New York

Sue Etkin

Paul Kasmin Gallery / Massimo Audiello Gallery

Surely the irony has not escaped notice that when male artists appropriate domestic objects such as pots and pans (Haim Steinbach), slipcovers or a wedding dress (Robert Gober), tapestries (Meyer Vaisman),or crocheted blankets (Mike Kelley), they are credited with engaging the discourse of commodification, whereas the same artifacts have been essentially off-limits to female artists seeking to develop an authoritative voice. If a woman had put a stack of cookware on a Formica shelf, it would undoubtedly be regarded merely as a distaff symbolizing woman’s work and concerns à la ’70s-style “Womanhouse” feminist art. By contrast, Barbara Kruger, Silvia Kolbowski, Jenny Holzer, and others have charted the contemporary lexical map of feminism by seizing corporate advertising, electronic media, and language in general as sites of patriarchal power and control, in order to rearticulate female subjectivity.

Though Sue Etkin’s installations of diaphanous female clothing, displayed on the sort of circulating machines used by dry cleaners, could be interpreted as a return to female iconography, her clothing does not celebrate female experience in the traditional manner of Miriam Schapiro’s kimonos or Judy Chicago’s handiwork. Rather it is indexed to high fashion as a route to the social construction of female sexuality, and it provokes questions with respect to what constitutes a correct or politically acceptable sexual practice, which remain central concerns within contemporary feminism. All this comes about because Etkin’s designer-inspired garments are for the most part transparent, and the materials from which they are made—netting, sheer organza, satins, and other evening-wear fabrics—are those associated with eroticism and the propleasure display of the female body. No daytime garments are included on Etkin’s circulating racks. If her clothes subtly articulate a “wild nights” theme or women’s sexual pleasure disguised within the rubric of understated elegance, they also suggest the problematic of whom women dress for and ultimately who is in charge when women display their bodies and exercise the power of seduction.

Etkin doesn’t attempt to resolve this issue but to engage its troubling and titillating contradictions. With few exceptions, her beautiful garments are not made for real female bodies. Their style of flat construction is two-dimensional, not unlike clothes made for paper-doll figures. As filmy skirts, pants, dresses, and blouses float by on automated display racks, the body is hyperrealized. The clothing is present and speaks; the women themselves are absent and therefore silent.

The mechanistic fantasy of animated dress forms and machines—first anthropomorphized by the Surrealists—suggests that fashion creates not only the garment but the woman within it. This effect is most prominent in Dryclean II, 1991, at the Massimo Audiello Gallery, the larger version of Etkin’s two installations, in which black-and-white garments (in contrast to the rainbow-colored pieces arrayed in the smaller installation at Paul Kasmin Gallery) whir by like so many bodiless forms on a runway or street, to the bump and grind of mechanical noise and movement.

In addition to the circulating apparatuses, two series of drawings were displayed at Kasmin. Emulating pages from a sketchbook and textile sample cards, one group is representative of the preliminary stages of the design process. Another set of more complex drawings depicts layered image clusters of clothing pieces, suggestions of body parts, vaguely phallic forms, and fashion-related objects such as an ironing board or coat hangers. Emblematic of her conceptual process, the drawings restate the conjunctive synthesis of consumption, display, and desire. Etkin brings seductive female clothing out of the closet, so to speak, at a moment when the question of pleasure within the women’s movement is as hotly contested as the question of who has the authority to manipulate traditionally female iconography within the art world.

Jan Avgikos