Women & Their Work, Austin
Through July 15, 2010
by Chelsea Weathers
In one respect, Leah DeVun’s current show at Women and Their Work is an exercise in interpreting an archive. Using a collection of lesbian/feminist/separatist publications, most of which were published during the 1970s (some are on display in the show in a vitrine along one wall), DeVun approaches her source material using three discreet media, each to different effects. On one wall is a group of three lightboxes, two depicting candid re-enactments of protest. Both images retain a sort of mimeographed quality, which hearkens back to the low-tech printing that is typical of these vintage publications. Hung above these two boxes is a round lightbox, which contains only the face of a full moon. The motif of the moon returns in one of DeVun’s strongest photographs, Early Morning Goodbye (all works 2010), in which a group of women, their backs to the camera and their silhouettes in dusky shadow, raise their arms in a salute to the moon.
Early Morning Goodbye is part of a series of photographs that line two other walls of the gallery. About half of the photos are portraits that take their titles and inspiration from the vintage publications––Lesbian Land, Up From Below, Sinister Wisdom. Most of photographs that appear in the original publications are candid; the women, often nude, have been photographed spontaneously as they engage with one another or in an activity outside the frame. DeVun, on the other hand, carefully composed each of her portraits in collaboration with her sitters, and as a result the images are much more confrontational. In most of these images, the subjects face the viewer head-on in a rather deadpan manner. Their bodies take up most of the frame, their nudity and steady gaze demanding attention in the starkly hung show. With these photographs, DeVun seeks to explore how recreating scenarios in which contemporary women inhabit the bodies and ethos of the earlier feminists might also recreate feelings of liberation or feminism within her sitters and how these feelings might also transfer to a contemporary audience.
DeVun’s portraits may use the vintage photos as inspiration, but ultimately her work is about the present rather than the past. The artist recently traveled to lesbian separatist intentional communities in northern Mississippi, and other photographs in the show document the landscape there. These are scenes of everyday domestic life, such as a steaming plate of eggs and grits in a breakfast nook, or a small yurt in a wooded clearing. DeVun’s impressions of these societies––their communality but also the isolation that goes hand-in-hand with separatism––were the impetus for the third element of the exhibition. In the middle of the gallery space stands a ramshackle shed, meant to be built up by viewers, the hammers, nails, and wooden planks laid out beside the structure. Here, DeVun forsakes subtlety in order to convey clearly and deliberately that the tactics of confrontation, protest, and community building are still valid techniques for liberation.
When taken together, the portraits and the scenes of separatist domestic life create what appears at first to be the slick documentation of a single community. Given that many of the subjects of these photos are recognizable members of Austin’s young female academic, activist, or lesbian communities, some viewers will recognize the fanciful nature of this imagined community, while others may take the construction at face value. This is where DeVun’s aestheticization of the cheaply produced periodical images becomes transcendent and not merely heavy-handed. The beauty of the photographs gives us as viewers a chance to imagine the people around us escaping the male-dominated capitalist system for a moment and inhabiting an ideal––and this effect is nothing less than liberating.
Chelsea Weathers is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation is a history of the exhibition and distribution of Andy Warhol's films in the 1960s.