Los Angeles

Laura Howe

Burnett Miller Gallery

Laura Howe works to take women out of the footnotes of Western history and insert them into its normally exclusionary texts. Isolating photographs of vaguely remembered female faces and deteriorating the images through excessive photocopying, Howe stacks and overlaps these indexes within steel contraptions that resemble a cross between designer office furniture and post-Minimalist sculpture.

Chronocology, 1992, the most elaborate piece in this compact but powerful exhibition of works, questions the linear narratives of Western history (“chronology”) through the interrogatory image of the specifically female (“gynecology”). Setting the tone for the other three works in the show, which all skillfully integrate conceptual and tactile concerns, Chronocology is a kind of steel “tree” with a number of horizontal branches, each of which supports a small round appendage holding the image of a famous woman from 19th or 20th-century history—from Clara Barton to the less predictable Helena Blavatsky (mystic) and Maria Mitchell (astronomer). These images can be seen only by approaching the steel armature (seven feet high yet fragile in its emaciated profile), looking downward into the petri-dish-like plates, and peering through layers of resin that conceal as much as they reveal. Even when finally discerned, the identities of the women can only be determined by consulting the typed “reference guide” listing their accomplishments. The remarkable scientific, political, and intellectual feats of these women, largely forgotten or marginalized by the thrust of male-oriented historical narratives, are made visible but are also metaphorically obscured. Howe makes the viewer work to determine their identities, to reintegrate them into a “chronology” through a “gynocentric” point of view.

The issues raised so sharply in Chronocology are played out more fully in 1000 Women, 1991, in which Howe condensed images of women, the Xeroxes here printed on acetate, and hung them in multiple layers from an officious and vaguely menacing metal rack (like the inside of a filing cabinet with its protective exterior ripped away). By exposing these vulnerable, almost dissolved, images of “Everywoman” (apparently derived from found photographs or magazine reproductions) to the glare of public scrutiny, Howe underlines the tenuousness of female identities in historical accounts. Whether buried in some forgotten archive (in a filing cabinet) or exposed to the harsh indifference of the traditional historian, the faces of women are always in danger of slipping away.

In Sifter, 1992, the historical female figures (Queen Victoria, anonymous female laborers, Emma Goldman, and Mother Jones) were pixel-ated into images by brick dust sifted through horizontally layered metal screens. A tribute to the unacknowledged work that women do, Sifter literally constructs these female figures from the dust of their labor. In the piece Our Glass, 1992, names replace faces, designating different levels of a reversible five-tiered hourglass in which the sand can run from “Laura Howe” to “Boudica” (a first-century female warrior), and back.

Howe’s aggressive self-insertion in the construction of a feminist, yet still linear, historical system in Our Glass exposes not only the contemporary interest in establishing a groundwork for contemporary female subjectivity, but the limitations of Howe’s particular vision of female identity as a universal. By placing herself and an ancient female warrior within the same signifying plane, Howe runs the risk of divesting these subjects of their particularity. And yet, by representing them at all, and by critiquing the process of looking itself, and its putative role in conferring knowledge, Howe’s elegant sculptural objects integrate a feminist politic with materially rich forms in a powerful and empowering way.

Amelia Jones