Looking at 20th century commercial culture in America, the new modern woman began to be and was idealized as sharing attributes with objects of domestic convenience, efficiency, and planned obsolescence. Ten Most Wanted Women expands my work in Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines, a project that constructs a pictorial satire offering an alternative history in which two objects of desire become merged — that is, the modern female, and the domestic convenience. Revisioning modes of display that have traditionally showcased ancestral portraits of the elite, this series of Jacquard tapestries feature oversized portrait heads deriving from my work with archives and can also be seen in relation to Andy Warhol’s controversial Thirteen Most Wanted Men (1964 World’s Fair, New York State Pavilion).
These cyborg-like women complete an implied narrative arc, I would propose, in which women are and have been constructed to be both the consumer and the consumed at the same time. Ten Most Wanted Women unifies what the work depicts (an amalgamation of domestic and consumer culture worlds) with how it is depicted (the handmade transformed by mechanical processes). Before the Jacquard factory machine receives its computerized instructions for the tapestries, images begin with archival research; my focus is on the representation of women (and girls) in advertising and print culture aimed at the female consumer. This work is also autobiographical insofar as my research creates a methodological time machine to retrace and reimagine my mother’s experience navigating the consumer culture of the mid-century modern era, the same era in which I was born and raised. The resulting images are purposely brought into being using new technologies that remove the artist’s hand. If handwrought, the role of the artist would be foregrounded as the inventor of the hybrid female forms, superseding and overwriting the intended message, which is that modern culture itself has created these idealized, problematized images for consumption. The portraits are disquieting and familiar – as the very same tropes and definitions intended to mark the boundaries of the female domain in the last century continue – persist, in contemporary times.
Context and Process
The modern history of women and machines is firmly tied to the textile industry. During the nineteenth century’s industrialization and mechanization of so many tedious low-tech processes, it was the invention of the Jacquard machine in 1804 that revolutionized textile manufacturing. The machine used a sequence of punched cards that automated the patterning of the weaving process; this proved to be an early step in the history of computing hardware. Overseen by human beings in enormous factories, weaving was no longer done by hand. The burgeoning industry employed unskilled or minimally skilled women of all ages to run these machines in what came to be known as sweat shops for their dehumanizing, unregulated and often dangerous work environments. On a domestic scale, the invention and mass production of the sewing machine changed the lives of women in its own way, in part by creating a more independent work force that completed jobs at home, in a woman’s so-called ‘spare time’, for which machine-like efficiency was prized because she was paid by the piece rather than the hour. How the roles of women were and continue to be defined in relation to modern technologies and a desire for the latest model, especially machines of convenience and efficiency, is at the heart of Ten Most Wanted Women and its larger umbrella project, Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines.
My process begins by developing collages that conjoin and digitally manipulate multiple historical images that retain the halftone signatures of the mass-produced image and that also incorporate my own photography of objects that I collect (e.g., used irons, telephones, vacuum cleaners). The collages are printed out very large on canvas by a commercial sign company, and I then paint into and around the images of the hybrid female forms with layers of acrylic paint. Applying and removing layers of paint, I perform repetitive domestic actions by dragging tools across the surfaces or imprinting the textures of household goods into the paint to create the unique surrounding color fields. These fields are made with convenience items that include assorted brands of disposable paper towels, machine-made yardage such as synthetic laces for window curtains, heat-resistant quilted fabric for ironing board covers, hand towels for the guest bathroom, and rolls of non-skid vinyl drawer lining material or my actions employ labor-saving devices such as window cleaning squeegees and DIY wood graining tools. High resolution photographs are taken of these unique works generated as part of Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines. The images are then reimagined, creating the enlarged views needed for the oversized portrait heads that comprise Ten Most Wanted Women. The new digital files are sent to a textile factory to be transformed, this time into woven cloth by the mechanical hand of the Jacquard machine.
Oscillating between concrete and abstract, upon close viewing the machined-images resist focus. With evidence of the warp and weft of individual threads at the margins, the textural surface of the images dissolve into a flux of threads that both describe and occlude the image of woman that can be understood then as now – alternately animate and inanimate – as an object of ambivalence.