PRINT May 1992

Rachel Evans

RACHEL EVANS’ WORK reminds us that Simone de Beauvoir’s question “What is a woman?,” originally posed in her 1952 The Second Sex, remains a significant, fertile field of inquiry for artists addressing gender. Evans accordingly takes as her subject the exploration of how women, as the objects of the inescapable, suppressive male gaze, might be able to represent this social condition 20 years removed from the important feminist critiques expressed in art during the 1970s. She seems to be suggesting that at least one important feminist rallying cry of that period—the empowering slogan that exhorts us to make the private public—is now ineffective as a strategy to counter the subjugation of women. In one sense, Evans goes out of her way to register her skepticism on this account, and, looking at her work, we too begin to wonder whether the theoretical totalization of the “public” and the “private” was ever more than a point of departure for a certain class-based feminist discourse that only imagined itself to be “universal.” What criticality and comfort, Evans queries, remain for contemporary women within the purview of the culturally constituted, class-stratified categories of the “feminine,” the “home,” the “psyche”? The questioning of the essentialism of these categories provides Evans with a potent origination and focus. all things nice, 1988, is Evans’ self-portrait as an ingenue who has been literally “iced” into a ball gown. The facial expression and gesture of the artist appear to be communicating two things at once: first, acquiescence to male sexual fantasies by virtue of the situation itself; and second, utter contempt for the place she is in. In a later work, Evans turned to the association between the objectification of women and the domestic setting of the home by nominating the practice of preservation and canning as an allegory for that system of subjugation. Harvest, 1990, is an installation of scores of jam jars filled with homemade strawberry jam and convincingly packaged in quaint calico, a material redolent of 19th-century domesticity and servility. These objects might have been conceived as the site for a heavy-handed text on the “super-exploitation of women” or the estheticization of “women’s work,” and, therefore, become predictable and portentous symbols of women’s oppression. But the opportunity for that facile conjunction of the “objects of repression” with the ideological means for liberation has been happily overlooked by Evans. Instead, she uses her wit both to frustrate our rather conventional expectations concerning the representation of feminist issues in art and to make a new point. Consequently, all the jam jars sport labels printed with extracts from Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, the best-selling book of women’s sexual fantasies. According to Evans, that book is paradigmatic of the limits and dangers of making the private public, underscoring the complicity of the confessional mode with the oppressive powers it imagines it is in rebellion against. Looking at the texts on Evans’ jam jars, one may be struck less by their “liberatory” power than by their reproduction of the texture of male-oriented pornography. Evans knows, of course, that the media—still largely under the control of men and aimed at reinforcing the fantasies of men—are capable of undoing all that feminists would seek to do in the public arena. That insight received interesting confirmation in the reception, and ultimate fate, of another of Evans’ works, which inadvertently provided confirmation of the dangers of exploring the gendered site unaware of how easily fashion and life-style may be reformed into something quite like the pornographic. In 1990, Evans produced a photographic self-portrait, lusciously ringed with strawberries, to illustrate an article on her that appeared in Blitz magazine. In an art-world context, the irony of the image’s staged feminine sweetness and innocence was unproblematically evident. Three months later, however, the image was republished without the artist’s consent in Newlook magazine, a publication well known in France for its mix of life-style articles and soft-core pornography. Evans’ ideological position admittedly owes a great deal to the exceptional work of Andrea Dworkin (despite the fact that Michel Foucault is ritualistically invoked by Evans in her writings on this work). Nevertheless, the artist does introduce a necessary degree of specificity to that critical discourse, and she succeeds in reminding us that certain attitudes toward young “emerging” talent can only be penetrated with reference to a direct experience of the critical frame of feminism. It seems that we need to be reminded that the internationalization of feminist critique does not necessarily entail the valorization of all historically specific forms that legitimize themselves in the name of that critique. Dead Meat, 1991, a site-specific installation attuned equally to architecture, audience, and the gendered gaze, used Vaseline to “frost” the windows of the street frontage of a temporary art exhibition space in the London Docklands. Evans treated the windows strategically, so that an outsider’s gaze was selectively focused on the activity in the interior. Floating in this sea of goppy translucency were a few necessary islands of transparency: clear, rectangular sections of glass on which the artist had stenciled, also in Vaseline, the names of various cuts of meat. The flâneur saw a symphony of disembodied legs peeking through the unfrosted glazing, these labeled “Hind Quarter,” “Rump Steak,” and “Loin Chop” in Snell Roundhand, an elegant 18th-century engraver’s script.