May 17, 2013 Repository 67: Accidental Vaginas & Art with Consequence Posted In: art practice, books, community, contemporary art, perspective, social critique


“Only parts of us will ever touch parts of others”, cut piece of larger painting by Catherine Haley Epstein

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a book reading by Eve Ensler, playwright, author and activist on the occasion of her new book “In the Body of the World“. Her seminal work “The Vagina Monologues” rocked my world upon reading, and all of her philanthropic work through Vday and One Billion Rising is incredibly inspiring.

Her most recent work is not about other people’s bodies or traumas, but at the age of 56 and jettisoned by cancer of the uterus she turned to her own trauma and her own body. Throughout the book she makes analogies to her tumor filled uterus and the environmental sickness with the world. She is not far off, and yes we are interconnected – the world AND our bodies. Eve’s art (the things which she cares about) is filled with violence, trauma AND healing.

She talked about the tumors and how they were located exactly in the same place as the fistulas of the Congo women she has been working with heal – the women who got fistulas through violent rape acts against them. At one point in the book she talks about “rape cancer” – hypothesizing that her cancer finally manifested itself from the psychological trauma caused by a very physical act years ago.

Two artists come to mind when thinking about this art or things we care about, and its affecting our lives deeply and physically. Ana Mendieta was an artist I admire greatly – mostly because at first blush I couldn’t understand her art, then given time, space and research her work unfolded for me on many levels. I always found it incredible that no art historians or theorists have drawn a connection to the way she died and the aesthetic she was drawn to throughout her practice. Ana made beautiful silhouette imprints in different materials, earth, stone fire, etc of her own body (Siluetta Series 1973-1980). This was a main theme in her work. She died at the age of 37 after falling from the 34th floor of her apartment building. The visual for me is a final imprint. It remains a mystery whether she was pushed by her husband of 8 months (Carl Andre, the artist), or jumped herself.

Ana Mendieta “Siluetta Series” image courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles

Or Hannah Wilke who made a series of works on her (beautiful) body where she put spots made of chewed gum in the shape of vulvas – little growths. The series is called S.O.S. Starificaion Object Series. The work was made in 1974, and she died 19 years later of cancer – known for its growth, it’s spots.

Image courtesy of the artist’s estate and Museum of Modern Art New York.

These are female artists whose work and life never separated, whose sensitivities left them vulnerable and powerful at the same time.

After hearing Eve talk about the millions of dead in the Congo for the sake of mineral wealth, and the constant flow of pain and shame with women and how it relates to Mother Earth…I turn to my studio practice and while my work and life are connected, I wonder whether it lands in the entertaining camp or the work of consequence. How to make work about compassion and inspiring change? How to make work that upsets priorities and defies expectations? How to engage and contribute in the larger sense of the word?

Enter Sister Corita Kent whose history and story deserve an entire post. For brevity’s sake, this is a nun who taught art in the 50s and 60s in California. She then left the sisterhood to contribute with her activism work – activism through her graphic designs. This post is getting more and more grim as I think about it, Sister Corita also died at a young age from lung cancer. My point in bringing her up is that she was adored in art circles (friends and fans include John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Alfred Hitchcock and Charles and Ray Eames) and someone who was very dedicated to social causes. She made work that was beautiful, and had meaning beyond the context of the art world.

“Power Up (A)” by Sister Corita, 1965, Collection of the Corita Art Center

So when I think back to Eve and how she has dedicated her life to the empowerment of other women, I wish her absolute power in staying clear of cancer moving forward, and for strength in continuing her honest, open and prescient crusade for living life awake.

I’m going to send Eve a piece from my June show – it’s an accidental vagina piece. I am calling it “parts of ourselves only touch parts of others” – its a play on the fact that as an artist you spend hours and years working on things that never see the light of day – no touching others at all. I cut up a very large painting I had done, an ambitious painting that bothered me. It was an OK painting, nice colors, but intention and content were not working well together. After I cut it up I found these beautiful little pieces that then became abstract works. This particular torn piece looks like a vagina, unmistakably (I think it was a sleeve from a blouse or pants). I’ve framed it in gold, and indeed it makes a statement. Also, one of the first paintings I ever did over 20 years ago was a copy of an O’Keeffe painting of a flower that, yes, looked like a vagina.

So here’s to understanding that whatever you think you are doing your art or life’s work about, know that subconsciously something else entirely is going on, something that we can only hope to see in the present, and realize only by reflecting on the past. Thank you Eve for your determination, utter focus on the vagina and all that entails. Life people, precious life. And as Eve reminded the audience last night – don’t forget to dance, everyday.

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  1. Diane Jacobs • May 19, 2013

    Well said Catherine!

    Diane Jacobs 503 288-6166

    www.dianejacobs.net Reply

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