The Radicalization of a ’50s Housewife

Diane Oh/New University

I briskly walked to the University Art Gallery on campus around 7 p.m., hoping that I wasn’t missing anything for the opening reception of Barbara T. Smith’s solo exhibit, “The Radicalization of a ’50s Housewife,” which started at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 5.

I attended the exhibit with little knowledge about Smith and her work, other than knowing that she was enrolled as a master of fine arts student at UC Irvine in 1969 and is now a performance artist. With such an eye-catching title, I immediately knew that this exhibit would be visually striking and thought-provoking; it surely was, but in the most unexpected and unique way.

The opening reception for Smith’s solo exhibit was unlike others I have attended in the past. A title that contains the words “radicalization” and “’50s housewife” is already enough to make me assume that I’ll find common images of feminist-themed art. However, this solo exhibit sets Smith apart in that she takes the aspects of feminist art to a highly personal and spiritual level. Additionally, the exhibit shows how much Smith embodies the very essence of a performance artist and ultimately, being a woman living in modern American society.

As soon as I reached the gallery, the entrance door was wide open, warmly welcoming all. Inside was surprisingly quiet, and for a moment, I believed that I was going to be the only visitor for the evening. I’ve been inside the University Art Gallery for several other opening receptions, which were usually full of noise and all kinds of visitors walking about and socializing. Interestingly, the virtual stillness inside the gallery seemed to turn into a part of Smith’s solo exhibit. The absence of a crowd, which I would normally expect at an opening reception, only emphasized the transcendental yet eerie quality of Smith’s art.

Not far from the entrance of the gallery, the first works I encountered were already poignant and conveyed intimacy and an eerie spirituality. To my left, a few boldly colorful costume pieces designed by Smith were on hangers. Displayed on another wall nearby, “Woman on Ladder – Man Holds Gun” (1981) was a set of eight pairs of calligraphic pictures. Each pair had a female “character” in various poses, and the male “character” was drawn as if he was, well, holding a gun. A few steps away, an adjacent wall showed off over a dozen of Smith’s fiberglass collages with fitting titles such as “Oh Baby!” “Broken Bones,” “Keep Blushing Diptych,” “What did you do in the war?” and “Pray for us,” just to name a few.

As I became entranced by the fiberglass collages, the room’s silence made it very easy to hear the slightly creepy audio recording of what sounded like sacred ritualistic music and the solemn voices of whom I believed belonged to Smith and of the individuals who took part in Smith’s 1981 performance piece, “Birthdaze,” which also happened to be a major — if not the main — component of the entire solo exhibit.

As my attention shifted to the eerie recordings filling up the quiet room, I broke my gaze from the fiberglass collages and turned toward the rest of the objects on display behind me, only to realize that everything else in this portion of the exhibit related to the “Birthdaze” performance piece.

“Birthdaze” was produced in 1980 and then performed by Smith along with her male counterpart, artist Victor Henderson, on her 50th birthday. A three-part performance, it relates to Smith’s personal experiences of being pressured into and then feeling entrapped as being the ideal “’50s housewife” and then freeing — or “radicalizing” — herself from it all by separating from her husband and becoming a performance artist.

As mentioned in the exhibit brochure, Smith describes “Part 1” as, “a humorous metaphor of my (and many women’s) early adulthood. ‘Part 2’ … as an abstract representation of a major drama which shadows the lives of most men and women [and] ‘Part 3’ was a ritual which suggested a different way for men and women to relate to each other.”

Smith’s “Birthdaze” is a personally derived depiction of the relationship between men and women, and it encompasses a three-part journey that “continually interrogates the category of gender.”

All the props and costumes that were adjacent to the documented photographs pertaining to each part of “Birthdaze” were stylistically arranged right before me. The most alluring was a tall, white translucent veil that hung gracefully from the ceiling and concealed the props used for the Tantric ritual in the performance’s final scene. Although I found it pretty amazing that just about everything from the performance surrounded me, I’m sure it doesn’t compare to witnessing the live original performance.

By then, I felt like “Birthdaze” told me everything I needed to know about Smith’s artwork. But I saw that there was more to see and learn about toward the back of the gallery.

Encased in two separate tables, Smith’s personal documents that include postcards, letters and wedding photos are spread out for all to see. Surrounding the two tables are earlier sculptures, collages and recorded interviews from the mid-1960s to early-1970s reiterate and bring more depth into Smith’s artistic themes of spirituality and sexuality. Colorful sketches with titles like “Allen and Barbara Smith” and “Rear View Mirror” that were made before her divorce in 1967 could possibly indicate an agitated Smith wanting out from the cookie-cutter expectations of being a housewife.

I left the exhibit with a sense of awe and admiration, having learned about Smith and the consistently and incredibly strong presence of her art through its personally unique portrayal. “The Radicalization of a ’50s Housewife” is engaging visually, intellectually and emotionally. Anyone can witness the creations of the largely unknown talented artist, Barbara T. Smith, until Dec. 4, 2011.