More Tampons, Please!
Photo by Jessica CalkinsI come to praise "Small Comforts, Other Worlds," not to bury it—to praise its simplicity, joyful slightness and quirky, modest absurdity, not its self-importance and thematic gravity.
"Small Comforts" comprises works by Elaine Bradford in media ranging from yarn to embroidery floss to cardboard boxes. It's deranged, both childlike and grandmotherly at the same time, as if Nana had at long last succumbed to her dementia. It ranges over a small gallery at Cal State Fullerton, slight and absurd and wonderful. The best of Bradford's works are sweaters she crochets for tree stumps—for specific tree stumps, tailoring them to individual tree stumps' individual limbs; this is not prt a porter—and sweaters she crochets for food. Yes. Food.
The least successful works are two small quilts Bradford has pieced, one with the middle panel consisting of Brazilian chocolate wrappers, the other made up of individual tea packages. They're not as quirky as the other works, nor as beautifully made. But it's only when the wall text informs us that the quilt Sleepytime Tea "deals with issues of comfort and women's work" that one might get a bit irked, if one is me.
As luck would have it, last week's Seattle Stranger included an art review on a guy who makes . . . quilts. He makes quilted outfits, and quilted motorcycles, and all kinds of quilted things. Emily Hall's review deals with issues of . . . comfort. It didn't feature a photo, so I don't know if the guy's quilted world is any good, but from Hall's description it was pretty thorough. And from Hall's description, anyway, Bradford's work doesn't stand up to what seems a better-realized exploration of the same idea. Except, see, the guy's quilts explored comfort without exploring women's work, seeing as how he's not a woman (unless Hall missed the day in art-critic school when they explained to us that quilting and other crafts are always women's work, and that's why they're not valued like the other genres are, and Hall forgot to point out the gender-bending that the dude artist was doing by daring to quilt). Well, you know what? If Bradford's quilts are explicating on women's work, they're not doing that great a job. I mean, tea? Tea may soothe, but it doesn't really have a thing to do with women's work. If you want to work with tea, you'd be far better off exploring colonialism—from Britain's empire on which the sun never set, to Gandhi, to our own quiet colonialism today, with a nod to Ghanaian child chocolate slaves. Tea? Feh. Tampons?! Now, there's a medium that doesn't get enough play in gender-identity art.
When Bradford's curators aren't busy trying to cram meaning into whimsy, one is free to enjoy the hell out of Bradford's extreme! motherliness. Of Little Comfort is the best of her works. On a minor note, it's the best because it's interactive, like Yoko Ono's ladder and apple installation, with which John Lennon—whom she had just met—freaked her the fuck out by taking a bite and ruining it. And then they moved in together. But more importantly, Of Little Comfort is the silliest of the works by far. Open the door of a small, dorm-size mini fridge—and, no, there's no sign telling you to open the door; you have to figure it out by yourself and be daring!—and you are rewarded with a tray full of veggies with sweaters on them, a basket of sweater-clad eggs, a jar of pickles with individual sweaters getting soaked in nasty old pickle juice, a Kraft Parmesan cheese shaker warmed by a sweater, and a bottle of OJ in a natty cape. There's even a bag of baby carrots, with each baby carrot poking through a sweater like one of those awful little pigs-in-a-blanket.
Look at the crazy lady knitting sweaters for individual yogurts! Har!
Other works include the aforementioned long sweaters for tree trunks, and "doodles" Bradford needlepointed while watching TV or attending lectures. The doodles themselves are Rohrshachian; one (Reading Semiotics: Oct. 17, 10:15-11:30) clearly depicts Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but most just look like the squiggles you make with a magic slate. The most interesting aspect about them is the look at how Bradford spends her time, as all doodles are identified by what she was doing, and when, when she created them: she goes from watching Fifth Wheel (Oct. 9, 5-5:30) and Buffy (Nov. 7, 6-8) to attending "Visiting Artist Lecture: Bill Jones" (Oct. 9, 7-8:30). Hey, that was right after she watched Fifth Wheel! I'm informed Fifth Wheel is a pretty lowbrow show, but I haven't seen it for myself, and I'm taking a stand on principle not to rag on things I haven't seen, as so many did with the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the memorial service for the late Senator Paul Wellstone.
But if Bradford can segue happily from low art to high, she's probably a pretty balanced American. Oh, and the one she made while she was watching the Emmys (Nov. 4, 8-11) looks like a salad.
There's not much more; it's a small gallery. Packed Away is a stack of boxes on which someone has scribbled "Books" or "CDs" and clearly moved their belongings in at least once. Cut into the boxes are a few windows and doors through which you can see an underfurnished doll's house. A vase of tiny red roses graces the dining table, and if it's underfurnished, it's still beautifully wallpapered. If I were a curator or an overly grand artist, I might ruminate here on how a woman's place in the home is as shrunken as a doll's—and I'd cite Henrik Ibsen, maybe, or Sylvia Plath—or I might spout off about how a woman in a relationship is just one more possession to be Packed Away. Aren't you glad I'm not? It's a delightful piece, and like all of these works, it doesn't need a screed. People can take from it what they will, and if all they take from it is that it's a cute and clever lo-fi doll house, then they've enjoyed it simply. You know who liked simplicity? The Romantics. And the Shakers. And the Quakers too. And Thoreau.
Comfort may be the next "It" trend, and if I wrote for Salon, I'm sure I could make a few bucks by explicating it for you. But Bradford's lesser works would have stood up better if she and the curators had let a quilt just be a quilt. The greater of her works need no explication at all. Let them be odd bits of one woman's whimsy, not artifacts whose social import must be ginned up. And dammit! More tampons!
"Small Comforts, Other Worlds," Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3262. Open Tues.-Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat., noon-2 p.m. Thru Sept. 12.
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