999 Words

And All Things Nice: notes on Parall(elles): a history of women and design

Men like me love women.

There is a group of people, however, who love women even more than men like me, and that group is women. Women love women, man. Women love to celebrate all things by and for and about women. And why not? To me, at least, there is nothing lovelier in this world than that indefinable yet unmistakable assemblage of characteristics that constitutes essential femininity.

These days, asserting the existence of such a monolithic thing — womanhood — is a controversial pursuit; when even the word “women” is contested terrain, it is an implicitly political statement to drop it right into the title of a museum exhibition. Nonetheless, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts saw fit to go there, and for one of the stuffier of the city’s artistic institutions, it is a radically feminist rhetorical move.

Parall(elles): a history of women and design, which runs February 18th through May 28th in the museum’s Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, collects 250 objects that (genetic) women either created or contributed to significantly, focussing a spotlight specifically on achievements hitherto attributed to men — Denise Scott Brown, for example, the partner of the Pritzker Prize-winning American architect Robert Venturi, and the General Motors designer Ruth Glennie, whose reinvention of the ‘Fancy Free’ Corvette functions as the exhibition’s centrepiece.

The assumption in art history has always been that men created capital ‘A’ art, probably, when we started painting the Lascaux caves. But a 2013 scholarly study published in the journal American Antiquity suggests that more women than men might have been responsible for producing parietal art. The anatomical difference in men’s and women’s hands serves as the basis for these claims which, if true, indicate that women may have in fact made between 75 and 90 percent of Euro-American Upper Paleolithic hand stencils, widely considered to be humankind’s first acts of artistic creation.

Ironically, many of the pieces in this collection gesture towards more traditional notions of the economy of femininity and domesticity. Clara Driscoll’s Tiffany stained glass lamp, for instance, or Ray Eames’s iconic pieces of office furniture reveal the discursive sites that historically served as women’s points of entry into the arts. Eva Zeisel’s Museum Coffee Service, a minimal set of elegant ceramic carafes, cups, and saucers, and Molly Hatch’s monumental terracotta installation, which the MMFA commissioned especially for this exhibition, discreetly signal towards interiors as women’s purview. The home, the office, the kitchen, the bedroom, the passenger seat of a sports car — these were women’s places, spaces created by women’s work.

Parall(elles) cleverly sidesteps gender trouble to focus instead upon design trouble, calling into question the circumscriptions around craft, fine art, and industry, while leaving the notion of what represents womanhood to the spectator. In doing so, this collection also suggests a sort of Montréalaise coda to a centuries-old dance between two complementary and corresponding partners, XX and XY. It is almost as if the 251st piece in this collection is woman herself.

As recently as the 1990s, it was still radical to be a woman. From the Spice Girls to Ellen DeGeneres, from Girl Power to the Riot Grrrls Manifesto, from Anna Nicole Smith to Kim Campbell, women were leaning into traditionally masculine pursuits. The future seemed decidedly female. In the 90s, the theorist Judith Butler critiqued the notion of womanhood as a socially constructed and economically reinforced category that ultimately served a patriarchal power structure. Women were the negative space that shaped masculinity, a binary dialectic allowing men to rule the world. The parallel nature of this dichotomy has disintegrated as gender identities proliferate and their acknowledgment becomes evermore contentious. Will there be an exhibition in twenty or thirty or forty years celebrating the underrepresented contributions of trans people to the design world? Is all this inclusivity necessarily exclusionary?

To the spectators of this exhibition, and me, it should simply be a question of aesthetics. Identity is an extension of intention, and every good art historian knows that intention is a fallacy. It may be interesting at best to know what an artist intended by this work or that, just as it may be interesting to know the gender or sexuality or politics of the artist. But it is only paratextual evidence, one rung above gossip. There is a kind of windmill-tilting, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better notion to a show that makes women’s design its focus — a Rosie the Riveter rolled-up sleeves we can do it sense of spirit. But is that really necessary? Would this exhibition be any less spectacular if women’s work — so to speak — wasn’t brought to the fore? Can the works themselves stand on their own? I believe the answer is yes. Nonetheless, it is their assembly under the aegis of underrepresentation that makes Parall(elles) at once nostalgic and radical.

The Cleveland-born comedian and misogynist Drew Carey once had a joke in his routine about the common axiom that if the fairer sex ruled the world, there would have never been a war. Punctuated by Carey’s sarcastic Coke bottle-magnified eye roll, he retorts, “yeah right, like no woman has ever started a fight for no reason.” In this joke lies men’s fundamental ambivalence toward women. Men tend to attend women’s proud roar as vaguely hostile, somewhat hypocritical, tinged with a smug sense of self-superiority, but also paradoxically attractive. Conflict is sexy. It drives the story.

Parall(elles) seems anachronistic in this era when personal pronouns are beginning to outnumber the people they designate, when even abortion rights groups are banning the term “woman,” and when digital technology has curiously cultivated a less binary world. But to men like me, and to women like those represented in this exhibition, there is a certain strength in reasserting traditions and recognizing historical struggles that should be amplified, not muted, by the allied marginalia.

If there exists an implicit argument about womanhood in Parall(elles), it is a characteristically female one: make the fight about something else.◼︎

Parall(elles): a history of women and design runs February 18th through May 28th at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.