New York

Ilona Granet


Ilona Granet is best known to the public at large for a series of metal street signs that she designed and hung in New York last year. The signs borrowed the authority of city parking instructions and used it to try to make life for women here a bit more tolerable: “Curb Your Animal Instincts” said one in English and Spanish, over a schematic drawing of a beast straining on a leash towards a woman in a short dress. Another said “No cat calls, whistling and kissing noises.” In this show Granet presents two more public projects, one a group of signs that ABC/Capitol Cities commissioned last year, and the other a series of billboards for Artpark in upstate New York.

Like the street signs, the ABC project, a series of posters for the workplace, was designed to address the issue of sexual harassment. The original designs appeared here, in brightly painted enamel on metal. Check Your Wildlife at the Door, 1989, instructs one, showing a faceless woman between two figures in business suits, one with a snake’s head and one with a wolf’s. The work’s message is clear. In Thinking Women’s Wear, 1989, a woman is represented at various points in the workday as she gradually acquires a full outfit of armor in response to the verbal assaults of her silhouetted male colleagues. The point here seems more questionable: one might imagine that a woman’s best response to this sort of harassment would be to confront it and fight back, as Granet herself does in making these pieces, rather than to mask herself and ignore it. A third piece, Heads Not Tails, 1988, also seems to offer an odd, elusive message. In it, a pair of images of a woman standing before a man at a desk are stacked one above the other. In the top image, she hands over her head and asks, “Anything else sir?”; in the bottom one, she hands over her hips above the words, “Your head could roll.” This piece, like Thinking Women’s Wear, is directed toward women and seems to encourage their defensiveness, but one would think it’s their male harassers who need to be addressed and challenged.

This kind of ambiguity or elusiveness is laudable in an artwork, and the pieces, when seen in a gallery, seem wonderfully playful; they come across as charged cryptograms. But they are intended to be seen as signs in a busy office, and it’s less likely that they will fulfill their political function well there. Because they are cryptic, they will probably be lost on the people who need most to understand their message. Ultimately, they reflect a tension between Granet’s need to make the signs extraordinary enough to encourage passing viewers to pause and reflect on them, and clear enough so that they won’t be misinterpreted.

The leisure of Artpark’s roads provides a context more conducive to reflection, and so the billboards in the second room here, while no less enigmatic, are more successful. Three signs have been reconstructed in the gallery space. They’re brightly painted enamel on metal, have been mounted on wooden legs, and come complete with a line of potted plants in long boxes below, a touch that, along with the ’50s-style lettering and stylized figures Granet tends to use, makes them appear homey and familiar. Images of radioactive spills appear on two of them. Welcome Wishful Thinking, 1989, looks like a greeting, but the pictures that surround the lettering show ghostly figures in riding clothes on leaping horses, themselves surrounded by the steaming cooling towers from nuclear power plants. Hope Springs Eternal, 1989, balances vase-and bell-shaped images of fountains, volcanoes, fires, and radioactive cooling towers against each other. Underneath, the words “Keep on Hopping” appear, but what the spelling of the last word is supposed to suggest is unclear.

A third, even more cheerful-looking work is State Womb, 1989. In it, cartoon images of pregnant women are juxtaposed with symbols of civic pride and federal power. One woman is shown carrying an image of the White House rather than a fetus, another is shackled to the ground by one ankle. Between them is a gold cartoon eagle with a sperm in each talon, and above it all is a badge with the title on it, and a banner bearing the words, “A Womb of One’s Own.” It is the most straightforwardly powerful piece in the show. The horror and anger at current attempts to render the privacy of reproduction a social and civic issue couldn’t be clearer, although, again, the sunniness of the presentation and the artist’s skilled and playful use of iconography lend the work a welcome note of sarcasm.

James Lewis