Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Woman, art, life

Rachel Winborn, 'In Floor,' 1995, photo by Charles Morris

Rachel Winborn, performance artist, has a new website up. Please go look at it. It's beautiful, and fun; click on each room in the little house, watch the videos, read the stories. Pay particular attention to the wallpaper.

In order to get a genuine sense of what Rachel's work is about, you have to allow yourself to become immersed. She's not making a one-line 'statement' about Women and Art and Drudgery; though her work is labor-intensive and conceptual, it is an exploration, an illustrative process. One of my favorites is "Launder":

For Launder I made 1200 bars of old fashioned laundry soap and "tiled" the floor with them. I built a wood plank or "boardwalk" around the perimeter of the room for the viewer to experience the piece. In the beginning of the exhibition the walls were bare. Once a week, while the gallery was open I came in and "did laundry": scrubbing the clothes on the floor. Over a 7-week period I did laundry on six days, the seventh week/day I rested. During each performance I washed one set of clothes each for a man, a woman and a baby. The water in the wash tub was never changed; I only added one pail of fresh water to it per week. By the third week the gallery had a rancid smell due to the moldy water and tallow soap. Toward the end of the exhibition it was evident that the clothes first washed were brighter than the latter washed. The more I washed the worse the laundry came out. Hence, the work is never

And there you go. Perhaps the ending is a typo, but it works for me.

I've known Rachel for two or three years, now. She's the kind of person you can invite anywhere. Down-to-earth, generous, engaging, she can and will make cheerful conversation with anyone, even if she doesn't speak their language. She's the mother of a ten-year-old daughter, Ruby, and she and her husband are expecting their second child soon. She's nothing like the stereotype of a snotty, shallow, elitist 'performance artist'; her art is a natural outgrowth of her life.

In addition, Rachel knows what she's doing in the technical arena. There aren't too many things she doesn't know how to make or do, from carpentry, to sewing, to photography, to soapmaking. Thus, the installations she creates have an integrity to them which transcends the act of 'installing a bunch of found objects in a space.' Rachel gets the right stuff for the atmosphere she is creating, whether she finds it in an attic, or spends months making enough ceramic tiles to cover an entire room, grouting herself into the floor.

Most of her pieces involve a leisurely, almost ritualistic exploration of a simple action, such as knitting and unravelling a dress/blanket in bed, or shaking flour out of dresses. As such, she is essentially creating physical poetry in time and space. The most arresting aspects of her pieces are sometimes the smallest, most incidental detritus of the process; the amplified sounds of flour-laden dresses hitting the floor, the smell of rancid soap. Her work owes a lot to theatre and set design; she cannily uses all the tricks at her disposal to create an energetically charged space.

One thing you may note, as you browse through Rachel's virtual house, is that the dates on the pieces range from 1995 to the present. Some of them are more involved than others; some are merely gestures, while others required months of labor and preparation. But she's not mindlessly spewing out piece after piece after piece, performing every weekend, having the sort of frenetic 'art career' that is expected, almost demanded, of the Chelsea set.

I, for one, don't have a problem with that. To me, there's something hollow and brittle about art which is churned out at the expense of the artist having an actual life. Rachel's creative pace is authentic to the dictates of having a well-rounded life as an artist, wife and mother, not merely the life of a woman artist making art about wives and mothers.

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