New York

Kate Gilmore

Smith Stewart

Kate Gilmore recently exhibited four single-channel videos, all dated 2008. One of the filmed actions took place in the gallery, and the relevant television monitor was sited in the detritus of that performance; another includes two supporting players. Otherwise, all share the basic parameters she has established for her work. Never rehearsed, each piece is attempted only once, and stars only the artist. A self-imposed physical obstacle is quixotically assaulted—here, panels of drywall are punched and kicked through, and blocks of plaster and other junk are pounded with sledgehammers. In each case, Gilmore accepts the risk of bodily harm, and shows herself committing—or, in the piece with helpers, encouraging—blithely nonpurposive violence. And in each case she’s outfitted in a swishy dress and bodacious heels or cute sneaker-skimmers, and with a ribbon in her hair or demure black gloves. Gilmore’s works, in other words, are gender-bending one-liners, in which compositional and coloristic control, and the undeniable pleasure of watching someone put her fist through a wall, are not enough to carry us past a critique of female passivity and entrapment that has been set up to be knocked down.

Visitors entered a small space barricaded by two roughly constructed, pink-painted Sheetrock walls, each with a person-shaped hole punched in it to make a ragged arch, through which visitors passed. Dust and scuffed pink shards littered the floor. On the monitor between the walls looped Walk This Way (all works 2008): lights up on spackled drywall; sound of banging. A high-heeled shoe breaks through, and the chick continues to thrash her way from the shell.

Between a Hard Place also uses drywall and the labor of kicking it in. An enfilade of five gray-painted walls is breached with the help of a trusty pair of yellow heels and those Sunday-go-to-meeting gloves, until Gilmore arrives, sweating and dusty, at the far side. A final, yellow wall matches her shoes, as if she belonged there—and we imagine home base, or heaven, or a promotion to CEO, or perhaps the fool’s gold of a no-holds-barred attempt to claw one’s way forward. Higher Horse and Down the House stage the Sisyphean work to traverse space vertically rather than horizontally. In the former, Gilmore tries to balance atop a tower of plaster blocks—wearing a black skirt, pink shirt, and red heels, backdropped by a pink, red-drip-stained wall—while T-shirt-clad guys sledgehammer her awkward pedestal out from under her. She falls; gamely clambers back; precariously survives. In the latter, she takes up the hammer herself to bash her way inconclusively around a frame-filling mess of plaster bricks, broken furniture, wet plaster, and wet red paint. Her silky yellow shift and slip-on sneakers get smeared with gunk, and the pink bow on her ponytail is a piece of the pink construction tape that crisscrosses her frosting-tinted disaster-pile.

It’s Gilmore’s party, and she’ll flirt, destroy, and get bruised if she wants to. Her ladylike mayhem posits femininity as unsubtle masquerade, signified by clothes, colors, and the necessity of breaking out, breaking in, breaking up, and staying on top, no matter how tedious or uncomfortable the process. Task-based performance, of course, tends toward repetitive and “pointless” acts, so as to distill the experience of commitment and duration for both artist and audience. Feminist art, furthermore, has always been interested in gender as performative paradox, and high-femme drag as a kind of brutal labor. So a badass girl can wreck the place and still be allowed to, or feel she has to, look nice? Or the effort of passage through life’s barriers is heavily artificed, self-staged, and self-enclosed—though no less strenuous for that? We’ve had thirty-five years of women’s artistic experimentation, and we’re still enthralled by the semiotic power of the little black dress?

Frances Richard