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Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist horror story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was published in 1892 at the tail end of the Victorian era, a period that was in many ways defined by sharply delineated gender and social spheres. Confined to a single room, Gilman’s Victorian housewife reconciles the tensions of surface and structure, containment and freedom, by projecting her consciousness onto the wallpaper so fiercely that she merges with the house itself. The bones of this narrative—gender, body, house, containment, coalescence, subconscious, the unknown—are the stuff of Shell, an exhibition that concentrates its philosophical inquiry so deftly and so densely that it might knock you cold if it weren’t for Del Vaz Projects’ blissfully tranquil setting.
The exhibition achieves its intensity through a tight economy of assured works from three women artists—Heidi Bucher, Olivia Erlanger, and Nicola L.—curated by gallery owner Jay Ezra Nayssan. Late European artists Bucher and Nicola L. worked in the open-ended rawness and second-wave feminism of the post-war West; Erlanger is a bicoastal millenial creating art under the conditions of whatever the hell we’re in now. Shown together, their works assert an irreducible timelessness as well as gender-privileged insight into the question of what divides interior and exterior and how this order might be manipulated.
Erlanger’s Act I (2022) acts as a giant eyeball presiding over a converted bedroom in the dreamy Santa Monica house where Shirley Temple once lived. Behind the eye’s curved plexiglass cornea, in lieu of iris and pupil, is a heartbreakingly realistic miniature interior—a passageway with two doors, both slightly ajar, and a staircase leading someplace more private. This nod to a dollhouse’s precious reproduction of domesticity contrasts with the wall-mounted sculpture’s larger structure, which has the industrial lines of machine age modernism. The eyeball’s exterior and slightly drooping lid, constructed from basswood, fiberboard, and foam, are handpainted with a decorative, wallpaper-esque floral pattern that suggests a female (or femme) protagonist at the heart of the piece.
And if the walls have eyes and the eyes have walls, then so too should the paintings have orifices and limbs. Nicola L.’s Cloud (1974–78), from her Pènètrables series, is simultaneously a garment and wall-hanging—a muddy, sexless, and completely irresistible bogeyperson emblazoned with the word “CLOUD.” Through the merging of garment, painting, and text, the work makes the delightful, psychedelic suggestion that it might be radically simple to inhabit other modes of being—that one may easily operate from within an artwork or a cloud, as within a costume. In other words, all bodies may move between interior and exterior with fluidity, no special equipment required.
Unimposing and fleshy pink, Bucher’s 16 Der Parkettboden des Herrenzimmer in Wülflingen, Winterthur (1979) is a fragment of her high-drama “skinnings.” For these performance-cum-sculptures, Bucher coated spaces (including the psychiatric clinic where Freud treated his first “hysteria” patient, Anna O.) with latex and gauze and then peeled off the layers to create rubbery imprints that she could use later to create three-dimensional reconstructions of the interiors. The work at Del Vaz is the 16th of 46 total “skins” that Bucher made from the tile floor of her father’s study, a men-only space where he kept his guns. Framed behind protective glass, the impossibly soft-looking latex has several ridges where the viscous material seeped between floorboards to create delicate, oyster-esque seams.
As an exercise in psychic mass, Shell achieves an intense conflation of metaphors in a very small space—each artist lays claim to personally and materially defining the boundaries of inside and outside, self and not-self. The show operates like a spiraling drill bit boring straight into primordial, complicated depths of what it has meant and might mean to be held within a body—a line of inquiry that has remained pressing for the female-bodied across generations, from Gilman’s Victorian era to Freud’s hysteria heyday to #MeToo and its aftermath. What feels really alive here is the idea that those most broadly familiar with containment may become the most adept at creatively dissolving its walls.
Shell runs from February 16–April 16, 2022 at Del Vaz Projects (259 19th St., Santa Monica, CA 90402).