Los Angeles

Carmen Winant: Pictures of Women Working at Skibum MacArthur

The question of work becomes complex when one asks who is doing it, and for whom. The precarious labor of domestic chores gone unfairly compensated, the frequently banal performance of activism and demonstration, sex work—these labors remain concerns in our current social and economic spheres, and reflect a problematic, historical trajectory that often fails to incorporate and value unseen, marginalized work and workers.[1] In Pictures of Women Working, on view at the project space Skibum MacArthur in Los Angeles, the artist and writer Carmen Winant presents collages that use photographs and other documents of women during the heyday of second-wave feminism—which was also the heyday of arts activism. Pictures of Women Working questions the limits of representation through Winant’s mediated imagery and her personal vantage point as a “straight white American woman.”[2] As intersectionality—the acknowledgment of how multiple strains of discrimination and power simultaneously overlap—becomes a term frequently touted, how does the appearance of contemporary feminism echo or differ from the images Winant strings together?

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

One continuous collage panel runs along the wall of the main exhibition hall at eye level, and another strip is installed in the smaller gallery entrance, their paper layers protected and secured by Plexiglas. Photographs of picketers, lesbian erotica, head shots of famous artists (Agnes Martin is spotted), and feminist celebrities (a glamorous Gloria Steinem is shown famously perching on a chair in the offices of Ms. magazine) are among the images of women taken from books, periodicals, editorial spreads from bygone weeklies, and advertisements of a certain era, as the narrative of second-wave feminism was being palatably congealed for public consumption. A girls’ football league. A woman nursing her child. A secretary at her keyboard. Dancers. Vietnam War protesters. Nuns entering a church. The women are engaged in all types of activities—the titular “work.” These archival cutouts are layered over recent newspaper clippings from the last few months, including quite a few episodes from the intensely scrutinized 2016 U.S. election cycle in which the first woman ever nominated to be president faces off against a raging misogynist.

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Although a few of the images—sometimes cropped but mostly shown in their original compositions—are recognizable and familiar, Winant does not highlight or privilege one subject over another in her presentation. The artist catalogued the pictures extensively; her placements are deliberate. Moments of tenderness, humor, gratification, and anger abound. Winant’s previous work has also utilized found images and grouped them together, but the overlaying in Pictures of Women Working is a new foray for the artist. The headline “Sandberg’s Grief Inspires a Book about Resilience” and the attendant image of the Facebook executive with her deceased husband printed in the New York Times sits next to a picture of a seated woman smiling with her head resting in her arms; a small color photograph of a banner that reads, “TRUST WOMEN”; and a head shot of a blonde with nude-colored patches on her face in what is seemingly an advertisement for a skin-care product. The collage not only sets up a conversation between lapping waves where “feminist” remains a contested term, but also implicitly creates awareness of the mediation and modes to which words and pictures are subject.

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

The ideological framework of feminism can live on various axes: the lateral, of sisterhood and solidarity; the longitudinal, of bruising and reconciliation between warring generations. So what is born from Winant’s juxtaposition of past and present, personal and political, in the collage form? The German Dada artist Hannah Höch explored those possibilities through her photomontages, piecing together cut-out images and reconstructing an oppressive linear history by ripping, basting, and sewing up hybrid representations. Winant’s collage, however, does not render images through torn-up pictures; her compositions and bodies are left whole, and create an even greater whole nestled and aligned with the images around them. Using loose swaths of white paint or stripes of color, Winant occasionally frames certain pictures, but allows the medium of collage to do the heavy conceptual lifting. Connections are generated organically as viewers are enveloped in the diverse array of images and begin questioning their own views on the meaning of work.

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

Carmen Winant. Pictures of Women Working, 2016; installation view. Courtesy of Skibum MacArthur, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox.

In her own writing in “The Art of Birth,” published in Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Winant elaborates: “This productive dissonance—between experience and its representation, bodily sensation and the drive to picture it—is always the stuff of great art… Birth, the strangest and most essential kind of entropy, offers us that possibility.”[3] Reproduction, here in Pictures of Women Working, is another form of both birth and work, one that synthesizes the ongoing process of realizing and understanding the project of liberation. All women have always worked, and Winant celebrates this timeless reality by sifting through countless pictures and recontextualizing a tired fantasy. She negotiates the impossibility of representing this project by refracting her own viewpoint, showcasing the multitudinous and imperfect narratives available in visual and textual form to expand the discourse on feminist labor.

Pictures of Women Working will be on view at Skibum MacArthur in Los Angeles through October 29, 2016.

[1] A couple of years ago, after a screening of Berwick Street Collective’s Nightcleaners I (1975), a documentary that chronicles a campaign in the United Kingdom aimed at unionizing women workers who clean offices overnight, a moment of tension gripped the audience as a younger woman inquired about the limited presence of people of color in the film. One of the women who had been involved in the campaign, and who had been invited to speak on the discussion panel, testily retorted that a woman of color had had an opportunity to speak in the film—“Didn’t you see?” The exchange was a brief, minutes-long encounter absorbed into the larger fabric of the hour-and-a-half film. The interrogator, a bit shaken, did not ask the panelist to elaborate.

[2] “Carmen Winant: Pictures of Women Working,” accessed October 17, 2016, www.skibummacarthur.net.

[3] Carmen Winant, “The Art of Birth,” Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, no. 5, accessed October 17, 2016, http://contemporaryartreview.la/the-art-of-birth/.

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