L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
A river of blood runs through the history of womankind,” wrote cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan, with so much dramatic sway that the truthfulness almost got lost in the motion. “That river stops, more or less, with the installation of [a] shag carpet.” The carpet in question—lush, blue and all the rage in the 70s—was installed by Byllye Avery, a “grassroots realist” and the first to open an abortion clinic in Gainesville, Florida. It covered up easy-to-sterilize, drab tiling, the kind medical facilities swear by, and, while it may have been unabashedly decorative, it sent a pragmatic message. “You wouldn’t put that kind of rug on the floor if it was going to be ruined,” said Avery.
Tiles have the unfortunate ability to make messiness, in some contexts even bloodiness, seem immanent. But a voluptuous blue shag carpet? That can soak up bodily vulnerability better than Donna Summer can smooth out anxiety.
The carpets in Swiss artist Mai-Thu Perret’s work may more moderate than the one Avery described, but they serve similar functions. They manage to soften austerity and absorb bodiliness at the same time, containing the visceral within a calculated cerebral frame.
Perret’s current show at David Kordansky Gallery, fittingly titled Migraine, includes an impressive array of mostly abstract work but, somehow, doesn’t feel overhung. Perhaps this is because the pieces are all self-enclosed, each imperfect but almost perfectly so. When I noticed that the board bearing one of the large Migraine paintings, acrylic Rorschach marks spread out on off-white carpet, had bowed out from the wall, I half expected all the others to bow out too.
Geneva based, Perret has responded to—and crafted her own—literary sources since she began exhibiting nearly ten years ago. Her references manage to include utopian optimism and French decadence, and she has written a layered story, called The Land Crystal, that serves, in some ways, as the backbone for much of work she’s made. The story tells of young women coexisting in a man-free commune (writer John Miller described the place as “post-pubescent and pre-menopausal: young, sexualized, yet abstinent,” “outside the concerns of any real-politik”), not so much for militant as for confidence-building reasons. They’re trying to learn how to exist by themselves. It’s not necessary to understand this narrative, or even know about it, in seeing Perret’s work. It seems, rather, as an impetus for working. As novelist Zadie Smith put it, “Whenever you set up these structures, you realize after . . . that you could remove them, but it’s not good knowing after the fact. It’s what you need to give the [work] form.”
With the exception of the Rorschach paintings, most of the works in the show are glazed ceramics. Eggs, arranged in calculatedly ornamental ways that mute their organic qualities, recur as a theme. In one piece, As for resembling, it certainly resembles; but as for being, it certainly is not—Perret’s titles can be more exhausting and longwinded than Milan Kundera’s—nine eggs are impeccably arranged on a mid-size rectangle that, two-thirds of the way down, dissolves into butchered trails of doughy beige clay. In another, called I Could Speak, I Could Speak, what looks like a fragment of a fossilized skull protrudes from the surface while a mysterious, primordial looking imprint sinks down beside it. These shapes are flanked by eight eggs, so exactly placed they look like particularly round rivets.
When I think of craft, communes, and a “river of blood through womankind,” Womanhouse, the 1971 feminist experiment in radical homemaking, comes to mind. The house, where each room served as an installation space, had fried eggs sculpted to look like breasts on the kitchen wall, and a menstruation bathroom. If in possession of the blue shag rug, Womanhouse’s residents might have opened up a space down the middle so the river of blood could flow right through its fibers. Perret’s work, in contrast, controls fluidity, emphasizing the design and structure of feminine decoration over the hands-on craftiness. And while it may still cause migraines, the desire to know fluids aren’t going to overrun you doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.