In the 1970s Judy Chicago celebrated women’s achievements and critiqued patriarchal society by elevating what were thought to be intrinsically female subjects and traditionally feminine media, or craft. Her famous installation, “Dinner Party,” (1974-1979), featured embroidered table-runners and 39 painted ceramic plates emblazoned with various butterfly/flower/vagina images, each an artistic representation of an historical or mythical female figure. Crucial to each table setting, the plates in particular were unpopular. Some critics said, “too graphic,” others said, “too phallic” and still others said, “too essentialist” in other words, why does feminist art have to be about biology?
In the 2010s Jennifer Ling Datchuk is an artist and professor, based San Antonio, Texas, who takes a cue from feminist predecessors, like Chicago. Datchuk received her MFA in Artisanry from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She recently completed a residency at the European Ceramic Work Center in Oisterwijk, Netherlands, and in addition to other accolades, received the Emerging Voices Award from the American Craft Council.
Datchuk’s solo exhibition at Women & Their Work, “Flowers Before Truth,” contains well-worn feminist imagery and girly clichés, never veering far from a clearly defined gender lane.
The show’s centerpiece is actually two artworks. “Babe Cave” (2019) is a ten-foot tall enclosure of hanging blue fake hair, ornamented with round porcelain beads and secured with cords and white cheerleader pompoms. Visitors are encouraged to enter the space where plastic hair clips pull back the floating curtain.
Inside sits a low porcelain table along with four stools made in Jingdezhen, China (porcelain’s birthplace nearly 2000 years ago). Blue and white pattern transfers depicting five uteruses, two “Venus of Willendorfs”, three peach halves and ample floral designs, decorate the table top. Its border reads — in all caps and between hearts shapes — “There will be pain. Truth Before Flowers. Let Go of Preciousness.” Although difficult to see without squatting, the stools feature painted knuckle tattoos lined up to read “EQUA-LITY.”
The interior table and seating is called “How I came to my table” (2019). Encompassed by its “Babe Cave,” is it an homage to Chicago and also a subversive take on today’s “man cave?” How does it “let go” of preciousness?
Or does it?
There are a number of topics tangled up in the politics of craft on which Datuck alights. During the last few decades, ceramics have forged major headway in galleries as part of an overall craft-as-arts movement. Artists have changed audience perceptions of the media as technical, functional, decorative, and dainty. Many moved away from the traditional craft forms associated with domesticity — the blanket, the cup, the saucer, and the table.
However, Datchuk still seems drawn to them, making a common connection between her use of porcelain, inspired by teacups and dinner-ware, to the idea that, as she writes in an artist statement, “As little girls we are taught to be seen and not heard, perpetuating our roles as empty vessels for the desire and fulfillment of men.”
In addition to feminist art and craft, Datchuk directs us towards non-Western materials and aesthetics. The daughter of a Chinese immigrant mother and an Ohio-born father of Russian and Irish descent, Datchuk says “the family histories of conflict she has inherited are a perpetual source of her work,” and also that she “captures this conflict by exploring the emotive power of domestic objects and rituals that fix, organize, soothe, and beautify our lives.”
Objects surrounding the “Babe Cave” consist only of two installed clusters of smallish artworks; one photograph and a multipart installation work. The pair of grouped arrangements each center around a singular textile, called “Truth Flags.” One is a textile produced by TextielLab in Tilburg, Netherlands, using digital technology. In large print it reads “Fidelity and Truth is the Foundation of Justice.” On the opposite wall is a machine-made embroidery on a vintage crib blanket with fainter words staggered across it reading “paint not crimes in enchanting colours.” Both of the texts appear to derive from 19th-century samplers by a young embroiderer named Emily Beal. Around the flags are other smallish-in-scale sculptures along with found porcelain plates onto which smiley faces are decaled.
Next to the crib blanket, “Golden Girls,” is intriguing. A foot-tall white porcelain Laughing Buddha sculpture adorned with five golden-haired happy children represents good luck and family-making. Next to the figure is a sculpture titled “Lucky,” a beaded purse filled with porcelain bamboo stalks. Both the plant, Dracaena sanderiana, and the Laughing Buddha are thought to bring prosperity and good fortune in Chinese culture.
Datchuk’s recognition of material culture, customs and symbols, is interspersed with issues of identity and race. “G.O.A.T. Girls” (2019) reminded me of Byron Kim’s project, “Synechdoche” (1991-), part of which is on view at the nearby Blanton Museum of Art. Instead of matching volunteer-sitters’ skin color and replicating them on painted panels, as Kim did, Datchuk highlights Laguna Clay Company’s fine porcelain slip colors in her work. The shades ordinarily used to paint doll skin — with names like “NS 127-Asian,” “NS 128-Native American,” “NS-129- mocha,” “NS 123- warm brown” and “NS-132 African American” — now cover uniformly-sized prize ribbons. The award ribbons are thus distinguished by skin color, some revealing more than one shade, and all effectively changing the flawless white porcelain to reflect diversity.
As a biracial artist, Datchuk says, “My work has always dealt with identity, with the sense of being in-between, an imposter, neither fully Chinese nor Caucasian. I have learned to live with the constant question about my appearance.”
In her artist statement, Datchuk disparages princess narratives that teach young girls that “women are to be captured, imprisoned, and poisoned, and only the love and rescue of a prince can release us from our suffering.” While they could be part of a critique, infantilizing titles like “Babe Cave” and “Golden Girls” along with hand-scrolled and stamped smiley faces in abundance, are nevertheless confusing when met with the artist’s declaration, “I am frustrated that we have not overcome more as women.”
Putting those complications aside, Datchuk writes, “Through pain and perfection, these objects amplify voices, reconstruct our identities and celebrate our truths.”
But to whose truth does “Flowers Before Truth” collectively relate?
The exhibition checklist, which is divided into two columns, “Objects of Girlhood” and “Objects of Womanhood,” sits awfully comfortably within Women & Their Work’s wheelhouse. Let’s hope artists like Datchuk continue to push the boundaries of craft even further, unlocking the binary dialogue and disrupting the status quo a bit more.
“Jennifer Ling Datchuk: Truth Before Flowers” in on view at Women & Their Work through July 25, 2019.