ART REVIEW : 'Women's Work' Is Never Done at MOCA : The 35-year history of art that concerns itself with gender roles and stereotypes is a virtually incoherent amalgam of works that is worth seeing.

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

'Division of Labor: 'Women's Work' in Contemporary Art" is a pretty terrible exhibition that you certainly should see. It's terrible because, as a 35-year history of art that concerns itself with gender roles and stereotypes within the domestic sphere, the show can best be described as a parochial mess. And you should see it anyhow, because the subject is of such importance that, for once, anything really might be better than nothing.

Organized by the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, "Division of Labor" brings together more than 60 works whose medium, technique or subject matter is traditionally associated with women and domesticity. The mediums and techniques include fabric, yarn, sewing, quilting and knitting; the subjects incorporate cooking, cleaning, decorating and sheltering.

All but four of the 35 artists are American (the exceptions are Korea's Soon-Ja Kim, Japan's Yayoi Kusama and Germany's Rosemarie Trockel and Regina Frank). Seven are men. The show asserts, in a now broadly accepted manner, that established relationships between gender and particular kinds of artistic practice are constructed by a complex network of social forces.

Interest in a specific angle of this general theme has cropped up lately in exhibitions elsewhere. Among them was "Guys Who Sew," a small but controversial presentation at UC Santa Barbara last year, which looked at the work of several male artists today who are using traditionally female techniques in producing their art, especially needle and thread. "Guys Who Sew" was greeted with dismay by several gals who sew--specifically, female quilters and embroiderers, who wanted to know why the University Art Museum would organize a show of men's needlework, but would not do the same for their own.

Since the issue began to be raised in the wake of the feminist movement of the 1960s, discussion about the relationships between gender and artistic materials or subjects has tended to be divided between two highly charged poles. Essentialism and deconstruction have been the yin and yang of mainstream discourse on the subject.

Essentialism, now widely discredited, proposes a continuity between social behavior and an inherently male or female essence. That ostensible continuity, which includes nurturing as women's work, makes domestic tools and homey subjects appropriate for women to use creatively.

Deconstruction, which began to come to the foreground in the late 1970s and early 1980s, couldn't be more different. All continuities between gender and social behavior are perceived to be societal fabrications, determined and imposed from without by combinations of cultural habit and the prerogatives of power. The creative uses of domesticity are seen to lie within a critical sphere, with works of art pointedly made to uncover just how those power relations operate in contemporary society.

Essentialists and deconstructionists are obviously at odds on most matters of interpretation. One thing they pretty much share, however, is an acknowledgment that women continue to be socially oppressed as second-class citizens. Essentialists hope and argue for a change in mind-set, in which the true value that inheres in women's work will be recognized and rewarded. By contrast, deconstructionists regard the power struggle as an inevitable and ongoing saga, and they see critical engagement as necessary, in order to keep the lines of sight clear.

Of course, neither camp can be neatly defined; life is too messy for that. Still, the fact that sexism in American life is almost universally regarded as an evil--even if that regard doesn't always get beyond the level of lip-service--is one that could not be applied to any period of our history before the 1960s. That today it can, ranks as one significant battle successfully fought by feminists.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "Division of Labor" is the opportunity to revisit Womanhouse, a radical experiment in art education that grew out of the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. In the fall of 1971 Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago found an abandoned house in Hollywood and, working with nearly two dozen students, transformed it into a completely "female environment" for a program of conciousness-raising and art production. Womanhouse was opened as a public exhibition for the month of February 1972.

At MOCA, one small gallery is devoted to four domestic projects made at Womanhouse. (Ironically, the gallery was most recently the site of Claes Oldenburg's flashy Pop environment, "The Bedroom.") Johanna Demetrakas' short documentary film about Womanhouse plays continuously on a video monitor, while one original sculpture and reconstructions of three installations give some sense of what this early example of installation art looked like.

Chicago's "Menstruation Bathroom" is a blindingly white room, veiled behind a gauzy scrim pulled taut over the doorway, whose pristine purity has been stained with menstrual blood. In the corner on a shelf, a big, Warhol-like pile of commercially produced feminine-hygiene products stands witness to the defilement. The clean, white, well-lighted space is a knowing evocation of the modern environment in which art is displayed, while the commercial apparatus that excludes women is unflinchingly evoked.

Schapiro's "The Doll House" (made in collaboration with Sherry Brody) is a kind of Womanhouse-in-miniature. An actual three-story doll house tells a host of tales about modern domestic life. The living room is presided over by a rattlesnake, while the kitchen is a riot of conflicting decorator patterns. One second-floor bedroom looks like a bordello boudoir, the other like Scheherazade's storytelling chamber. The baby's room shares the attic with an artist's studio, complete with an abstract, geometric painting on the easel, a Brancusi-like "endless column" sculpture (made from wine-bottle corks) in the corner and, on a pedestal, a nude figure-model--this time a man wearing oversized cowboy boots.

Also from Womanhouse are reconstructions of Beth Bachenheimer's "Shoe Closet," stuffed with enough wildly decorated shoes to make Imelda Marcos swoon, and Faith Wilding's knitted and knotted chamber of macramed string, "Womb Room." Together these works recall a pivotal moment, which demands further wide-ranging inquiry.

Unfortunately, the rest of the exhibition is a virtually incoherent amalgam of paintings, sculptures, photographic documentation and mixed-media works, which range from wonderful to awful, but which make scant curatorial sense of the subject at hand. The show is divided into 10- and 15-year chunks, even though the segmentation bears no relation whatever to artistic or social developments. Random timelines of cultural and political events are strewn about, ostensibly as enlightening contextual data.

The closer the show comes to the present, the narrower and more parochial it gets. Shockingly, just one of the 32 works dated between 1980 and 1995 was made in L.A. (Jim Isermann's beautiful hybrid of a painting and a shag rug), while the meager nods to Europe and Asia likewise focus on artists who show in New York. Two-thirds of the 35 artists are New Yorkers, while the Midwest--completely unrepresented--lives up to its reputation as Fly-Over Country.

First you have the feeling of Bronx Museum curators scanning a broad field through the wrong end of a telescope, then you wonder what possessed MOCA to want to import that myopia to L.A. My advice is to look past the imposing mountain of curatorial shortcomings in search of individually notable objects, such as Trockel's computer-knitted "painting" or Oliver Herring's hand-knitted Mylar shrouds. They'll tell you lots more than the show will.

Most curious--and fateful--of all for a show concerned with social stereotypes is that no attention seems to have been paid to cultural cliches. The unexamined stereotype here is that, traditionally, art has been men's work, which is why women have been held back in their efforts to be taken seriously as artists. But the reality, at least in the United States, is not quite so simple as that.

The truth of the matter is that, far from regarding it as a masculine pursuit, Americans have long considered art to be an effeminate activity. (The hair-curling pronouncements on the subject by rough-riding President Teddy Roosevelt are one good early 20th-Century guide to the interplay of sexism and art in a national forum.) In a feminized culture such as our own, the only art that can gain a significant measure of social respect has been art that goes about the dissonant business of compensating for its otherwise unmanly status--an elusive obstacle that is dauntingly acute for women who would be artists.*

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"DIVISION OF LABOR: 'WOMEN'S WORK' IN CONTEMPORARY ART,"Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave. Dates: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Jan. 7. Phone: (213) 626-6222.

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