Not to re-fight old battles, but the domestic sphere as a feminist art concern never lets me be comfortable. On the one hand, raising The Domestic to the level of high-art-worthiness most "masculine" subjects enjoy, is all to the good. On the other, I've been dismayed by the overwhelming rush of women artists of my generation to fetishize the ironically tacky feminine sphere of our childhood. We hit the mid-nineties -- our cultural ascension -- and pseudo-primitivist folk painting, handicrafts, and seventies home decorating colors became a cliché faster than you could say "Margaret Kilgallen at the Whitney." The noise of such blatant bandwagoning eventually had the effect of drowning out the intended dialogue.
But since we went to war (a conjunction to be plumbed another time), the tsunami of fashion victims worshipping orange shag has receded, and left the artists who set the terms of the debate in a high and dry place. High and dry, or rendered and clarified; what a difference half a decade makes. This month, Megan Wilson, an artist so centrally situated within the third-wave domestic aesthetic that the connection can sometimes be hard to see, is offering tours of the high and dry in her installation Home: 1996-2008.
The installation is Wilson's home; her apartment since 1996. Since 2004, Wilson has been turning her space into an art installation -- one never finished and therefore never made public. But now, the victim of an Ellis Act eviction that will have her out of the apartment before the end of the year, Wilson is opening up the space to visitors and giving guided tours, for the entire month of November 2008.
For those who have been following Bay Area arts for the past decade, Home offers an unexpected completion...a closing of a circle you may not have felt was open. For Wilson's prolific and ubiquitous practice tends to abstract and reduce; in each piece or installation the artist picks out one element of the home aesthetic -- a cartoon flower, a cut-paper curlicue, a discrete form in an upholstery pattern -- and repeats that module in a pleasing and decorative format until its origin is completely obscured, and the individual piece approaches the purely formal. Extending these modules over the surfaces of an entire apartment over the course of nearly five years has allowed these ... ideographs ...to accrete geologically. The apartment installation serves as a lexicon of the past decade of Wilson's work. In Home the abstracted finds its way back to context.
Or is further abstracted. What's most noticeable -- and what Wilson, on her tour, first points out -- is the set of curtain-cloth shapes she has cut out and pinned to the walls and ceilings. You've seen these before if you've seen Wilson's work before; here they are in such profusion because of the number of rooms they must decorate. Yes, these decorative items, snipped and abstracted from decoration, have been turned back into decoration. It's a double inversion that takes you back to the same longitude, but a different latitude. You are here in a meta-home: a meta-seventies-childhood-home, a meta-Wilsonian-childhood, and a meta-gallery-of-Megan-Wilson's-ideas.
You'll see other familiar images. On the bedroom door hangs one of the 250 panels Wilson painted with the word "Home" and a flower, distributing them in 2000 to individuals and organizations all over the city who were homeless or about to be. It's not even ironic: Wilson's understanding of the domestic sphere has always extended into public space, and for distinctly political reasons. She has always taken eviction and enclosure personally. That we are no longer facing the internet bubble doesn't mean that artists are no longer getting evicted, or that Wilson herself was ever safe. Another circle closed.
In the bedroom you'll also see the sign-painterly flowers that are, as much as anything, her trademark. These flowers, large and small, perky and melting, tie her bedroom to loci all over the world: hipster art spaces and art-sale-collections in SF, transport bicycles in Yogjakarta, Indonesia, a wall in Manila. In a career that has carefully and deliberately practiced collaboration and exchange, these flowers have become almost a hallmark of Wilson's process of stretching the idea of home to absurd and profound distances.
Wilson says her intention was to eventually show the installation, but she was in no hurry and her perfectionism could have prevented it indefinitely. On the other hand, living in such a profoundly presentational space, dripping with irony, self-awareness, and deliberate reconstruction, must have been difficult. Home's root in feminist Art/Life experimentation resonates strongly for me, but I have to admit that I've always spent more time cringing in sympathy with such artists than analyzing their fortitude. After five years of living in a space meant for other people to view, that no one was viewing, it must be a profound relief to finally invert the space one last time, and make the private public, the domestic professional.
Home serves as a key to a practice that has woven itself into the recent history of community and political art in San Francisco. Do not miss this installation. Do not miss your chance to ask the artist questions. Don't miss seeing her in her fake/real habitat, adjusting herself to your presence, in a context built from the detritus of public and private life.
Home is open for walk-ins Monday-Wednesday 2-5 pm through November 26, 2008. Throughout the month of November, artist Eliza Barrios will be projecting a series of images on the exterior of the building. Email Megan Wilson for more information or for an appointment.
More information on Home at meganwilson.com.