Downtown in New York’s once gritty (but still grubby) Lower East Side, champagne royalty Richard Taittinger has opened a five-thousand-square-foot gallery space in a former music hall. While some of the miniature neighbouring gallery spaces resemble neat broom closets, Taittinger’s spot boasts twenty-foot ceilings and can accommodate monumental artworks.
Where once-upon-a-time bawdy vaudeville acts with can-can girls kicked, Johannesburg-based Frances Goodman – the only female artist on the gallery’s line-up – installed her first major U.S. show, ‘Rapaciously Yours,’ just days before The Armory Show opened far further uptown, on the West Side.
By reworking materials that typically signify a glossy version of her gender, for this exhibition Goodman works mostly with acrylic (false) nails as her medium and raids the beauty parlor for materials. The pair of giant ‘stiletto’ nail-shaped warrior shields remind me of Ndebele paintwork patterns and would fit perfectly in Nicki Minaj’s crib. The boys don’t escape her one-two punch either as she works over stereotypical masculine materials: car hoods and back seats embellished with gag-worthy misogynistic comments we’ve all heard too often and in too many languages.
All alone in the back room, her wedding installation The Dream (an edition of two) unfolds. The frothy, soft sculptural piece – comprising worn wedding dresses, beadwork, hand embroidery and sound installation – hangs from floor to ceiling: a pile of ruined expectations, haunted by the ghosts of modern-day Miss Havishams. The wedding gowns mushroom into a cloud of organza, eggshell whites and pale pinks, heavy with longing and broken dreams.
Goodman explains: “During the course of our lives we are fed a lot of notions about love and marriage. Phrases like ‘dream man,’ ‘dream wedding,’ ‘dream dress’ and ‘dream day’ are channeled towards women in particular. So marriage and weddings are ‘The Dream’ we are taught to aspire to. I also wanted the installation itself to have a dreamlike quality: a haziness, a softness, a space of suspended belief and reality.”
The sound installation features recognisably South African accents – all women’s voices – speaking openly, echoing global sentiments and universal commentary on the state of the modern bride. The voices speak about how today’s cookie-cutter mythology of marriage eerily echoes what might have been said in the 1950s, at the height of the American Dream and before ‘Sex and the Single Girl,’ which is where the rest of the artist’s narrative takes off.
While it’s hardly news that most media is viewed through the male perspective and written by men, nailing the ‘female gaze’ is a lot more complex. We battle visual debris and mixed messages daily via social media. A quick scan of my feed: South African artist Lady $kollie has Instagrammed her green ‘pro nails’ grabbing Jalapeño hot sauce (referencing Beyoncé’s Formation lyrics) and is, amusingly, also ‘honouring’ ex-stripper Blac Chyna for her engagement to a Kardashian. Elsewhere I read that Beyoncé is a feminist – because she kicks ass in short shorts – but I thought she told “Single Ladies (to) (Put A Ring On It)”?
For Goodman, this confusion is her playground. She even gets to stick her tongue out at Miley Cyrus, who trotted past the gallery and snapped, then Instagrammed, a gigantic tongue made from false nails titled Lick It., Cyrus’ post racked up more than two hundred and fifty thousand ‘likes.’ As Goodman told me over bagels for breakfast in New York recently, “What I like about the story is that when I was thinking about the tongue piece (and getting inspiration for it) I referred to [Cyrus’] music videos and her iconic tongue pictures, so I guess she was looking at me looking at her.”
Adding to the cartoonish appeal, Goodman even looks like Archie’s Veronica (from the Archie Comics book series), but in her case women are her best friends and she’s certainly not competing for Archie’s attention. She’s too busy in her studio and too busy being strategic – how else does one get a New York exhibition?
“After doing a number of residencies in the New York area I built up a network of people who are supportive and appreciative of my work. While upstate at Art Omi I met a curator who really loved The Dream and thought it should be exhibited in New York. She introduced me to the Richard Taittinger Gallery.”
As for its future, so far The Dream is fulfilling its promise of ‘happily ever after.’ The second edition was purchased by the 21st Century Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and the first will soon travel to Angola as part of the Sindika Dokolo Foundation.
Petra Mason is a cultural historian based in New York and Miami.
‘Rapaciously Yours’ by Frances Goodman ran from 26 February – 16 April 2016 at Richard Taittinger Gallery, New York.