Good Housekeeping

Jim Feast 

Review of Emily Bicht and Fay Ku in "Good Housekeeping" at the Tribes Gallery, April 2-30



There is a dominant notion alive in the art world today that in our over-educated visual artists inevitably  simply repeat (with minor changes) work that has already been done. Whatever credibility this idea may have as a blanket assertion, it certainly misses the mark in many individual cases, such as that of the artists,  Emily Bicht and Fay Ku, whose work appeared in the recent “Good Housekeeping" show at Tribes Gallery. Both of them consciously echo themes from earlier art but add a new .level of consciousness to their creations, necessarily so, since part of their practice is to reflect on how this earlier work was received, which, naturally, would have been impossible for its creators. .


Bicht focuses on marriage using often biting, ironic images such as those also employed by U.S. feminist art of the 1970s. In that earlier heyday, women were on the march, raising consciousness of their dispossession and breaking down barriers to wage and social equality. Nowadays, the situation is not so clear-cut. Feminist criticisms still hold; in many areas improvements to women's condition have been made; but in other areas, perhaps the most substantive, little has changed. In light of the fact that most promises to women were never kept, a concerned artist might choose to make the original critiques shriller. An artist might also probe for weaknesses in former strategies which, although they are not alone culpable, did not bring about the great empowerment of women for which they fought. Bicht chooses the latter tactic and concludes that, whatever the merits of previous work, contemporary feminist art must be more self reflective. Let's see how she makes this point with paint.


In an interlocked series of canvases, she has focused on marriage and its aftermath. The marriage ceremony is portrayed in idealized renderings that draw on the iconography of 1950s to the 1970s while life after marriage, basically, women doing domestic labor, takes inspiration from the same rosy stylizations. In these latter works, she follows a dream logic that holds: If a church wedding represents the height of bliss, won't housework also be nonpareil Bicht represents herself -- "the easiest model I could find," she says -- scrubbing the floor with a beatific smile on her face or lounging in bra and panties atop a washing machine, making housework seem glamorous and pleasurable.


These works, which are not in the Tribes show, are humorous takeoffs. The pictures of the wedding ceremony itself, ones that were featured at the gallery, give a less straightforward depiction. Yes, here there are also idealized images, but not grotesques like the happy scrubwoman, but ones that move deeper into a fantasy world. In "Dessert," for example, a bride and groom smile as they slice the wedding cake. The picture is overlaid with an intrusive gold leaf pattern, partly falling on the couple as if to clearly say, "This is fantasy." Note, then, if the images are clearly recognized as idealized fabrications, there is less chance anyone would expect reality to resemble them. They are no longer mystifications but emblematic commemorations of the spirit behind the event.


Bicht only came to recognize this way of viewing bridal imagery when she herself faced getting married, something she had never contemplated when she was young. Instead of rejecting a wedding as an antiquated, outmoded ritual, she began to imagine it could be dovetailed to her own nontraditional views. Bicht subverted the pretensions of commercial weddings, adopting a DIY attitude, sewing her own wedding dress, baking vegan cupcakes for the reception and keeping it small and manageable. Comparing her event to the stylized images from the past, she didn't simply pat herself on the back for doing something more creative, but began to see that "you do make a choice." That is, those who had or still have elaborate weddings are themselves choosing to model themselves on a stereotype. You have to see, she says, "how you fit in the picture."


Thus, her view of marriage is much like a wedding cake, many layered. She sees the dangers of idealizing, hence her housework canvases, also sees a wedding ceremony can be shaped to serve originality and sincerity, and, moreover, sees that even the most hackneyed versions of weddings were chosen by some women as meeting their needs, even though, some would say, these needs were warped by a sexist culture.


This complexity is visible in Bicht's "Tying the Knot." Most prominent is a depiction (on the right) of a couple's heads, starry eyes uplifted expectantly at disembodied hands tying a knot. Taking up the left of the canvas are three covers from women's wedding dress pattern sleeves. At first glance, the artful depiction represents the Mobius strip nature of bridal ideology. The couple's view of marriage is not based on any appreciation of reality, but on stale metaphors, backgrounded by a haze of consumer goods. Yet, recalling that Bicht actually sewed her wedding dress from a pattern such as the ones depicted, the viewer is led to realize that behind the vapid depictions on the covers are plans that would call on a maker's craft skills and judgment, involving the bride-seamstress in a relatively noncommercial avenue on the way to the big event. So, the couple's seeing these patterns behind the disembodied image can be taken as viewing the wedding in relation to "labor," taking the word with its positive overtones, as creating an object from raw material in order to embody one's desires. .


In sum, Bicht can be seen as saying that earlier condemnations of the wedding culture need to be continued, but with a curved nuance, which is awareness that concealed in this culture are a number of humanist values that can still be unearthed, validated and employed.


A similar strain is visible in the mythic art of Fay Ku. (These remarks will be a bit briefer, because, unfortunately, after a number of tries I was unable to contact the artist for an interview.) Her art also centers on domestic themes, not those involving a married couple but the relationship of girl to mother or older female.  


Her images partake of a deadpan surrealism as, for example, in the aptly titled, My Mother Is  Part Reptile." In this piece, the mother leans over a table, her upper torso normal, her lower parts include a tail and chicken-like legs emerging from a grass skirt.


There have been brilliant entwinings of surrealism and female-centered themes before, although Ku adds a note not as often centralized in such work by showing a spectator in each frame. For instance, in the aforementioned piece, a little girl sits under the table, privy to the mother's under-the-table anatomy.


This approach, of always having a viewer represented in her compositions, also can be seen as an extension of previous artistic critiques. Early surrealism shared with 1970s feminist art a willingness to openly state contradictions in liberal society. Feminists would point to the ambiguity of the mother's role vis-a-vis her daughter. She had to prepare her to play an appropriate role in a sexist society, imparting both survival skills and a sense of inferiority. Surrealism (of the Magritte type) pointed up the contrast between an industrial society rife with bell-like promises of happiness and its drab, humdrum reality, which would be thrown into relief by paintings' depiction of startling juxtapositions that ripped into the fabric of the everyday.


Like Bicht, Ku takes a step back from such admirable stridency to position herself more self-reflexively. Yes, the mother has two sides, but the focus of the picture is not this duality but the visual intercourse between mother and daughter.


Another picture, "Something Under the Bed," makes the importance of this additional element clear. A little girl hangs over the end of a bed on which she is lying and sees peering out from under the bed frame, with face forward and mouth gaping, like a sailing ship's figurehead, an old woman's face. The work turns on the expression of the girl, which is hard to read. It could be surprise, wonder or alarm. The thematic thrust is on how the young try to make sense of the ambiguous messages of their elders, rather than simply discriminating the double-bind messages these wise women produce.


Ku makes her statements with clear, carefully modulated designs, done in untheatrical, prosy colors, as a way to highlight by contrast the piercing mystery of the captured moments. As in Balthus, profoundly shocking images display an innocent air.


As we've seen, Ku and Bicht avoid a frontal assault on the down sides of marriage, domesticity and the mother/daughter dyad in favor of trying to see how they (or their visual surrogates) "fit in the picture." While lifting themes from earlier critical art, they have said, in so many words, in deconstructing social practices of our society, we must take apart ourselves in the process.