Los Angeles

Jerri Allyn

Pasquini’s Cappucino, Matsuno Sushi And Vickman’s Cafeteria

Jerri Allyn is a California feminist who for several years has been working with the performance group the Waitresses, doing political pieces in galleries, at parties, in eating establishments, and on the street. Allyn is interested in service (coin of the realm for most women)—its beatitudes, its degradations, and its parallels with mothering and whoring. A year ago, she began to withdraw from live performance to work on costumes—especially aprons—for the Waitresses. This work recently expanded to “Apron: a covering worn in front to protect,” a series of posters produced as part of a feminist graphics project called “Public Announcements/Private Conversations.”

The project, which centers on bringing women’s personal feelings to light through graphic art in public places, was designed by Sheila de Bretteville. Following de Bretteville’s guidelines for the project, Allyn produced three sets of red diazo-print posters, to be hung in three downtown Los Angeles restaurants chosen by Allyn for their character and their integrity in the community: Pasquini’s Cappucino in the downtown shopping area, Matsuno Sushi in Little Tokyo, and Vickman’s Cafeteria near the Produce Mart. She introduced herself to the proprietors and described her project as art in a public place. Each agreed to let her hang her work; Allyn considered the whole process part of the artwork.

The posters produced were complex collages, involving contact prints of actual aprons plus text and photographs. Allyn’s texts examined the ambience of each specific restaurant from a personal point of view and discussed aspects of service, sexual harassment, job discrimination, workplace management, and the historical roles of aprons, chastity belts, and other coverings.

Produced in both English and Italian versions, the piece at Pasquini’s examined sexual attentions paid to female customers and passersby by the male, Italian-speaking regulars: “I like when they’re friendly. I don’t like when they make sexual passes.” The text moved on to more aggressive passages on rape, vulnerability, and chastity belts. This piece was stolen after its first day of exposure at the coffee stand, curtailing its efficacy.

The Japanese piece was in a vertical format, a scroll-like work combining images of aprons and geishas. The text described the geisha as the perfect female servant, a woman trained from birth to service men. It seemed to mystify the Japanese patrons of the sushi house, who saw nothing offensive in the geisha image and questioned the need for defining it—the information already being common knowledge to the Japanese. Again, the effects of the piece were hard to measure.

In both these pieces, Allyn was confronting a culture foreign to her own, attempting to crash not only the barrier between art and business, but also that between American feminist consciousness and culturally different ideas of “woman’s place.” The posters designed for the all-American Vickman’s Cafeteria never made it to the wall. Owner Harry Vickman knows art when he sees it: the walls of his restaurant are lined with paintings, including some photorealist works of the Produce Mart commissioned by Vickman himself. When confronted with the works Allyn wanted to hang, he told her in an hourlong interview that he did not understand the posters as art. They contained a good deal of text, including a discussion of job discrimination and a passage (lifted from a pamphlet on working in a cafeteria) pointing out the interesting view of human nature afforded the waitress. In response, according to Allyn, Vickman outlined his own personnel policies, the co-manager status of his wife at the restaurant, and the longstanding employ of his waitresses. He especially objected to passages in the text on tipping, and didn’t want his customers to feel they were being told to tip. Most of all, he felt the posters looked like messages from the management.

The problem may have been structural—the percentage of text to image was quite different from most “art,” or even from the posters usually seen by the public. It is the very didacticism of feminist art that turns most nonorthodox viewers away; feminists, it seems, are teaching their lessons to smaller and smaller audiences. Allyn is determined to make art that reaches out to Americans. Now the task is to translate her concerns into an art language that public can understand.

Linda Burnham