The Four Housewives of the Apocalypse

March 14 - May 4, 2014
Thames Art Gallery
Chatham, Ontario

Exhibition

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Exhibition Video 

The Four Housewives of the Apocalypse

featuring segments of my childhood home movies

and vintage T.V. commercials

The Four Housewives of the Apocalypse

By Laurie Langford

I learned about the role of women through social gatherings in a small maritime farming community that had a religious Victorian-era hangover. During this impressionable time, I was also simultaneously absorbing the images of modern women that I saw in TV commercials, shows, and magazines. The two messages were almost diametrically opposed and caused me confusion. This ‘split’ often comes out in my art practice through topics like Good/Evil and Past/Present.

The women represented in the installation Housewives were fighters or part of a larger resistance movement. Being women, they still were expected to perform typical female duties. These altered mannequins suggest that, no matter how far women advance, they still confront societal expectations and assumptions based on gender. In the installation, these mannequins of times-gone-by watch as another ‘woman’ (clips of 2 year-old me from home movies) is indoctrinated with restrictive societal expectations through messages shown on the vintage TV.  The cycle continues.

As art critic Nadia Pelkey wrote of the exhibition in 2014, “Each large figure is heavily detailed, almost completely encrusted in domestic ephemera. Previously used and useful household objects are dismantled and reimagined as weaponry, limbs, and symbolic tools for the Housewives to employ. The four large figures, the housewives are anachronistic. There’s a strong Steampunk aesthetic running through the works, decades and centuries are removed from a continuum and pushed up against each other, held fast with electronics and denied any sense of historical continuity. There are so many references in the works that fully enumerating them would be futile.”

Represented in Housewives are Fiona: English Civil War (1644); Marie: French Revolution (1794); Viola: Suffrage (1904); and Greta: World War II (1944).

Fiona represents a Celtic Warrior Queen like Boadicea or Catherine of Aragon.  In the context of Housewives, Fiona is a woman who is as fierce at performing warrior deeds as she is at doing ‘women’s work.’ The men in her life are absent or dead and are unable to defend her.  To survive in their absence, she has developed many faces―literally, as her head is composed of four separate Barbie hair-styling heads, cut and reassembled with black stitches.  She is clothed in Highland battle gear, and stands ready to defend her hearth and home with her tea-tray shield and a mace constructed of a ball of yarn with protruding knitting needles. In addition to her Prince Edward Island tartan cape, she wears a beautifully-made needlepoint skirt featuring a Viking ship under full sail, and fur cuffs made from the pelt of an animal she has hunted and killed. Fiona’s torso, made of a block of stacked Singer sewing machine drawers, gives her a proud and impenetrable stance.

Marie depicts a peasant from the French Revolution who goes into the street to protest the bread rations, and then comes home to fulfill her role as the good housewife.  With some violent undertones, there is a partially-open breadbox that bisects her torso.  The breadbox is labelled on the outside with two words: ‘bread’ and ‘pain.’  ‘Bread’ humorously refers to Marie’s perpetually pregnant state, as she always has ‘a bun in the oven.’  Childbirth often causes ‘pain,’ but is also the French word for ‘bread.’ Her breadbox uterus, illuminated from within, is lined with soft pink fabric.  The light bounces off the crystals glued to the folds of the pink fabric walls, evoking the spark of life.  Little bunnies and birds and babies frolic in a lush, safe haven under the watchful eyes of a framed illustration of the Virgin Mary.  Reflecting the reality of the outside world and revolution, one of Marie’s hands is a mangled meat fork with a nasty hook, and the other holds a rolling pin.  Although Marie looks demurely away from the viewer, she will do anything to feed and protect her children.

The purple and green costume accents used in Viola refer to the proud colours of the Suffragette movement.  Her mechanized/robotic hand is a symbol of rising industrialism in the 1920s and representative of the many women at that time who were reaching out and grabbing opportunities for equality in society and politics.  Sometimes, as Viola illustrates within Housewives, there is an unpleasant connection between exploitation and expectations, music and fashion. Suggesting that she is programmable and her settings can be adjusted and played with, Viola’s nipples are knobs from a Fender Stratocaster guitar. The S&M-style metal strapping on her naked torso is a nod to entertainers such as Madonna, who wears overtly sexual clothing often made by fashion designer Jean Paul Gaulthier.  The full set of vintage piano keys that compose Viola’s skirt recalls one of Karl Lagerfeld’s signature gowns, and suggests Viola’s extensive repertoire of songs. Her ultimate role is symbolized by the phallic vintage radio tubes that thrust out of the top of her head as part of her crown. Viola is often forced to entertain and flirt with her husband’s business partners to ensure his success and social standing. Her husband’s business partners cannot get too close, however, as Viola also holds a glowing red ray gun. She will defend her ideas. Viola’s head is coquettishly cocked to one side, but she, like the other Housewives, is prepared to stand her ground.

Greta embodies a reluctant educator, clothed in a severe costume inspired by WWII.  She has the capability and intelligence to be a General, but because she is a woman, she has been assigned the role of teacher and communicator.  Greta’s life has been one of fighting and unfulfillent.  She seems to be ready to teach her charges how to read, but she is jaded and wants only to kill the notions of happiness that children get from pretty story books or the media. She has seen battle and death. Human cruelty and the fragility of life are suggested through the unevenly-ripped, sharp, and red-splattered tin newspaper printing plates that compose Greta’s skirt.  The plates feature Lady Diana’s wedding, which was a real-life fairy tale with a tragic ending.  Implying incarceration and torture, a disconnected female hand dangles a mysterious key as it creeps out of the wooden writing box that bisects Greta’s body. In her pocket, she has a confiscated Barbie doll with a small black gag glued over her mouth.  With a leather-gloved hand, Greta holds a wooden yard stick topped with an eye-less doll’s head printed with the word ‘obey.’ It appears that, upon a whim, Greta will raise the stick and dole out corporal punishment as did many teachers of my generation.  Defiantly smoking a cigarette which dangles out of the corner of her mouth in an almost sultry, post-coital way, Greta is a ‘rotten’ teacher, as the apple next to her suggests.

Finally, I have chosen to leave the Housewives mannequins barefoot, because I feel that women have not yet been allowed to reach their full potential and, thus, fill their own shoes.

-Laurie Langford, 2014

 

© 2017 by Laurie Langford, artist.
 

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