Mutha of a mutha of a mutha of a mutha is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Alice Lang. As I see it, there are three iterations of this show that are possible to encounter: 1) the “opening” event; 2) the “by appointment” hours; and 3) the “dinner party.” So far I have experienced two out of three of these iterations, and it is from these experiences that I come to this writing. I think it’s important to distinguish how different the encounter with the show was when it was just me and Alice in the gallery together, without the other fifty (or more?) people that attended the opening. The thing about this space, as the name of the gallery suggests (Abode) is that it’s an apartment, and a pretty small one, at that. And, since it’s on the second floor, it’s not like there is an easy overflow out the front or back door, or to some outside space, as there often is for tiny-ish galleries of this sort. Basically I am saying it was packed in there, and while I was able to see some of the artworks that were hung up high, I was shocked, upon my second encounter, at how much is going on below the waist that I was completely unable to perceive. It simply was not visible. I am saying there is another show entirely happening “below the belt,” if you will, and while it may have been unconscious or perhaps not predictable, it is certainly not antithetical to the subject matter of the show. In fact, it supports it, both literally and figuratively.
Silly puns aside, I’m talking about the pieces of furniture that Alice’s sculptures sit on top of. Their thick, smooth-sanded (and I think untreated) plywood tops are cut in unusual, somewhat retro looking shapes, like the kidney bean, while their tall, plaster-textured, lumpy legs are painted in chalky pastels. There’s also a plainly constructed three-sided box, but with U-shaped cutouts on the side, reminiscent of children’s furniture; and another piece which is a tubular plaster construction, again lumpy, again pastel, again cartoonish and otherworldly. These works are completely unlisted in the title sheet, which in itself is incredibly extensive (there are fifteen artworks in the “Living Room” alone, all with unique titles). These pieces of furniture, which you could call pedestals (I think Alice cringed when referring to them in that way, which she did for clarity’s sake) are arguably the largest artworks in the show, but remain unmentioned. Honestly, this is basically all I want to talk about, but before I get too far down that rabbit hole, there are several other aspects of this show I want to consider.
If I had to describe to someone what this show looks like, I would call it a show of sculptures, made of clay, which at first glance appear to have an amateurish quality; matte pastels (pastel penises, to be exact) remind me of the off-the-shelf low-fire glazes often available to children at paint-your-own-pottery stores; lumps of clay take on figurative shapes appearing to be molded only by the act of squeezing one’s fist together; “mask” faces, reminiscent of the famous and now infamous balaclava (which has appeared in Alice’s work before) look almost like paper, in the sense that they have a flatness and a cut-out ness, since they are constructed from simply cutting mouth and eye holes from a flat slab of clay. This flatness is something that I think most users of the ceramic medium do not desire (these pieces hang on the wall, or lay flat on a table; they don’t adhere to the placement rules typical of ceramic sculptures). Why don’t I think ceramic artists desire this? Well, as someone with an extensive background in ceramics myself, I would argue that it’s antithetical to the medium; the beauty of clay is its unique capacity for volume, and the unique way that hands, and maybe hands with tools, are able to control that volume.
Volume these artworks may lack, but detail they do not. Despite appearing somewhat crude, many of these sculptures offer us weird, hidden moments of delight; tiny, realistic penises appear rendered in pink and gold (realistic not as in super-real, which is another ceramic tradition, but as in there is a distinctive ball vs. shaft). One figurine, called Vital Lift, shows a female figure holding her breasts up, I think, but the breasts are actually simple faces—flattened balls of clay with two pokes for eyes and a swipe-poke for a mouth. To me, this is a funny sculpture. This lies in the fact that instead of rendering breasts on the figure, Alice just formed two balls and mushed them on so they stuck, and made a little face on each. It’s the epitome of randomness and uselessness, and I begin to see this work as the expression of an intuition that cares little for volume or tradition, or even symbolism. For women to be silly is certainly a bold move—Alice, I would offer it is a feminist one, which is incredible, because it manages to be feminist without being ideological, which is what I think this artwork, and this artist, is most interested in.
To get back to the penises, they appear frequently. Two sculptures, Hydraburst and Active Mud, are figures draped in the balaclava mask, and the tiny penis is sticking out a little bit through the mask’s mouth-hole. I think reading these sculptures as symbolic or allegorical would be a mistake; it’s more about scale. This gaping mouth-hole, and the mask itself, are just so much bigger than the penis! I mean, it’s a joke, right? It’s like, this balaclava mask, which became a symbol of feminine power through the Russian anti-Putin art collective Pussy Riot, is so much bigger than the penis! Just look at the size of the mouth and the size of the penis. Who’s in charge here? I think it’s Alice.
Shirt Cocker (flowers) is another funny and emasculating artwork; in this one, the gold-penised figure wears a cute little flower-beaded shirt. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud, but this is getting really serious. I keep emphasizing this, but there is a power play here. God made man, but not from mud; no, it was the Golem that was made of mud. I think of Alice as the god here, and she sure is a cruel one, forming all those tiny penises when they could have been any size she desired; cutting and sewing little beaded shirts for her Golem men to wear, when they could have had plain, neutral fabrics, and perhaps the dignity of pants.
Further along in the show the penises get bigger, but they never get more respectable. Her Better Half sculptures constitute another linguistic joke, with a pair of severed thighs constructed from coils, and pieces of colored clay stuck between some of the layers of coils, and a penis rendered in orange, purple, and yellow, those childish colors I mentioned earlier. All this, the linguistics and the colors and the coils, they’re all foils for a deadly serious issue: how does one live as a woman attracted to men? Heterosexual, that’s what they call it. Should you make your own? Should you simply engage with a simulation? Is the joke that the penis is the better half, or that we are all laughing at this dismembered male body?
Anthurium muse is just too damn much for me. It’s a giant penis-head coil with like, a leaf patch and a claw coming out of it? And it has eyebrows? It’s terrifying and really, really weird, and again, I would attribute it to not-always-silly not-always-pretty intuition, which Alice wants to make sure we understand can be naughty as easily as it can be nice.
To return the “show beneath the show” (as I think of it), the furniture that Alice has built constitutes at least four unlabeled and unmentioned artworks; I’d say the vases, bowls, and plates Alice made for the “dinner party” portion of the show (this is a structure of the gallery, not of Alice’s work) count as unlabeled artworks, too. I asked Alice about that, if they were intentionally left off of the list of artworks, or purposely not listed in the materials section of the artworks they appear beneath. She said she didn’t think of it, and she also said something about constructing the pedestals to be viewed in a home space (maybe she said domestic? Maybe she said living space? I wasn’t taking notes). I don’t know if I believe any of that, or really what they have to do with appearing in a home space (they certainly don’t look like any of the furniture I have in my house, and I have A LOT of furniture). What I do get out of this is that Alice snuck a bunch of art into her show that, in some regard, she would not have to be held accountable for: what I mean by this is that they don’t belong to us, the audience; they’re not for sale; no, they’re not for us at all.
In a way this is the perfect metaphor for this show, not that it needs one; but that part of this work does not belong to you. You, as in me. We can covet Alice’s artworks, which are appealing in their irreverence (a word she used, for sure), but we can never own the intuition that made them. There is a spark somewhere in there, a love for something, a desire to use her hands, as clichéd as that is; a desire to use weird colors and just to be, I’d say, unique; to be herself. We can take one of Alice’s Shirt Cockers home, and it may inspire us, but we’ll never be that person, who made those weird things. Perhaps they will inspire us to be ourselves.
There are still two important things (among many) that I haven’t addressed, but I’d like to. One, of course, is the namesake artwork of the show, Mutha of a mutha of a mutha of a mutha, a really big drawing whose materials are listed as “marbled paper and acrylic on paper.” The second is the text that accompanied the invitation to the show, which I think was a collaboration between Alice and Abode. These things are, naturally, linked, and I’m thinking about what that link is. Here is an excerpt of that text:
Welcome to the cult of the Mutha where candy colored relics of humanity’s future past are preserved. A matriarchal society, the Mutha was preoccupied with the corporeal and its connection to the natural world. . . . There is much still to learn from these fragments of their world, secret histories of power and possibility yet uncovered. We offer them up to you for your enjoyment and understanding, and in hopes that the ethos of the Mutha can flourish and thrive. (http://abode.gallery/Alice-Lang).
I told Alice that when I read this piece of writing, it made me think I was going to see a very different show. Basically, it set me up to experience her work as a narrative, and also, as a relic. The cult of the Mutha. Like, what the hell is that? I know from talking to Alice, and also from my own experience growing up in New England (where mother is pronounced “mutha” and Georgia is pronounced “Georger”) that she is referring to the way she pronounces the word mother. Of course, saying mutha of a mutha of a mutha could mean many different things. Here, as the above text informs us, it refers to a matrilineage, but I still find it perplexing. I mean, we are all mothers of mothers, unless we’re daughterless mothers, or unless we’re mothers with daughters but those daughters don’t have children, or unless we’re not mothers at all…so actually, very few of us are muthas of muthas of muthas, or, it is certainly not a given. Is the cult of the Mutha a matriarchy gone horribly awry, in which only women who birth women who birth women are accepted in society? Or, is it aspirational? My mother had me, and now I hope I have a daughter? Or, is it cyclical? Are we trapped in the cycle of mothers and daughters?
I would argue that in a sense, the idea of mutha of a mutha is a trick; it’s a nonsensical narrative; or, if it makes some sense, that sense really has no meaning. I said to Alice, I’m really excited to write about your show, because I don’t want that text to be the only writing associated with this work. And although it was a jerky and probably unnecessary thing to say, what I mean by it is that the text certainly functions as part of the artwork (or at least in a similar way as the artworks) but it doesn’t describe the artwork. Not that I think anything should or could describe it. But it leads me to look for a narrative within this show, which I would argue I will never find, or is not worth finding. As for the drawing Mutha of a mutha of a mutha of a mutha, it is absolutely stunning, aesthetically “yes” in all the ways her other artworks say “no” or even, “fuck you!” I think that drawing is also a gesture towards patience; that Alice has it, despite the immediacy of her sculptures (ceramics often looks this way but believe me, it is not this way…this show represents a commitment, that’s for damn sure…).
Alice and I talked about feminism in art—if you’re a feminist making art, are you a feminist artist? If you’re making art about feminism, are you a feminist lady? I told Alice these are things I never think about. And I wondered out loud why she should be an artist whose job it is, aside from the impossible task of making art, to figure out what exactly it is, and how it should be properly categorized. I realize now that this show isn’t all about “p” things (penises, pastels, power, pink walls, Pussy Riot), but it is also about the task of making this work, of performing as the artist who makes it, and waiting for the second half of that performance; which is to be judged. I think this is why Alice saved so many of the artworks for herself by not listing them, or heck, even thinking of them as artworks.
There are many aspects of this show that I did not go into at all—the piece in the bathroom; the idea of how the dinner parties will play out; that many of the artworks are vases (they have Anthuriums, a kind of flower, inside them); that the mask-on-penis figure sculptures are based on a sculpture Alice encountered at the Getty; the particularity of the gallery, with its dingy carpet and moldings on the wall, all which appear crusty and somewhat gross and run-down (some may call it “Old Hollywood”); the complexity of the many techniques Alice used to produce this body of work; and other things I am forgetting. Mainly I would say this show inspires us to let our inner freak out; but also, not to suffer fools; that we, as potential Muthas, have the capacity to create and to destroy; we are silly; we are decisive; we are god-like creatures.
Mutha of a mutha of a mutha of a mutha is on view at Abode Gallery in Los Angeles, CA through November 17th, 2017. Gallery hours are by appointment. For more information on Alice Lang, please visit her website: http://www.alicelang.com/.