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From a distance, Julia Kuhl’s watercolor “Domestic Textile Series,” in frosch&portmann’s small, one-room gallery, evokes the interiors of 1920s women’s sitting rooms. Kuhl’s works employ a visual language that is traditionally seen as feminine; she paints plaid and striped decorative patterns on small, rectangular pieces of paper. But a closer look at the paintings reveals something more nuanced. Each watercolor features clearly articulated lines of text in lowercase serif or elegant script. These lines are far from the sayings crocheted on a grandmother’s pillow. Sourced from songs, poems, or Kuhl’s dreams, they are sassy, tongue-in-cheek quips like, “I BEG YOUR PARDON” and “are these the good times?” The 24-plus paintings in her current show, I forgot what you wanted, build on the history of women’s craft arts, suggesting needle point patterns and sewing, while questioning women’s traditional and still-presumed societal roles.
While many are funny and provocative—for instance, a pastel green and pink tartan print that reads “not your mother” in red script along the bottom or one that reads “I am accustomed to inspire nothing but virtuous sentiments” in small serif font against muddy splatters of paint—others are more troubling, alluding to the ways women’s personal, professional, and sexual boundaries often go broadly unacknowledged. This is particularly clear in works like a 2019 painting that reads “don’t do anything you could not explain to your mother,” neatly printed on a lovely, bright purple plaid, which reads as an external or internal reprimand of women’s sexuality, or “Disappoints” (2019) with the phrase, “Disappoints but does not disappear,” which recalls failed relationships and the myriad of situations women enter into earnestly, only to be disappointed.
Smaller works reading “Don’t do it” and “You should have asked,” printed in uncomfortably charming script, have a dark undertone, indicating the convention that even a woman’s pain must be beautiful and acceptable. The advice columnist E. Jean Carroll has recently made headlines for her forthcoming memoir, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, in which she offers a list of “hideous” men she’s encountered, including the current president. Carroll relates her experience as an advice columnist where she would read again and again about other women’s hideous men, such as “the man who thinks 30 seconds of foreplay is ‘enough,’ the man who cheats on his wife, the man who passes women over for promotion”—the list goes on. As Carroll writes, “Every woman, whether consciously or not, has a catalogue of the hideous men she’s known.” Kuhl’s work is in direct conversation with this sentiment.
A bright orange 2018 work with subtle lines of green, reads in elegant script, “It hurts now but later it will flower.” Reading this in the gallery I feel overwhelmed with anger and sadness. It hits a nerve I didn’t know was there, recalling all the times I was told to get over it, to calm down, to talk less and take up less space. It recalls all the ways I have had to harness my pain in the service of my future success. A smaller work with bluish green vertical stripes simply says, “imagine a room.” An innocuous phrase alone, but in this context it suggests Virginia Woolf’s revolutionary call for women’s space, privacy, and equal rights in the form of “a room of one’s own.”
Kuhl’s “Domestic Textile Series” could not be more be more fitting for current times. The paintings are intimate and unsettling, and express in both form and content much of the shape of women’s rising, brimming, beautiful anger. Wrapped in the guise of women’s domestic work, these paintings speak volumes with only a few words.
Julia Kuhl: I forgot what you wanted continues at frosch & portmann (53 Stanton Street, Manhattan) through July 28.