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Play With Your Pantyhose

by Melody Davis on November 13, 2013

 

Sometimes you go to a lecture on a rainy Saturday because you’re wondering how you wound up in this effed-up world called art in the first place, and you’re just hoping to forget about the stuffed shirts whose main purpose in life seems to be to make other people feel small. And here is why lectures can be good, because if you’re lucky enough you can end up in a big, living, pantyhose sculpture with a bunch of other people you’ve never seen and are unlikely to again, but you find yourself working with them and stretching pantyhose to their very limit, and you are talking with strangers and finding that, once you actually surmount the fear of the stranger, we’re all similarly stretchy. Sometimes cooperation happens in spite of our best intentions. Sometimes we exceed our bounds.

Stretchy: Senga Nengudi setting up for a performance of RSVP X in her Los Angeles studio, 1976. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York

Sorry if you missed it, but Senga Nengudi’s lecture at the Williams College Museum of Art—in conjunction with Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980—on Saturday, Nov. 2, was more than just a PowerPoint talk, though there was some of that, but it’s worth talking about, because you can still experience the movement latent in the object. Now, the last thing most people would imagine themselves doing on a depressed Saturday is to go to some edifying yuk-yuk at some house of Culture. I know people, and I know me, and if I hadn’t drunk near that whole bottle of wine the night before, I wouldn’t have been drying myself out with edifying yuk-yuk. The point is that lectures can surprise you, and Nengudi surprised me, because she turned me and the rest of the audience into an inter-active, cooperative, pantyhose shaping, vital kind of realization, with only the material of one pair of pantyhose per audience row and two simple commands written on cards. Our row had a blue pair of pantyhose and the commands “stretch” and “gather,” and the job was to sculpt this unlikely material—often considered a cross between dress and a wrestling match—along with ourselves into something more than the sum of its parts.

And we did. We stretched, we gathered, we talked, we got scrunchy close, invented, lobbed ideas, got closer, smushed ourselves and threaded together 12 people. We improvised with an umbrella and some really weird lecture-hall pole. We worked it out, and in the process we found out something that is hard to articulate. It all came remarkably and spontaneously together into a sculptural ensemble in about 10 minutes.

The beauty of the thing is that pantyhose are such dumb, thin stuff to begin with, but there’s a lot more to them than one reckons. The feminine association is unavoidable, but it sifts down to a more generic discomfort as you deal with the fact that somebody just handed you undergarments and you are playing in public with them. You just have to deal with the crotch. The crotch is not going away. You’re in a big tug-of-war that’s not a contest but just as much a ruckus. All I can say is thank God for art, because in any other realm playing with somebody’s pantyhose could get you arrested. But, here, you’re working together, team-wise, stretching, tying, wearing, making holes, twisting, gathering, lifting, looping, wrapping, disguising, etc.

If you want to go art historical, we can talk about the Brazilian neo-concretists like Lydgia Clark, or the Los Angelinos who hung out with Nengudi, like Maren Hassinger, David Hammons, and Betye Saar. Both groups were trying to remake art history, because once not so long ago “art history” had no place for black artists, or women either. It didn’t give much quarter to movement, interaction, process, or the performative. In that not-so-distant-past I was tutored in the names of “the great” and still have the text books with my dutiful underlining to prove it. I will give $5 for every black person or women or Asian one of you can find in H. W. Janson’s History of Art, first edition, which taught millions. We were all angry, then, but we learned to strike a bargain with “culture.” Some of us are still bargaining. The new art history can be more comforting, and we can be lulled into its deceptively inclusive furnishings, and call them good enough. But we know, really, that one chair at the table is just one chair. So, we can turn our back on Culture, or write a new culture (lower case “c”), or hate the stuffed shirts, or something else sweeter if we can manage. While you’re making up your mind, visit Now Dig This, curated by Kellie Jones, while it’s still at Williams College Art Museum this month. You can see Nengudi sculpture, if not play with it, and other artists of improvisational material, like Hammons, Saar, Hassinger, Noah Purifoy, and John Outterbridge. And go to a lecture on some rainy Saturday, because, who knows, you might even turn into a work of art and never look at pantyhose the same way again. Use what you got and play—Nengudi permits, slyly deconstructing our boundaries. Go play together can still be a radical message. You might find yourself cooperating with someone you never even imagined you could talk to.