how we are in time and space: Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, Barbara T. Smith
Armory Center for the arts, Pasadena
through june 12, 2022
Written by H.C. Arnold
Coming into how we are in time and space: Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, Barbara T. Smith, we are asked to do a bit of investigation. This exhibition contains a collection of objects and images revealing a 50 year evolution of these artists. Moving from film to photographs, books to textiles, drawings to sculptures, the curator Michael Ned Holte provides three threads to follow: bodies, communication, and dwelling. While each theme is demarcated in the gallery, the exhibition layout allows us to drift from work to work. It is a living archive, encouraging us to discover our own interpretations and connections.
This type of creative thinking embodies the spirit of these artists, who unflinchingly redefined the terrain of art, feminism, and Southern California since the 1970s. These artists resisted classification or stagnation, moving from medium to medium and never settling into a comfortable or predictable routine. This show is best summarized in a quote by Barbara T. Smith, printed in the exhibition catalog, defining art as “an investigation into the nature of being—what it means to be human, in political, scientific, and spiritual terms, among other possibilities.”
Barbara T Smith’s Signifier 2 is a scanned image of the artist’s hands positioned against the black background of a scanner bed. The contrast between the dark background and Smith’s skin creates a visually dynamic image that is even more pertinent given its subject matter. The use of the scanner, which nods to her previous self-portraits made using a Xerox machine, captures each wrinkle in exact detail. Smith’s body is presented to the gaze of the machine, used to record and translate an image into information. Yet, through that clinical exactitude, humanity reaches through. Smith’s hands, with each finger’s unique bend floating against the darkness, take on a double signification. The image speaks to the clinical nature of science while displaying the dignified beauty of age. The work is a striking meditation of the juxtaposition between the mechanical and the human.
Marcia Hafif’s Oval House challenges the presumed expectations of domestic architecture and life. The object is a small architectural model for a home. While our normalized dwelling spaces are regularly composed of repeating 90 degree squares and rectangles, this space is made from ovals. The object’s material further subverts our expectations. As a quilted object, the home becomes a soft-form space fabricated through an activity traditionally seen as domestic. Notions of building and home are brought to the surface, and we are asked to consider the complex reality of each. The work also addresses the more significant issues of track home developments, the rapid expansion of the suburbs, the cookie-cutter redundancy of living spaces, and the affordability of homeownership.
Nancy Buchanan’s WOLFWOMAN is a two-page spread in the arts newspaper Criss Cross Double Cross (1976) produced by Paul McCarthy. One page contains two photographs of Buchanan. In one, the artist gazes at us passively. In the other, she grimaces behind a full face of hair, made from real hair, and costumed teeth. The other page contains a short text describing Buchanan’s transformation into WOLFWOMAN which is initiated by getting her period. The story narrates Buchanan’s visit to an art opening for a male painter and plotting to “feed on the rich flesh of young male talent” as she coolly picks her prey. While the text may appear as a bit of humorous satire, it reveals the patriarchal challenges these artists faced. The object oriented, male dominated galleries of the era gave little space to female artists or performances. Against this lack of visibility, artists pursued other means of establishing their careers. Criss Cross Double Cross exemplifies this turn to new media. Regarding Buchanan’s costume, she also used real human hair in previous performances, at times in service of subverting gender. In WOLFWOMAN, she subverts the gender of an overtly masculine monster and reveals the latent sexism of Hollywood. As a photo-text piece, the work possesses a constellation of social issues connecting the artworld, mass media, and feminism, how these intersect, and how they can be dismantled.
Overall, how we are in time and space: Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, Barbara T. Smith is a long overdue exhibition. These artists share friendships, and their exchanges of ideas and concerns are present throughout the gallery. This is a unique dialogue that we are granted a view into. The threads it contains are as relevant today as they were then, and they are a reminder to the authority these artists possess.