Monday, July 26, 2010

The Dresses/Objects Project

It's a little annoying of me to blog something that is no longer on display, but I was busy, so there it is. A little over a week ago I went to see Katrina Rodabaugh's Dresses/Objects Project in San Francisco, an installation in response to Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.

Rodabaugh is a printmaker, among other things. In the Dresses/Objects Project, she provided a number of women artists with fabric printed with three poems from Tender Buttons, all addressing the textile arts.

Of the project, Rodabaugh writes:
I created the The Dresses/ Objects Project as a collaborative, multidisciplinary project in collaboration with over 30 women artists from across the US, though most are based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Phase one of the project started in 2007 when I printed poems from Gertrude Stein’s book, Tender Buttons, on to recycled fabric with a letterpress. Then I sent the fabric prints to reputable artists and designers to craft into dresses and wearable objects. Phase two of the project consisted of a fashion photo shoot with various artists collaborating as dress models. The third and final phase of the project will include an installation of the dresses and photographs in an exhibition complete with multiple live performances.

The poems in question are:


     What is the current that makes machinery, that
makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a
long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.
     What is the wind, what is it.
     Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark
place is not a dark place, only a white and red are
black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is
scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it.
A line just distinguishes it.


A blue coat is guided guided away, guided and guided away, that is the particular color that is used for that length and not any width not even more than a shadow.


A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.

I've always liked these particular poems, and once lectured at some length about "A Long Dress" for a twentieth century lit survey, and of course, that wonderful final gesture, "[a] line just distinguishes it," is the epigraph to my chapter on presence and the line in Paterson.

The dressmakers make a good deal of use of patchwork and pins, as if to emphasize the almost architectural constructedness of these pieces.

"A Long Dress" dwells on the seam, the "serene length" that is in itself technically nothing, merely the site where two pieces of fabric meet, and yet which also constitutes the dress both visually and structurally.

The seam likewise comes to the fore in these pieces, sometimes with jarring color juxtapositions, and sometimes with pins -- the most precarious and temporary seams are sealed not with thread but with metal.

Seams, stitching, and fabric also become a way to edit the poems:

In the above semi-erasure, much of the poem is veiled, though still faintly visible, a "rosy charm" peeking through. Three lines remain not only exposed but separated from the rest of the poem by firm boxes of stitching:


     What is the wind, what is it.

A line just distinguishes it.

Erasure is a not uncommon contemporary poetic gesture, and here the veiled presence of most of the poem resembles the cover of Janet Holmes's erasure The ms of m y kin.

But whereas on Holmes's cover the retained letters are merely brought into relief by color contrast, in the quiltlike object above, the stitched borders around the exposed text seems to isolate it from its original context, as if casting it out, making the lines, once a part of an energetic "current" of words, into a series of framed objects.

This rather Steinian dress likewise edits with seams and pleats:

This is not, in fact, a "long dress," but rather a stumpy and slightly masculine outfit reminiscent of Stein's favored and much-maligned gender-bending vests.

But whereas Stein was often accused of being frumpy and careless of her appearance, this boxy, masculine dress is incredibly fastidious, constructed of innumerable pleats and seams, as if to advertise the deliberateness and care that go into the performance.

The lines of "A Long Dress" (and "A Blue Coat") are thus revised by the lines of the short dress to overlap one another and stand head to toe, lines of the text always running parallel to but never in semantic harmony with the lines formed by the seams and pleats, the lines that "distinguish it."

The queer commentary of this vest-and-tie outfit seemed to me to be perhaps the strongest element of the installation, with its parallel lines of text and visual lines in an ambivalent pas de deux.

The installation was a pleasurable play on three Stein poems that I love, though the artist's statement and ultimately the installation itself left me dissatisfied. In the end, I couldn't help feeling that something had been phoned in. Something feminist.

By printing on fabric, Rodabaugh literalizes the text-as-textus pun with which we are all familiar, and by making that fabric into dresses, she explicitly appropriates a male medium for a female one. Now I, too, love me some Gilbert and Gubar, and part of the pleasure of this installation was a nostalgia for a 1980s feminism of difference, when we could embrace the madwoman in the attic and before we had gotten into deep gender trouble. It was a time when we could all just make fun of male writers for thinking the pen was "a metaphorical penis."

Yet that very nostalgia also sent up a red flag me. The feminism of this installation (like Stein's own all-too-attenuated feminism) was entirely latent and, it felt to me, unearned. The turn to dressmaking, fashion, and collaboration (between "over 30 women artists," as every bit of copy anywhere hastened to point out) as feminine domains, and consequently as signifiers of a feminist artistic discourse seemed to me to be a bit too quick, especially in the drapy, lacy, frilly and wispy dresses. Sure, these are "feminine," but does that make them feminist? When we resolve text back into textile, making it a matter of weaving and historically feminine arts, what is it exactly that we revise or challenge? Text as a medium? Text as a masculine medium? Or (butch, queer, self-proclaimed "genius," female) Stein's authority in that medium, as her words are scrambled and stitched and revised to resemble the "nonsense" that so many claimed her poetry already was? Or...?

Some of these are, of course, issues that Tender Buttons itself raises, and perhaps that's part of the point. But then, Tender Buttons was published nearly a hundred years ago.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970. Print.

Holmes, Janet. The ms of my kin. Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2009. Print.

Rodabaugh, Katrina, et al. The Dresses/Objects Project. June 25-July 18, 2010. Z Space, San Francisco.

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. New York: Claire Marie, 1914. Web. 24 July 2010. [Bancroft Library/CDL.]

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