TRANSITION AND TRAJECTORY: THE ART OF MYREL CHERNICK
[First published in a booklet about Chernick in 1998. Revised in 2002.]
[ADDENDUM, 2002: I wrote the following essay before Myrel Chernick made "Out My Window," a video tape that documents the collapse of the Twin Towers and the reaction of Chernick and her Soho-based family to the event. As you will read below, in 1998 her work seemed to have been heading elsewhere... -- Cliff Eyland]
A simple version of Myrel Chernick's story goes like this: she began as a sculptor of delicate porcelain works which, when installed in galleries, make a wavy tracery of thin solid shapes--3D drawings, really. Chernick has moved by stages since the early seventies toward multi-media installations using slide projectors, theatrical spot lights, lasers, film and video.
Literary writing became an important element in the work.
Slides from the mid-1970s onward show the development in her use of text: at first she used cryptic words as if they were primarily graphic material in a sculptural composition, but then the texts got longer until today they can be read as short works of fiction.
A potted history of use of text by visual artists over the last twenty five years more or less matches Chernick's own evolution as an artist/writer. Such a history could begin with the 1960s and 1970s use of text by artists in conceptual art as declarative bursts, as formal visual elements, or as some formula or literal description. As conceptual artists expanded their texts into longer works, into "story art" and other forms, texts began almost to stand on their own, as if the visual art were the vehicle for the words and not the other way round--contemplation of literary meanings seemed more and more warranted. Chernick's recent writings can be appreciated either as meditations in their own right, or objects which (still) straddle a poetic zone between visual art and literature.
Chernick is a good writer, and her talent for writing enriches her art. Literary writing fits uneasily into the culture of contemporary art. Text within a work of art is often still received as if it were a form of documentation or appropriation. (Although there are many badly written texts in contemporary art, one is reminded by art like Chernick's that some artists are literate and even literary.)
There are autobiographical elements to some of Chernick's recent slide-projected texts, but they are, according to the artist (and there is no reason to doubt this) hybrids of fact and fiction. Chernick's 1984 book, Women I have Known is a series of stories about women. The reader's speculative fancy makes of the stories fact or fiction within their reception as works of art: this is anticipated by Chernick.
In her 1996 multi-media exhibition at Video Pool, co-sponsored by Plug In Inc., Chernick presented a series of photographs of spider webs with text written on them; a video tape about a mother, children and their stories; and a slide show. Most of the texts are about motherhood and gender. The slide show texts and the character generated texts which run across the bottom of the video tape in this installation display a wry and worldly feminism. In the video tape, a little girl makes up a story, a boy makes up a story, and a mother reads a children's story in voices which seem utterly quotidian and unscripted.
The slide show texts were projected split-screen on pink and blue grounds. Some of the texts French, and quotations amongst them are credited to French feminist theorists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, as well as Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras. The appropriated texts in Chernick's installation is turned into into a form of feminist fiction.
In conversation I mentioned Mary Kelly's work in reference to Chernick's focus on motherhood. Kelly is perhaps the foremost feminist artist to have made mixed-media works about the mother-child relationship, and Chernick got to meet Kelly at New York's Whitney Museum School. In a famous piece called the Post-partum Document, Kelly refers to the psychoanalytical texts of Jacques Lacan, an icon of French feminism. Despite the (French) Lacanian references in Kelly's work, the clinical austerity of its museological presentation bespeaks an "Anglo-American" rather than a "Continental" sensibility.
I am attempting here to give a sense of how unusual it is to come across a contemporary American artist of Chernick's generation who loves French culture and language as she does. Chernick's work displays the lack of closure which I identify not with a knowing reference to Lacan but rather with a play of ambiguities highlighted in French feminist theory which can be linked to a cultural "Frenchness." What is especially fascinating about Chernick's work is that it resists certain received ideas about "French," "American" and even "Canadian" sensibilities in art.
Chernick became an artist as many feminisms were emerging in contemporary art for the first time. Many woman artists who were born in the 1940s and 1950s have approached art making and art history in unprecedented ways. Their experience is unique: artists younger than Chernick have benefited from feminist advances in the art world which have changed the conditions of art making and reception for them; women artists more than a generation older than Chernick can only, with exceptions, be the objects of historical recovery. The successes and failures of feminists of this generation mark their art as transitional. Attempting to construct retrospective exhibitions and texts about such artists must account for their larger unfinished social project.
Some feminist practices have exposed the museum as a patriarchal institution, and so no wonder that many artists and curators have ambivalent attitudes to retrospective views. Such shows and texts can be constructed as 1) a feminist victory 2) a capitulation to traditional historiography, or even 3) an appropriation by the museum of feminist work, depending on one's point of view. Feminist issues are still warmly debated in the art world, and so the issue of the success or failure of feminist projects in the larger society outside the world of art continues to bear on the legitimacy of the museum's sanction of this or that feminist-influenced art. An attempt to give Chernick's work its due is complicated by one's sense of where feminism stands now: should one celebrate Chernick as being part of the victory or the defeat of feminism in contemporary life?
Too, Chernick has been making art long enough to see critical shifts in emphases in the art world.Woman Mystery/Femme Mystere (1981-84) (for example) presents a complex analogy between the construction of formalist art and the construction of female identity. This work would be indecipherable outside of a certain high art debate which no longer exists. The everyday content of Chernick's recent work, for example Living with Cobwebs has more to do with anthropological models of art than this century's high art paradigms. A move from formalist art by stages to an art of social realism encourages anthropological readings. In the milieu of anthropology the practice of viewing art as material culture is as inclusive as the language of formalist art criticism is exclusive. (See Dirt and Domesticity for an interpretation of Chernick through the ideas of anthropologist Mary Douglas.) However, a neat parallel between Chernick's progress through formal play toward socially engaged art and the move by Russian Constructivists earlier this century away from formalism toward social activism can re-embed her work within a tighter vision of art history than the anthropologists would accept. Because of her education and awareness of precedent, not only of the story of Russian art, but also critiques of the story of such art historical stories, Chernick's production--and also the art of many of her colleagues--is a self-conscious construction of progress from the austerities of formal art toward the complexities of social life.
When, in conversation, Chernick says "I came of age during minimalism and was deeply affected by the idea of stripping down to the core, removing the inessential. But my work has always been visually rich, beauty (that dirty word) being something I can never get away from, those silly ideas about the transcendence of art implanted in my brain." and when she characterizes formalist art as a (masculine) gendered language, the enrichment of the vocabulary of formalist art is not on her mind. Instead, minimalism becomes a reference (see again Woman Mystery/Femme Mystere) which characterizes minimalism as one gendered language which is supplemented by another (verbal) language. Chernick is not interested in expanding minimalism's (or formalism's) range and complexity but rather in distancing herself from formalism by characterizing such work as being of a period, worked out, somewhat dead, or at least so familiar as to be a cliché. But of course, expanding minimalism by adding rhetorical focus is exactly what she is doing.
More recently, Chernick's impulses to play with form, colour and graphic design have been subsumed in the careful production of books and video tapes, and in the careful choosing of installation or video elements such as the second-hand video monitor that seems to be just right for Living with Cobwebs, or the tattered psychoanalyst's couch that figures in a more recent work in progress.
Like her, artists younger than Chernick have inherited both minimalist art and feminist art, but not a sense of a transition from one to the other. The historical complexities involved in the first transitions (in the work of many artists, not just Chernick) from the clean lines and ideology of minimalist art into dense webs of feminist social content cannot be repeated anymore than one can have one's first child twice. One can quote minimalist art now, but one can no longer characterize it as a "gendered language" without accounting for its rhetorical transformation by artists such as Chernick.
Part of my sense of Chernick's generation being "transitional" has to do with the sense in the wider culture that boomer feminists are demographically the first people to age with feminist consciousness. And so when Chernick and her colleagues got pregnant, go through menopause and grow old, we continue to watch them to see how they deal with the next stage of their lives, as if there were no precedents for their experiences (who could deny that?) Chernick had children, and it affected her art. Chernick, from a Living with Cobwebs artist's statement:
Artist time is limited. Family and freelance work preoccupy me. Creative energy tends to come in spurts, and doesn't always coincide with its allotted hour. I find myself pausing on street corners, making notes. Or I wake at 3 AM with an idea, jot it down, and find it scrawled on a scrap of paper, illegible, the next morning. A functioning home generates interminable chores. Somehow it's easier during limited time to clean and straighten with immediate and visible results, and the brief satisfactions of domesticity (I'm doing his for them) than make art, which requires intense concentration and an unpredictable outcome. Often I have so much to do I don't know where to turn next. I find myself flitting from project to project, aspiring to hide things away. Cupboards and drawers keep out dust and cobwebs. The other day, as I hung the door on the new linen closet for the third and final time, I thought how setting impossible goals of order could easily prevent me from finishing anything....
Apropos of Chernick's She Was, She Wasn't (1991) Fraser Ward writes:
Here experience guarantees little: the conventional ground of domesticity, the relation between motherhood and femininity, is itself a complex, ongoing interplay of representations, a continuous process of intermingling. It's not a hybrid but a process of hybridization: in short, it's a mess. And just as well.
-- "Foreign and Familiar Bodies" in Dirt and Domesticity [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art 1992 p.35]
The clean lines of minimalism seem especially lost within such a life. If the trajectory of Chernick's life and work seems logical within a feminist orientation, might we expect that as she gets older there could be a retirement into the concerns of her youth? Could Chernick's generation of activist artists become so many Agnes Martins, retiring to the desert after the kids are grown to contemplate a thin line of colour on a canvas? It's hard to say, but I think not.