1979, Women’s style in four objects

Jo Klaces, 1979

1. A man’s jacket
Worn by the subject in one of a series of portraits taken in 1979, the same year and in the same city Dick Hebdige wrote and published Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Chosen because implicit in this photograph is a sense that the photographer is concerned with the exploitation of working-class subjects, and the vexed role of community photography in the misrepresentation and stigmatisation of the marginalised.

A white backdrop obscuring a view of the run-down street on which she stands, chosen because of the way there is also, in this photo, a belief in style as a politic, a means of expression and resistance, about visual representation as a kind of freedom—when it’s done right. Chosen because of the way the button in the subject’s hand is attached by a long black wire to the camera shutter. Because of the temptation to see her glib smile as she shoots as some sign of her hesitancy to become a subject, a critical and even an emotional awareness of the role of photography, of visual representation in general, in the use or surveillance of women then as now and before.

Because of the way Andrea Long Chu similarly remembered the SCUM Manifesto, Solanas’s words seen through the eyes of a teenager, reprises of politics being an aesthetic judgement, male and female as essentially styles, institutional memory worn on badges and tacked onto walls. Chosen because of the way my mum, the subject, then a second-wave feminist, is wearing men’s clothes, 32” jeans and her favourite battered jacket from a jumble sale, not as a pledge towards manhood but towards a kind of representational nothingness, a sartorial zero. To do with what to uncover from within the weft and warp of these histories, what to leave within their folds. Because of what Maria Fusco said about the art object as being like a corpse, not of this world, but left behind in it, a reason to reason backwards.

2. Eyes
Tangled in webs and sinew, distinct from faces or bodies, cast in knots of stone and made into benches on the street. Eyes wrapped in thread and gauze like the whorl of a fingerprint, woven onto stretched canvas like the tapestries Louise Bourgeois’s mother used to make in the attic, her love of those spirals for their freedom, and their control, her view of abstraction not as infinity but as strangulation, tense and twisting.

Eyes to sit exactly eighteen inches away from Mark Rothko’s Red on Maroon, to look through the rough grid of Franz Kline’s seven-foot tall Steeplechase, paintings tall and wide covered in gestures away from the vulgarity of the female figure towards the critical, the unutterable, the contemporary, painting as one plane of a weaponisation of the male gaze. Eyes, met in silver space suits, nylon, patent, dynel and rhodoid chain-mail dresses, convex mirrors held up across bodies to higher powers and broader progress. The eyes of the ingénue, big, fluttering and lined with perfect circles of deep black khol, her turn-down school collar, white lace socks and pointed stilettos for collapsing, lids closed, as cliché and refusal.

A pair of eyes for watching the love affair between men’s style and criticality, men’s style and dissent, women’s style as a seldom returned gaze and a history of being watched. Eyes, as Jane Jacobs said, for on the street, to watch from lampposts, porches, garden gates and front rooms, her refashioning of women as the natural proprietors of seeing and being seen. Jacobs’ trademark dresses—wide black smocks with deep pockets, her unmistakable cropped white hair and thick framed glasses that fixed her gaze at eye level and her position as a woman with clout. A pair of eyes for fighting their way into a public, making their home in it, turning away or looking back.

3. A turquoise two-piece
Like the one Anita Hill wore when she testified in front of the senate judiciary committee, speaking truth to power, line after line. Or Mlle Bourgeoisie Noire’s prom dress of 360 white gloves, worn to invade Adrian Piper’s show at the New Museum while beating herself with a plantation whip. Specifically, the photos of outfits worn that night splashed across newspapers, context forgotten, the curse of being too beautiful, too bodily, forever stuck in this location of the imagistic rather than the conceptual.

A turquoise two-piece like the one Poly Styrene wore when she sang Do you see yourself on the TV screen//Do you see yourself in the magazine. Dressing conservatively to signify that a figure that is not a blank canvas but marked by racial, sexual and class configurations, to signify the burden of dissent on marked bodies, of choosing what to wear in order to disappear. Like the black jeans and leather jacket Chris Kraus wore to trail Dick Hebdige at a party or the black cocktail dress Alicia Hall Moran wore in Simone Leigh’s Breakdown, stumbling down the steps of a church in West Harlem, the one Leigh’s mother still attends, howling Because I’ve always done it. I’ve always done it. And I’ve been performing my whole life. Performing my whole life.

4. A corpse
As in Peggy Phelan’s description of writing about performance as illustrating a dead body. Later related to the question Where is Ana Mendieta? chanted by protesters outside the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern and the Hamburger Bahnhof as her accused killer enjoyed a run of exhibitions. To do with what Jane Blocker said about that choice of words, that simply stating the fact she was dead would have been a painfully dissatisfying account of the protesters’ sense of loss. About how best to account instead for disappearance, a sense of all the places Mendieta had been cut out of, an acknowledgement that no amount of re-rendering or exposure could bring her back. A corpse, less about my mum as a subject than about what to say of that stark white background, about the impossibility of repeating the instance of that glib smile, of any woman’s history as writing about performance. A corpse as somewhere between one world and another. Related to Juliana Huxtable and her poem Train, the threat of being seen, the desire to collapse into yourself when it looms, to disappearance and all the ways it can be worn.

in order of appearance

not of this world, but left behind in it
Maria Fusco, ‘Say who I am, or a broad private wink’, Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism, (Fillip, 2010), p 73

for their freedom, and their control
Louise Bourgeois, Spiral, (Daimani, 2019), p 59

speaking truth to power
Anita Hill, Speaking Truth to Power, (Random House USA, 1998)

natural proprietors
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities,(Random House, 1993), p 37

do you see yourself on the tv screen//Do you see yourself in the magazine
Poly Styrene, Identity, TV performance in 1978, accs. April 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue5jyj_nosc

stuck in this location of the imagistic rather than the conceptual
Juliana Huxtable and Lorraine O’Grady, Interview, (Museum of Contemporary Art, 2018), accs. April 2019, https://www.moca.org/stream/post/introducing-lorraine-ogrady-and-juliana-huxtable-part-2

because I’ve always done it. I’ve always done it. And I’ve been performing my whole life.
Performing my whole life.
Simone Leigh and Liz Magic Lazer, in collaboration with Alicia Hall Moran, Breakdown, digital video, 2011, accs. April 2009, https://vimeo.com/34002478

where is Ana Mendieta?
painfully dissatisfying
Jane Blocker, where is Ana Mendieta?, Identity, Performativity and Exile, (Duke University Press, 1999)