The Tidy Kitchen
Unless you happened to be outside the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1973, when Mierle Laderman Ukeles spent four hours scrubbing the stairs leading to the museum’s main entrance, or you attended the opening of Janine Antoni’s exhibition at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London in 1993, when the artist got on her hands and knees and mopped the floor with her hair, it is unlikely that you’ve entered a museum or gallery to be confronted by the quotidian subject of cleaning and maintaining the spaces in which we live and work. Far from spectacular or glamorous, the predictably dull, and at times unseemly, demands of everyday life that continually require our time and attention are still largely considered separate from art. To make them the subject of art is to challenge the traditional separation between intellectual endeavors and the body, between the sacrosanct realm of art and culture and the ultimately equalizing domain of daily life. Efforts to collapse the barrier between art and life during the past half century are often associated with the material innovations of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg—with his rejection of notions of mastery and craftsmanship and insistence on bringing everyday materials into his work, like his bed, the morning newspaper, or an old tire—and the enactment of ordinary daily rituals like eating and drinking in the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow and others. But feminist artists have played the largest role in pushing back against the idea that subject matter related to domestic space, personal life, or emotional vulnerability is too frivolous and banal for the purview of art. In groundbreaking works from the 1970s like Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–79) and Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), the tenets of conceptual art—with its integration of language and image, its embrace of photography and the video camera, and its unfolding over time and space—are enmeshed with questions of subjectivity, the body, and indeed, emotional affect, subjects generally avoided by an earlier generation of conceptual artists.
Since the late 1980s the Dutch artist Lily van der Stokker has been making large-scale wall paintings that unashamedly and exuberantly bring just such “inappropriate” topics into the public realm of art, often combining short, aphoristic texts with colorful, cheerful, soft forms and repeated patterns. Van der Stokker is fully committed to the liberating potential of integrating “high” art with commonplace and familiar aspects of our private lives. It was a radical gesture for her to carve out this niche for herself at a time when many women artists in the United States were adopting strategies of appropriation, producing works that were critical yet often cool in tone and intellectually rigorous, and when popinfluenced painting rooted in graphic languages and bright colors was typically associated with male painters like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
For her exhibition at the Hammer Museum, titled The Tidy Kitchen, Van der Stokker may have created her most political work to date. Eschewing imagery and pattern in favor of a heavily text-based approach, she brings the subject of housework and cleaning into the domain of the museum with an intensity and integrity on par with that of Ukeles, Kelly, and Rosler in the 1970s. The phrases “Washing and Cleaning” and “Organized and Tidy,” writ large across the expansive walls of the museum’s lobby, are surrounded by descriptions of objects and actions from the domestic sphere that are modestly charming or innocuous—“sticky honey bear” and “smooth the wrinkles”—or disgusting—“mildew on the shower curtain” and “dead mouse behind the fridge.” There is a humor to the sort of leveling that comes with an awareness that we all, at one time or another, have to remove hair from our shower drains. But this sense of shared experience is complicated by phrases that are more crassly commercial, like “oven clean in 2 hours 45 minutes,” reminding us of how we are constantly bombarded with ads for products claiming to make our lives easier and better. The space of domestic labor has long trafficked in the unacknowledged and unpaid labor of women, and van der Stokker takes the argument that women should be compensated for their skills and contributions one step further with the text “Crying Crying for $320 p day 8 hours a day,” which proposes women should be paid for expressing their emotions. Labor and gender issues quickly come to the fore, and a contemplation of domestic space extends into a consideration of public space, indeed the site in which visitors find themselves standing. Public institutions like museums, of course, require constant and diligent cleaning and safeguarding, and the efforts of those who maintain the physical integrity of these places often remains invisible and underacknowledged. As Van der Stokker describes it, the work “is almost a political demonstration for housecleaners. For me, it touches upon taboos in the art-world and celebrates domestic life.” In this work, we see her exceptional ability to finesse the complexities of her subjects with insight and simplicity. With a calming palette of pink, blue, green, and yellow, Van der Stokker both honors and celebrates cleaning as part of our daily lives and insists that art examine those things that we may prefer to keep hidden from view.