“Jewelry for My Mother(s) and Other Microaggressions” takes up a history of objects produced by and for women, particularly North American women during the postwar years. It’s a specialized aesthetic that has nevertheless come to stand for conspicuous banality thanks to the machinations of media: Objects like compacts bring to mind intimate rituals of the body; a plastic, white scalloped form that curls into a hanger for a golden ring, a small thing that hints of home. These bits of modern consumerist life which Davis references, of course, once constructed heavily gendered notions of “body” and “home” as much as they now reflect those freighted, historically-contingent ideas.
More enigmatic works take up the procedures of domestic decoration. A weirdly molded lump hangs on the wall, replete with a kitschy bauble and gold jewelry. A similar piece suspends a green-glazed duck. Together with a series of other hanging assemblages, they make up a typology of sorts. The salient features of this collection seem to be hanging as such (we are meant to query, I think, the way some practices of suspending things on walls are valorized as artistic production and others are consigned to “mere” decoration) and the co-mingling of knickknacks with purposefully ambiguous matter. If both are considered through the lens of gender, the objects begin to tell a familiar story of devalued women’s work.
These ideas and objects have long been part of Davis’ practice, and have appeared in a number of Chicago shows in recent years (“Homebodies” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a solo exhibition at Threewalls). The show’s text tries to put a new spin on things by positioning Davis’ objects in relation to the “eve of a possible female president of the United States.” Given that Hillary Clinton—perhaps the paradigmatic woman of the baby boomer generation—ultimately lost the election, it’s worth taking a long, hard look at Davis’ show. How can object-based archaeologies of gendered oppression help us better understand the past? Can they help us refigure the present? Davis excels at teasing out the ambiguities implicit in these questions. Does her art also offer us anything critical, anything useful to change the future? Appropriately enough, I’m unsure. (Luke A. Fidler)
Through January 8, 2017 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington