Out of the daily, the sacred
Over the last decade, one of the most interesting trends in both art and literature has been the profound shift in women's attitudes toward their own subject matter. Quite simply, they've rediscovered its worthiness. For too long women undercut their source of inspiration by demeaning the life experiences that fed it. The domestic, the daily, were somehow unimportant, trivial. Cezanne's pears stirred the soul; theirs, they apologized, were merely part of the kitchen. Void of the heroic. By reaffirmng their daily experience, its fund of inspiration, women regained a seat of power: their voices.
Within a single decade, women artists have made a quantum leap from describing to interpreting their immediate world. The 1970s marked a watershed in women's search for a personal aesthetic. While artists like Judy Chicago, Louise Bourgeois, and Eva Hesse innovated new ways of exploring feminine sensibility, less gifted ones cranked out didactic imitations. Too often their work was mired in political dogma. Indeed, the anger that initially sparked women's inspiration too often substituted for inspiration itself.
Feminist cant increasingly begat a kind of eye-rolling literalism in women's art. Stoves, cleansers, beds, brooms - all were recruited as emblems of domestic tyranny. The irony, of course, is that the very material and sexual fetters women wished to be free of, they themselves perpetuated and were still hostage to in their work. Much of the art of the mid-'70s has about it the sad redundancy of a prisoner whose sole subject is his cell. But like all art fired by ideology, it was doomed to failure. Great art cannot be about ideas; great art is ideas.
If the 1970s triggered graphic transcriptions of a woman's world, then the 1980s hail subtle translations of the feelings that animate it. The real issue, women now know, isn't gender but genuineness of experience; it alone contains the emotional bite, the life tension, necessary for true art.
The word that may hallmark the quest and legacy of women's art, is authenticity. This is the real revolution: the shift from surface to center, from polemical shout to inner voice. In this regard, there's no artistic group whose potential impact is more richly anticipated than that of women.
One of the most successful examples of this new yield is Sarah Swenson's ''Rites,'' a series of fourteen interrelated paintings, two of which are reproduced here. Swenson isn't a feminist per se. Rather, she argues, correctly , that she's an artist who draws from her own experience. Her series, she contends, is primarily about herself, conjugations of her experience as mother and daughter. Yet the fourteen paintings depict a young girl, a mother, two grown and one older woman and are ineluctably a study of feminine rites of passage. Probing women's connections in everyday life, Swenson has linked her series to its more universal theme: seeing the sacred in the daily.
''Rites,'' a work in five parts, was inspired by a fresco cycle Swenson saw in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Depicting a secret initiation ceremony , the frescoes capture the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone in mysterious half poses. Flanked against a flat orange surface, the women seem to float in space, their gestures unconnected to a specific activity.
Intrigued by the composition, Swenson created a contemporary version of the Mystery series. Using family and neighbors, she sought women engaged in everyday chores: opening a refrigerator door, reaching for a tin. Then, as in the Mystery series, she erased the background. Deprived of context, the once familiar scenes are suddenly charged with poetic mystery. Thrown into luminous relief, the subjects shimmer in their envelope of space. What's left is the beauty of gesture itself - its rigorous purity, its singing mystery.
Swenson's sly mimicry of her classical source is most evident in the painting on the right. Zoe, Swenson's oldest daughter, is putting on a coat. What we see, though, is a caryatid, its arm truncated by time. Zoe beams with the sweet half smile of an archaic statue. In a single visual image, Swenson fuses contemporary and classical woman in a timeless pose. Yet Zoe is no less mysterious than the Greek goddess whose pose she echoes.
In her paintings of women, Swenson, like Vermeer, is a poet of the interior world. For both artists, everyday activities - pouring milk, opening a letter - assume mythic significance. In ''Rites IV,'' Swenson's neighbor, Maggie, is no longer separating yarn, but, one feels, spinning yarns. She is the first and most ancient of storytellers: the grandmother.
In ''Rites,'' Swenson has achieved one of the most creative statements about the nature of women's daily life. The simplest domestic activity assumes rich levels of association. In an image of elegant economy, Zoe Swenson kneels to hem a dress, yet what we see is a figure poised in prayer. Swenson's ability to forge the connection between the daily and the inner life is stunningly accomplished here. By celebrating the small activities that engage women, she has hit upon the deeper life connection - the continuity that binds generations, a bond as indestructible as light.