Hey, ladies: Ever feel like the unpaid, underappreciated short-order cook, housekeeper and scheduler for your family? Then you’ll probably enjoy “Women House,” an exhibit opening Friday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts that showcases 36 female artists’ takes on the domestic spaces that can define — and confine — women’s lives.
The subject is serious but it’s not a ponderous exhibit, says Orin Zahra, an assistant curator at the museum. “There’s a lot of humor and irony here,” she says. “Some of these pieces are laugh-out-loud funny.” One such piece represents the battle of the sexes as a chessboard, where a husband’s armchairs face off against a wife’s mop buckets. Other works in the show, organized by the Monnaie de Paris museum, portray homes as places of liberation, refuge and even creativity.
“That’s what I hope people take away from the show,” Zahra says. “That there’s no one feminine style or perspective — there’s a spectrum of approaches to this idea of home.”
For this nearly 7-foot-tall photograph she shot in 1989, Laurie Simmons (Lena Dunham’s mom) created a sculpture with a miniature house and doll parts, and used dramatic lighting to create the illusion of a human-size creature. “What’s missing is, of course, her arms, her face, her head,” Zahra says. “This is a woman who’s boiled down to what is expected of her — to be this object of sexual gratification, with those shapely legs, and also a homemaker.”
This 2005 sculpture by Rachel Whiteread makes a game out of traditional gender roles. On the husband’s side, the king is represented by the refrigerator, which he fills with food by working outside of the home. On the wife’s side, the king is the stove, where she cooks dinner. “The pawns on the husband’s side are seating areas, where the man might relax and watch TV, while all the wife’s pawns are things like trash cans, dishwashing tubs and dusters,” Zahra says.
This photo montage by Martha Rosler from the late 1960s or early 1970s uses images clipped from magazines, including Playboy. “She’s critiquing the way that women’s bodies have often been objectified and exploited in mass-circulation magazines, and she’s also making that connection with women’s bodies and household appliances,” Zahra says.
Viennese artist Birgit Jurgenssen made these self-portraits in 1975. “She’s playing off that colloquialism ‘a bun in the oven,’ ” says Orin Zahra, assistant curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “It’s alluding to pregnancy, and this expected norm that women are supposed to take on this role of mother and wife. She’s pointing out that it’s a burden — the apron is awkward, it’s hanging heavily from her neck.”
Francesca Woodman was around 18 or 19 when she made this self-portrait in the late 1970s. “In her freshman year at [the Rhode Island School of Design], she established a studio in a dried-goods building — it had no kitchen, it had no heating, nothing that would make it a habitable space. But it gave her the perfect environment to create the kind of art she wants to create,” Zahra says. “Her message isn’t one of confinement, because she chose the space. Instead, there’s a real synergy between the body and the architecture. The space is as much a part of her body as her own art is.”
This 2007 photo from South African artist Zanele Muholi, a self-proclaimed “visual activist,” captures a real, candid moment in the lives of two South African lesbians, an often marginalized group. “By creating this sensitive portrait of a real couple, she subverts the dominant images of the black female body as either submissive or hypersexualized,” Zahra says. “I also love the perspective — it feels like we are sitting on the floor in front of them. It’s intimate, but it doesn’t seem voyeuristic.” For these women, home seems to be a safe place where they can be themselves without fear of violence, she adds.
National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; Fri. through May 28, $10.