956 opera of the same name by Francis Poulenc, in turn based on the true story of a French convent whose nuns were guillotined in the waning days of the French Revolution. A shelf wraps around the room holding copies of the 1955 edition of A Guide to the Catholic Sisterhood in the United States — Bocanegra, a product of a Catholic upbringing, compares it to “baseball cards for nuns.”
In this solemn, cathedral-like space, each book is open to a page featuring a photograph of a nun that has been embellished with embroidery and pieces of collaged fabric. Tiny rosaries and crucifixes are stitched with gold and silver thread and beads.
We squint in the dark to see the soft, white skin of the faces under the austere garments while listening to music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang (also Bocanegra’s husband) with vocals by Caroline Shaw. Those of us who never went to Catholic school are illuminated: “the life of a Carmelite nun is both contemplative and apolstolic. By her prayers, sacrifices and penances, she atones for the numberless sins committed against the Eternal Father. Her life is spent in supplication, praying … household work.” The women, ages 16 to 30, take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
I wonder if I’m reading about indentured servants. “The qualifications for being a Carmelite nun: a love of silence and manual labor (strict enclosure is observed).” She was expected to achieve “salvation of the soul” through the education of youth and charitable works in orphanages, hospitals, homes for the aged, clinics, and settlement houses. And in thanks for all this, the women were executed.
The exhibition title, Poorly Watched Girls, comes from the ballet La Fi/le ma/ gardee (The Poorly Watched Girl), first performed in France in 1789. The “watching” in the title refers to the fact that the main character — a peasant girl who falls in love with a boy not of her mother’s choosing — is “poorly watched,” i.e., unchaperoned. But it also refers to her being watched, voyeuristically, for the entertainment of an upper-class, urban audience.
All the women costumed for this exhibition, it might be argued, are poorly watched — we are looking at their garments, their accessories, but are we looking at them?
Bocanegra creates another romantic agricultural idyll for urban audiences by fashioning outlandish costumes, inspired by Jean-François Millet’s “Gleaners” and the works of Jan Brueghel the Elder. The “costumes,” supported on an armature, consume the women they represent. On top of a head of molten wax a bird perches on a jeweled nest; another has a dessicated corn cob for a head. One mannequin wears a boxed doll-size tea set at the chest, like a bib, and a silver bow is pinned to her waist with a straight pin large enough to trigger the TSA to consider it a weapon.
Each of the costumed characters has, at her feet, a domestic object: a spinning wheel, a loom, a basket of buttons, as if these women are expected to spin straw into gold. It’s as if you’ve wandered into the attic where your mother once had her sewing studio and suggests women stitching, crafting in the service of family, the school play, the community.
On yet another floor is “Valley of the Dolls,” based on the exploitation of Judy Garland by the entertainment industry. An eight-channel video projection shows simultaneous re-enactments of Garland’s wardrobe test (she was briefly cast for the film before her addictions quashed the opportunity). It is performed by a cast of women arts luminaries: poet Anne Carson, choreographer and dancer Deborah Hay, singer Alicia Hall Moran, artist Carrie Mae Weems, and others.
Both the costumes — caftans with bobble trim, beaded suits, awkward purses to carry — and the stage directions are subjugating these women. They are instructed to turn, to laugh, how to hold their arms, tilt their heads just so.
Sewing, weaving, and working with fabric have long been ways of keeping women down on the farm. Bocanegra exposes this form of suppression, but also elevates these practices to fine art. It is only fitting given its setting in an institution that has always had higher aspirations for fiber art and its practitioners.
Suzanne Bocanegra: Poorly Watched Girls continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch St, Philadelphia) through February 17. The show was curated by Executive Director Susan L. Talbott together with the studio staff that produced the work under the direction of the artist.