Pictures of Women Working
October 4 – 26, 2019
Martin McDonald Gallery
A half-century after Betty Friedan’s identification of “the problem that has no name” galvanized a generation of American women to enter the workforce in the name of liberation, work still occupies a complicated cultural, political, and social position for women. It continues to be debated (lean in/opt out), politicized (as cracks appear in the glass ceiling for the highest office in the land), and commodified (Ivanka Trump’s marketing slogan for her fashion line is #WomenWhoWork). Collaging more than a thousand original found images of women beautifying, nursing children, having sex, protesting, practicing self-defense, and making art, Carmen Winant deconstructs what constitutes productive activity for women in Pictures of Women Working.
Drawing largely on images from the era of second-wave feminism, the collages—backgrounded by topical newspaper broadsheets and running the length of the gallery as a single piece—may initially present a picture of halcyon days marked by achievements like Title IX and Roe v. Wade. But the neat reading of enfranchisement begins to fray upon closer scrutiny of the images, which often depict women doing secretarial work, performing their sexual objectification as work, or coming under physical attack. Found images of Qandeel Baloch and Mothers of the Movement appear alongside Jane Fonda workout stills and photographs of female painters in the studio, calling into question the parallel functions and consequences of realizing oneself in the world as a working woman.
The problems of representation, self-styled and filtered through the male gaze, go beyond the borders of the image to what is only hinted at through pictures. Second-wave feminism’s focus on work as economic independence hung on a utopian vision of equality largely representing the interests of bourgeois white women. Non-middle class women—often of color—who were already in the workforce out of necessity found their voices further muted.
The complex relationship of women and work grows ever more convoluted and fraught the longer we look at Pictures of Women Working. Should Carmen’s work be viewed as a woman’s work? As a feminist’s work? How should other vectors of her identity—as a straight white American woman—figure in? To what traditions and art historical lineages does it belong?
For Carmen herself, the nature and contours of work recently changed with the birth of Carlo, for whom she shares the work of childrearing with her partner, and fellow artist, Luke Stettner. As she negotiates her work as an artist, writer, professor, and mother, the personal is artistic and political. Her work proposes feminism can be more than blinders but a prism through which new shades and nuances of understanding can emerge.