New York

Jacki Apple, Martha Wilson, and Nancy Kitchel

Martha Jackson West

In a large group show of “Conceptual” artists, the work of Jacki Apple, Martha Wilson, and Nancy Kitchel stood out. Recently, varying claims for women’s interests in art (not “understood” or denigrated by men) have been made. Often the emphasis has been on superficial connections to so-called womanly crafts (weaving) and “female” qualities (ephermeralness, fragility) or, dogmatically, on the difference of the feminine sexual perspective. What indeed intrigues me about these three women artists is their implicit (and sometimes explicit) questioning of what it means to be a woman, a questioning that naturally arises out of their exploration of self. The fact that these artists are women is not so much imposed on the work as intrinsic to it—a factor in their personal identity.

Apple’s Digging is a documentation of the excavation of “found” artifacts from a site and the reverse burying of individually chosen objects in the site. The five women participants recorded their emotions, associations, reflections while involved in the process. The symbolic equivalence of the physical action of digging and burying with the psychological experience of finding one’s self and ridding one’s image of cultural constraints is evident in the women’s noted reactions. However, Apple feels compelled to stipulate the “structural parallels” between “being/meaning,” “site excavation/mind excavation,” “exterior space/interior space,” etc. It is as if she was afraid that the work wouldn’t speak for itself. And yet in interpreting, defining everything, Apple closes the viewer’s imagination of, and contact with, the piece. The magic is destroyed by overexplanation.

In another piece (a joint project of Apple and Wilson), the fantasy (documented in texts and photos) of glamorous, sophisticated female is lived out by a group of women. Here there are no didactic explanations. Just the reactions of the women as they experience their secret desires. One becomes involved in the narrative of a fantasy extending into reality and the implications it has both for the participants’ image of self and one’s own.

Other pieces by Wilson, though, reveal a predilection for sweeping generalizations about the work’s meaning. The documentation of her earlier acting out of self-images almost always includes a trite statement as to the symbolic implications of the experience. Wilson’s recent pieces on exhibit are somewhat different, and I found them less personal, more contrived. The works are handwritten statements set in the room (hanging from the ceiling, lying on the floor, curving around a post) so as to force a consciousness of one’s bodily position in reading them. While the words of the text, and sometimes the handwriting, do refer to one’s situation in reading (viewing), the sentence structure does not. For example, a description of building psychological momentum climbs up the post, but the wordy heaviness of the language and the proliferation of modifying clauses weigh it down.

Kitchel’s work seemed the least ostentatious, making no claims for itself. Her piece lies on a table surrounded by stools—a group of four notebook texts, every other page upside down, thus requiring the presence/participation of another viewer in reading the work aloud. The content is basically an internal dialogue—the self talking to, questioning, reconsidering self is heightened by the joint reading. While the flow of the thinking, in particular the repetition of key words and rephrasing of statements leading to new ideas, resembles Vito Acconci’s use of language, Kitchel’s writing never seems staged. It is more the conversation one continually carries on in one’s head. In fact, the comparison for me was to Yvonne Rainer’s Film about a Woman Who, especially in Kitchel’s use of the impersonal, distanced “he/she” to narrate a situation subjectively perceived. But throughout Kitchel keeps the emotional intensity of her self-reflection understated. And it is her avoidance of melodrama that allows the intimacy of her searching and redefining of self to be shared. One projects oneself into Kitchel’s thoughts, making them one’s own, and thus feeling, not conjecturing, their psychological import.

Susan Heinemann