to Home: An Homage to Hestia"
Essay by Patricia J. Thompson
Close to Home: Introduction by Susan Hoeltzel
Home. The word evokes incongruent emotions. For some, it is the "warm fuzzies." For others, something less or something more. Everyday life, in its cyclical and unremitting mundaneity is not always etched as dearly in our memories as recollections of things that are out of the ordinary. We are so caught up with events and activities in the public sphere that we overlook the deep meaning experiences in the private sphere hold for our lives. That is why a society needs its arts and its artists! They remind us of the touchstones of our humanness and that, through our own efforts, we can transform that which would "bring us down" into that which will "lift us up." The exhibit "Close to Home" disrupts the taken-for-grantedness of our everyday world and marks ordinary objects and activities with the extraordinary eye and hand of the artist.
Households are the background setting for our most intimate associationsour
families. Political theorist Jean Betake Elshtain calls the family a "beloved
landscape." It is also a landscape strewn with shopping carts, tablecloths,
unsorted laundry, johnny mops, and ironing boards. These commonplace artifacts
of the household are the "technologies" of modern domestic life. So intimately
implicated in "housework" or "women's work," these items are often used
but rarely thought of as constituting an "esthetic" of the household.
Why should such banal items as twist ties, scouring pads, cosmetic pads,
dental and embroidery floss, steel wool, foam packaging, and squeeze bottles
be rescued from the garbage and take their place in creative projects
on display in art galleries? If men can establish an "ashcan school of
art," shouldn't women be able to sustain a "garbage pail" school?
According to anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, "specific everyday
tasks can be life-giving, binding individuals to each other and to the
past. They can also be opened up as areas of choice, becoming the building
blocks of identity." As she further remarks, "a household requires sustained
attention to many different needs, a very different kind of attention.
Time, space, and tools need to be used for multiple purposes." In the
present instance, they are also used to produce novel and arresting works
of art. The link between artwork and housework shows a refreshing appreciation
for commonplace objects and reminds us of their role in the real work
Behind the mundane artifacts related to prosaic household
activities lies a human purpose which both male and female artists in
this exhibit help us to realize. As brought together by curator Susan
Hoeltzel, the artworks play off the unifying notion of "housework" and
offer the viewer a new appreciation for aspects of life we are likely
to take for granted and which we are unlikely to pause and reflect upon
as contributing to our psychological well-being.
Homage to Hestia:
Stephanie Demetrakopoulos believes we should "resacralize Hestia" because
to make her as culturally central and apparent as she was in ancient Greece
would give public recognition to the worth of private household work done
mostly by women. If we could resacralize this aspect of lifeenjoy
it as a part of the activity of beingwe might recover the connections
between mind and body, private and public, and the worlds of men and women,
traditionally so separate. Demetrakopoulos rejects the idea of Hestia
as a mere allegory for the "monotonous work that sustains our species,
housewifery." She encourages us to regard Hestia as the background for...labor
as a process in the house...whose products are swallowed and undone by
our needs as fast as the chores and duties can he done." She says that
putting the Hestian aspects of life onto women and sequestering them within
the home denies the fact that human life requires a great deal of repetitive
toil, simply to survive. The works assembled here help us bring this fact
of life back into consciousness in novel ways. On a Jungian reading, Hestia
becomes a psychological archetype whose qualities help women to remain
centered, withstand solitude, resist damaging relationships with men,
and find value in their personal resources and capacity for creativity
in their relationships with people and with the things of everyday life.
Barbara Kirksey remarks that, without Hestia, herself "imageless," there
can be no focusing on the image, and there are no boundaries to differentiate
the intimacy of the inner dwelling and the outer world because there is
no psychic house to give protective walls. She emphasizes Hestia's "cohesive
function in the soul, which preserves the element of wholeness, allowing
the individual to image "in peace." Framing our perspective in this way
helps us to view this unusual assemblage in the proper frame of intelligibilitythe
Hestian frame of referenceso that we can experience the ordinary
transformed into the extraordinary.
In the mid-19th century, Catharine Beecher published The Treatise
on Domestic Economy which suggested ways in which women could reduce
their workloads in the household and improve their health. Later, with
her sister Harriett Beecher Stowe, she published The American Woman's
Home in which domesticitynot just the individual "household
arts" of cookery and stitcherywas itself elevated to a science ("domestic
science") and an art. Domesticity is rarely represented in public artexcept
for the "domestic scenes" of the classical period when Vermeer bathed
his subjects in a warm glowing light. This exhibit brings into view what
French historian Fernand Braudel has called "that vast world of the habitual,
the routine." It is precisely those things lost to historythe habits
and routines of ordinary, everyday life in householdsthat we are
invited to contemplate here. Using the familiar materials that clutter
our lives and which are found close to home presents us with a realm of
possibilities we may not previously have imagined. Experts on the domestic
scene such as Martha Stewart can help us decorate a table, but artists
help us decorate our psyches.
When I teach courses in home management and household ecology, I ask students to keep a "garbage log" on which they list everything thrown out in the household trash. After a week, their assignment is to analyze the detritus of our throwaway society and to divide it into organic and inorganic components. This tells them what is biodegradable and readily recyclable end what is not. Next they are asked to make something useful and/or beautiful from an item they usually discard without thinking. The object of the exercise is not a simple intervention in the loop from manufacturer to consumer or even the quality or artistic value of the final project. It is to make them think about the things they use and the long-term risks and benefits of such use. The time to think about such things is before we sacrifice all our natural landscapes to urban landfills. Focus on process rather than product makes us conscious of what we are doing unconsciously. In this "disruptive" task, artists play an important role.
The evocative works displayed here help us see and think differently
about what would ordinarily lie just below the surface of our consciousness.
Students tell me they remember this "garbage" exercise long after they
have forgotten the oxygen and nitrogen cycles because it touched them
"firsthand" and was so "close to home."
Perceptions are organized around particular systems of signs and categories, rules and principles, that lead us to what is deemed worthy of attention. Culture provides a schema of what is worth seeing. Cultural conditioning has made women and women's work invisible.
We (women and men) are socialized to recognize what men have recognized as important. Conversely, such cultural schemes also dictate what is not to he noticed, what is unremarkable, such as the daily round of invisible household work done by invisible hands. We notice what we are taught to noticeuntil the artist directs our attention to something we have missed.
The idea that we should stop, think, and look close to homeand not look ever outwardto enrich or beautify our lives is empowering to us as we go about our daily round. Why must we fix our gaze solely on products? Shouldn't we also consider the underlying human purposes served by mundane artifacts and humdrum routines? There is a powerful message in this collection that transforms ordinary objects in our household ecology into objects of contemplation and reflection. In combining unlikely artifacts in artworks, we are reminded that living well is itself an art. As Mary Catherine Bateson says, the greatest challenge we face is "composing a life." This exhibit reminds us that a life, like a work of art, can be composed from commonplace components. It is up to US to put them together with imagination and courage.The private/public sphere split has captured the attention of feminist scholars in many fields for more than three decades. Central to their concerns is the dilemma of domesticity. How can domestic work be equitably shared and equitably compensated? Why is Hestian work more valued when it is done by paid workers in the public sphere than by unpaid workers in the private sphere? Domesticity implies its share of drudgerybut so does other important work in society. Some drudgery of comparable or even lesser worth to society is better compensated than forms of drudgery that have profound human importance! Mundane, repetitive, monotonous work that "never gets done" is frustrating and oppressive. No argument there. It takes the artist's eye to remind us that what may be engaged in as dull and repetitive also has its redeeming aspectsthe discovery of the artist in each of us as we pursue our work in either sphere.
Professor Patricia J. Thompson of Lehman Col-
Rhonda Roland Shearer, Doll Series: Girl Action Figures (Vacuum, floor model), 1993
Michael Pribich, Untitled, 1992-4
Jeanne Tremel, Quilt, 1996