Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 7, 2019
Suzanne Bocanegra: Poorly Watched Girls
Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, October 5, 2018–February 17, 2019
Suzanne Bocanegra: Poorly Watched Girls, installation view, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, October 5, 2018–February 17, 2019 (photograph by John Muse)

For her exhibition Poorly Watched Girls at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Suzanne Bocanegra installed four artworks that repurpose numerous precedent works: Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites; Mark Robson’s 1967 film Valley of the Dolls; Jan Brueghel the Elder’s circa 1620 painting Flowers in a Ceramic Vase; Thomas P. McCarthy’s 1955 Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States; Jean Dauberval’s 1789 ballet, La Fille mal gardée (The poorly watched girl); and Luigi Pampaloni’s sculpture Girl of the Turtledoves (Innocence) of 1831.

Fangirl-like, Bocanegra decorates these precedents and their many mothers, daughters, Sisters, and Mother Superiors as an enthusiast might a beloved book, with stars and exclamation points, less for the finder than the keeper. But anyone moving through the three floors and four installations will find riches: cloth, needle, and thread; collages doubling as performance settings; video projections of reenactments and a sincere, quasi-rustic performance; rough, near-costume assemblages of fabric and ribbon and unconventional materials like moss, sticks, and birds; dismantled books adorned with embroidery and tacked fabric; songs composed of found words; and other artists and performers visible and audible everywhere: Anne Carson, Deborah Hay, Joan Jonas, Alicia Hall Moran, Tanya Selvaratnam, Kate Valk, Carrie Mae Weems, Wendy Whelan, David Lang, Caroline Shaw, and Shara Nova.

Ostensibly, Poorly Watched Girls is about watching, guarding, and regarding, about the gendering power of the gaze, and yet it also asks to be regarded. This exhibition is about exhibition, about watching and taking care. How then does Bocanegra reconstitute the relationship between viewer and viewed? And how does this relationship in turn affect these precedent works?

Lemonade, Roses, Satchel, a four-minute video projection on the first floor, is one of the four installations. It features Shara Nova, lead singer for My Brightest Diamond, who is rendered as flatly iconic as a children’s book illustration; her floor-length printed dress is less garment than stiff pedestal. Motionless, pinned to the wall, and looking directly at us, Nova strums an autoharp, intoning elements from phrases that Bocanegra’s grandmother, who lived with dementia, would endlessly repeat: “Would you like some lemonade?” “My roses are so beautiful.” “Why won’t he give me money for my satchel?” Nova wraps herself around these things with hymnal care, transforming the oblivious repetition of a suffering woman into something sacred: “The roses are there, and they are my roses / the roses are / roses / the roses are pretty . . .” Bocanegra, though, treats Nova’s performance as neither redemptive nor strictly serious; Nova is dressed in hyperbolically rustic, European milkmaid doll gear. She is a monster of faux braids, fabric, and accessories: on her head is a ridiculously long bundle of wheat and roses, a toy bird perched on one end. This pastiche flaunts its misfit fabrication—but the song is too angelic to be disenchanted. The performance as a whole enlivens this frozen mess rather than the mess numbing the voice. Bocanegra’s costuming does not ironize pastoral domesticity; instead, it shamelessly pledges allegiance.

In Dialogue of the Carmelites, also on the first floor, Bocanegra gives us more reverence, this time coupled with the machinery of mass execution. In 1794 dozens of nuns were guillotined in Paris for refusing to renounce their faith; Poulenc’s 1956 opera tells their tale. In Bocanegra’s version individual pages from McCarthy’s Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States lean on a dimly lit shelf ringing the gallery; they detail the habits of US Sisterhoods, each page portraying an anonymous Sister. If colors are mentioned in the book’s description, then the artist uses them to decorate the Sister: for example, “the symbol of the Incarnate Word is embroidered with red silk.” And thus, a looping red thread pierces her picture. The room’s score, composed by David Lang with vocals by Caroline Shaw, includes a repeating introductory clause and numerous unique sentences that complete it. The clause, “When I’m alone,” cycles in quick monotone. The succeeding sentences vary: “. . . I’m afraid to talk,” “. . . I always feel like someone’s watching,” “. . . I move as slowly as I want to.” These are pitched an octave above the introductory clause and drift a few intervals on either side. As with Lemonade, Roses, Satchel, the pains of the precedent are not undermined by Etsy-era embroidery and delicate singing; rather, the latter elements model devotion to the former. And the mass of voices and pages shifts the devotion to the relationship between what we do as visitors and what these women did with their lives: a vocation, alone time, time with Sisters and flocks and gods, an anonymizing retreat, submission to authorities and brutalities. To regard these latter-day Carmelites is to master neither their field nor their many deaths, nor is it to mock worship or Sisterhood. While the precedent is traumatic, these light touches, such as the threads and murmur of voices, trace a gentle circle. 

Third, Valley, which occupies the second floor, presents eight video projections of eight different reenactments of a famous four-minute Judy Garland wardrobe test for Valley of the Dolls, a film for which Garland was cast and then—drug addicted and addled as she was—quickly fired. The reenactors are prestigious: poet Anne Carson, choreographer Deborah Hay, performance artist Joan Jonas, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, activist Tanya Selvaratnam, the Wooster Group’s Kate Valk, artist Carrie Mae Weems, and ballerina Wendy Whelan. Valley neither plumps Garland’s myth nor disparages folks for adoring her. Rather, it sweats the details: the gestures of the eight reenactors synch; grayscale cards appear and disappear in unison, as do various technicians and Bocanegra herself, including her off-screen verbal directions: “Will you turn around, please?” she says, to which the performers all reply as Garland did, “Huh? Without a cigarette and a blindfold?” Guillotines and dementia on the first floor, a firing squad on the second. Which is fitting: Valley retrieves and expertly tackles an inexpert performance, linking this piece effectively to Lemonade, Roses, Satchel, which is to a grandmother’s dementia and death as Valley is to a star’s addiction and eventual overdose. 

In the precedent work, Garland is twitchy, unable to feign nonchalance. Bocanegra’s reenactors take on a Garland trying oh so hard to perform. They take her worry and worry it further, trying just as hard to reenact “trying too hard.” Carson gives us deadpan awkwardness, Weems and Whelan some stiff elegance, Selvaratnam a woozy wobble—while Moran plays to the camera, pouring herself into Garland, transforming troubles into “I take direction well.” Viewers take direction too: to walk the length of this long, corridor-like bay while flanked by eight large projections is also to be tested. Valley is a gauntlet of towering women dressed for Garland’s failed success. What was but a degraded low-res, paracinematic artifact is here fully spectacular, aggressive, and inescapable. In this way Bocanegra again embellishes a lost cause. The precedent is weirder for having provoked such a complex effort, which, like the score and embroidery for Dialogue of the Carmelites and the song and costuming for Lemonade, Roses, Satchel, lays extravagant wreaths at the feet of vanquished beloveds and in so doing freezes the countdown to erasure. The exhibition is this paradox of care: to regard is to fix; to fix is both to bedazzle and embalm, even if tenderly. There they are; they are dead; they are going to die.

The work on the eighth floor, Fille, further dramatizes this paradox with its three components. First, there are six overstuffed tutus on raised dress forms, ostensibly for the eponymous ballet. Second, four large wall-size panels form a narrow corridor against one wall of the bay; they are covered on the corridor side with stained, unbleached cotton and numerous objects: nets of wax-covered string, tiny photographs and magazine cutouts, paintings of individual flower petals, and decorative medallions mounted to boards, a single bean glued to each. Third and finally, a plaster cast of the head of Girl of the Turtledoves—which, written and seen this way, literalizes the decapitated Sisters of Dialogue of the Carmelites. Taken together these elements are thick with oldness and oddness, redolent of spoilage and tidy unsafekeeping. The tutus are Frankensteins, stiches and all: a doll wearing a tiny hat is itself a hat; an inflatable airline neck pillow becomes a middle-of-the-back bodice; a pointe shoe is stuffed into a neckline. The froufrou garments and panels are ballasted, as though immobility were their very content. For example, stitched to one of the panels are all the petals from all the flowers in Brueghel’s Flowers in a Ceramic Vase, each repainted by Bocanegra and then hung upside down from thin cloth strips. Deadheaded like the tutus, these now vase-less specimens have been hung out to dry, shattered as they are preserved.

In Fille the costumes are corpses; the panels, crime show murder boards; the head, a plaster trophy and kitsch afterimage. No voices, no Garland, no Nova, no Shaw; the titular ballet plays the part of a virtual, ever threatening performance: the fille is always about to be tormented, about to be freed. The love story requires it, repetition and stasis. Which shows us that to watch this exhibition poorly is to see only the decorative bits, to find these earnest or twee or deft, mere testaments to Bocanegra’s craft. To watch it well is to see this craft as shamelessly extravagant care for what can neither be shown nor transformed: the dementia of a loved one, the execution of nuns, the breakdown of a star, the fixing of a fille by a love story. These precedents preserve catastrophes, but Bocanegra does not appropriate their powers or promise repair; instead, she attracts attention and saves our place, the book still open and her love exposed.

John Muse
Visual Media Scholar, Haverford College