"Women's Work" at Lyndhurst
A new exhibition examines and celebrates the influence of handcraft on contemporary art.
From May 26 to September 26, 2022, National Trust Historic Site Lyndhurst is presenting “Women’s Work,” an exhibition that marks the evolution of women artists—from the domestic handcraft tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries to the practice of many contemporary artists. Curated by Lyndhurst’s Executive Director Howard Zar, Nancy Carlisle of Historic New England, and Rebecca R. Hart, an independent contemporary art curator, “Women’s Work” is—in Zar’s words—“ultimately about ownership of identity.”
A 19th-century home whose history is shaped by three different families and their staff, Lyndhurst has, in recent years, focused more on sharing women’s history—a key part of the National Trust program Where Women Made History, which identifies, honors, and elevates places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world. Within both the mansion and the Lyndhurst gallery space, visitors to “Women’s Work” encounter more than 125 objects and art pieces all produced by an inclusive group of women artists.
The intent behind this exhibition was one of celebration, providing an opportunity for visitors to engage with hundreds of years of artwork by women artists. It’s not every day that needlepoints by First Ladies Martha Washington and Dolley Madison sit next to a fan by Miriam Schapiro, steps away from a performance piece by Yoko Ono, or a remarkable art piece by Faith Ringgold—each a revolutionary artist in the field of contemporary art. As Zar wrote in the catalog, “I wanted to tell the story of triumph and remind contemporary audiences that the things we now take for granted are often the result of hundreds of years of gestation, much less struggle.”
The Foundation for the “Women’s Work” Exhibition
Pulling together this exhibition was not without challenges. While it was easy to identify and collaborate with contemporary artists, acquiring the domestic handcrafts was more difficult due to collections policies and institutions that were dismissive of domestic pieces perceived as “less than” handcrafts made by men. Here, Nancy Carlisle, the senior curator of collections at Historic New England (HNE), brought her vast expertise and knowledge (and HNE’s vast collection) to the table.
As with most groups, the work of women in terms of domestic handcraft is not a monolith. Carlisle writes in the exhibition catalog that “while the vast majority of the work of women before the twentieth century was ephemeral, some of it survives in tangible objects of varying degrees of artfulness. Digging below the surface of these surviving examples reveals an extraordinary array of stories that put faces to the women who went before us.”
For Zar and Hart, the more direct influence and inspiration for the exhibition is “Womanhouse”, the 1972 installation and performance venue organized by artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro—both of whom are featured in “Women’s Work”—which transformed rooms in a domestic space into feminist art.
Fifty years later, Zar writes in the catalog, “it was a short hop from “Womanhouse” to the concept of displaying women’s art in Lyndhurst … [and] to see the mansion as a backdrop for centuries of artworks that had their roots in a domestic space. Based on the original function of many of these artworks, it was easy to assign types of pieces to a type of room. Fancy table decorations would go in the parlor, painted china plates and utilitarian food vessels in the dining room, quilts in bedrooms and dolls in a nursery.”
While the pieces displayed in the Lyndhurst Exhibition Gallery space are arranged to provide an overview of the ideas and the evolution of techniques by women artists over time, the pieces displayed within the Lyndhurst Mansion directly invoke “Womanhouse,” intentionally connecting space, place, and time.
““it was a short hop from “Womanhouse” to the concept of displaying women’s art in Lyndhurst … [and] to see the mansion as a backdrop for centuries of artworks that had their roots in a domestic space.”Howard Zar, executive director of Lyndhurst
The Exhibition Gallery: “It Starts with Learning to Sew”
The vast majority of the objects in the “Women’s Work” exhibition are in the Lyndhurst Gallery where a visitor can stand in the center of the room and bask in the presence of 18th-century needlework, a module of Sheila Hicks wall coverings from the late 1960s, or a jewelry assemblage by Keri Ataumbi and Jamie Okuma created to honor Pocahontas in 2014.
Each section of the gallery focuses on various areas of the domestic handcraft tradition, beginning with needlework, to the use of needle-based decorative skills in clothing, quilting, and then finally, china painting (an element of the “parlor art” which swept the country in the 1870s through to the early 20th century). In each case, a historical piece is flanked by incredible works of art that play on or push forward particular artistic techniques.
For instance, one of the initial pieces in the gallery is a sampler by Atta Downing Upton, a piece that was created when she was seven in the late 18th century, as part of her formal education at a dame school in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Paired with this piece is "Untitled (Laura Engel)" a modern sampler created by artist Elaine Reichek, which explores Reichek’s Jewish identity “subverting the Protestant morality of historic samplers by using comments from her family about their Jewishness.”
As you move along the room, you encounter accessories and clothing, as seen in the “dressing gown from 1862-64” which shows the decorative needlework skills wielded by women. Paired with this piece are Miriam Schapiro’s “Decorative Fan #1” and “Bag VI” from Harmony Hammond, a pioneering feminist artist in the early 1970s.
These pieces sit in conversation with a performance art piece from Yoko Ono called “Cut Piece” where the artist asks audience members to cut off pieces of her clothing. The exhibition catalog states that “Ono’s video calls attention to the historical tradition of male artists revealing the female body as a “normal” subject for artwork. In this instance, however, the audience/viewer is implicated in what is revealed to be an aggressive act against women.”
In the section on quilting, “Women’s Work” looks to illustrate the ways in which quilts hold political and social commentary, but also a deep engagement with storytelling. Here you can see one of Faith Ringgold’s “Feminist Series” from 1972 which, influenced by the Tibetan thangka—a painting with a cloth frame that could be rolled up—is an abstract painting that includes a quote from Shirley Chisolm.
A log cabin quilt on display marks the death of President James A. Garfield and is paired by an incredible celluloid log cabin quilt by Sabrina Gschwandtner. Presented in a framed lightbox, this “quilt” uses old 16mm films of women in the textile art as the strips of fabric in a quilt, presenting an art piece where “film becomes a textile, a quilt composed of photographic material embedded with the history of women’s work.”
One last example, which barely touches the surface of the art objects in the Lyndhurst Gallery, is a look at painted ceramics, where an 1879 teacup and saucer by author, poet, and artist Celia Thaxter is paired with work from the early 1900s by Emily Cole and test dinner plate by Judy Chicago for her 1970s installation “The Dinner Party.”
On their own, every single piece in this exhibition tells the story of “women’s work” in a singular moment in time. Within each grouping, and even collectively, this assemblage of creative works reveals a lineage of remarkable achievement by women over the course of 300 years.
The Library: Art in Conversation
While the objects on display in the Lyndhurst Gallery reveal a continuum of women’s work over time, the art pieces that are found within the Lyndhurst Mansion provide an extra layer of conversation. Each room has three different elements: a historical piece, a contemporary work similar to the historical piece in execution but with a different intent, and a new version using contemporary methods to explore the traditional practice. The combination of room and art then provides an anchor point between how women’s work was assessed in the past, while emphasizing its value in the present.
For “Women’s Work,” one of the Library tableaus consists of four different pieces built on the popular 19th-century technique of silhouettes. The historical piece is by a male artist Auguste Edouart which depicts a woman, Mary Appleton, creating a silhouette of her husband. This method of handcraft was popular because it required almost no training and could be produced less expensively than a painting. However, while many women produced these pieces within the home, it was more formally recognized as an artistic tradition for the men who offered them as alternatives to families who couldn’t afford portraits.
Paired with this silhouette are two contemporary pieces using the same technique. The 1965 piece “Blocked” reveals how pop artist Idelle Weber, as described by Hart in the exhibit catalog, “used silhouettes and equated them with negative space making her figures into patterns. Her anonymous gendered figures commented on how 1960s culture codified social and gender roles, a riff on more conventional pop art that commented on consumer culture.” Ultimately, the piece illustrates the reality of the glass ceiling women so often face.
The other contemporary piece is Kara Walker’s “Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times,” a “story book” inspired by 19th-century writings and novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin that tells the tale of “an emancipated female slave who continues to experience oppression and comes to realize that freedom is a fable.” Put side by side, a dialogue emerges between these two pieces about gender and power.
In counterpoint is the Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, Montana) painting “For Julie, Lemimts” which was produced as a thank you gift for another artist, Julie Green (who is also featured in the exhibition). This piece uses a similar silhouetted style, scaled to fit within Green’s home, and was inspired by petroglyphs and painted pictographs located in the area of Smith’s tribe.
Together these four pieces provide, as Zar states, “an entry point, an opportunity to look at things in a new way.” Where conversations about one piece may involve artist, technique, and historical context, these four grouped together engage in intersecting discussions about gender, access, and artistic traditions from different cultures that are distinct and separate from one another—a conversation heightened by the physical context of the Library, a gathering space for learning and connecting with ideas, both new and old.
“Women’s Work” invites us to see the historical handcraft tradition juxtaposed against the artistic marvels of the contemporary creators. The art featured in this exhibition serve as touchpoints in a long history of artistic tradition, tracing the histories of power, presence, and persistence of women as leaders in the creation of art, artistic expression, and meaning in their lives. Or, as Hart writes, witnessing this “invites newness and defends against oppression.”
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