At the end of Artspace’s gallery a neon sign flashed “Open.” It led to a small black hallway, where there was a darkened window looking into a booth, a phone, and a slot in the wall. The instructions were straightforward: Put a dollar in the slot, the light in the booth would come on, and artist Monique Atherton would perform for you, for a minute.
Want another minute? Put in another dollar.
Just like in a peep show. Minus the stripping.
“I think there are a lot of similarities between sex work and art,” Atherton explained in an accompanying video to Untitled (Peep Show), which had its final performance on Friday at Artspace. “The artist pours their soul out, and the audience kind of wants that, and they barely have to give anything in return.”
Or as Atherton herself told me when I was in the booth: “I like awkward things.”
The boldness of the piece lay in making the connection painfully explicit — even though the performance itself was conversation, and even though Atherton herself turned out to be a real conversationalist.
The man in line in front of me used his minute well. “What gave you this idea?” he asked Atherton. “It’s a great idea.” I couldn’t hear Atherton’s response. “Are you scared of people judging you?” he asked. And toward the end: “This minute seems to be shorter than a minute.” He put in another dollar and talked more. “Now I’m broke and I’ve spent all my money,” he said with a laugh, and left the booth. It was my turn.
I put in my dollar and the light on the other side of the booth came on. It was dark on my side, so she couldn’t see me. Thanks to that lighting situation, I could see myself in the glass’s reflection. My face was almost superimposed on top of hers, a composite image of me watching her talking, smiling, staring in my general direction. It was definitely kind of awkward.
I told Atherton I was a reporter and asked her what her most awkward encounter had been so far. “There was one guy who wanted to talk about boobs, though I guess that comes with the territory,” she said. “I guess it’s most awkward when you know the person because, you know, it’s a peep show.”
I was really glad to be there as a reporter. It gave me a quick, explainable reason to be there. It was my job to ask questions. It was her job, her art, to answer them. But I was becoming hyper-aware of the transaction involved. Journalists aren’t supposed to pay for interviews. Men aren’t supposed to pay for sex. I found myself wondering if I would have been so forward with my questions if I hadn’t been on assignment. The first minute flew by and I put in another dollar.
Then she started asking me questions. Had I ever been to a peep show? I told her I hadn’t, “for all of the obvious reasons.” That sounded suddenly defensive, even though it was the truth, and I felt the need to explain. There were places in town where I grew up that had peep shows, but they were super-sketchy, I explained. It wasn’t my scene, or something. I was making it worse. I put in another dollar.
I asked if she could see me and she said she couldn’t, which made it a little weird. I’m sure plenty of people have had this idea before me, but that was when it occurred to me that a peep show and a confession booth in a Catholic church have something in common that way. She smiled.
“You can tell me anything,” she said.
She was a lot of fun to talk to and I kind of wanted to keep talking. But I was also out of dollar bills. And when I walked out of the booth, I was surprised to feel a little relieved. She was the one under the lights, trapped behind the glass. But I realized I’d been on the spot, too, a participant in a transaction and a situation I had genuinely mixed feelings about. I walked away thinking of the connections between art and sex work, about power dynamics and exploitation, about what the exchange of currency does to the exchange of ideas, and what can happen if a piece of art then takes the next step to make it part of the art. Atherton’s playfully serious idea made Untitled (Peep Show) sharply political. Which, as it turned out, was a perfect warmup for her next exhibit — as part of “In Grace We Trust.”
Atherton’s face — painted on a car hood — greeted visitors to “In Grace We Trust” on Sunday as soon as they entered the John Slade Ely House, now renamed the Ely Center for Contemporary Art. Yet the expression on her face was complicated, interrogating, as much challenge as welcome. That attitude, playful, intriguing, and a bit aggressive, appeared throughout the exhibit, an overtly political celebration of Women’s History Month and a nod to Grace T. Ely, who founded the Ely House as a center for art in New Haven.
The show runs through Apr. 9.
On Sunday, the focal point of attention on the building’s first floor was Allison Hornak’s Bottle Rack (Found on the Track by the Knoll), a performance piece centered on a section of tree held up by metal struts in the center of the room. Hornak, stripped down to her underwear, first drove a nail into the tree. She then approached someone in the crowd and whispered in his ear. She gave him a pair of sharp scissors, knelt down in front of him, and offered a length of her hair to cut. The cutter obliged. Hornak then walked with the hair to the tree, knelt down and dipped the hair in black paint, and draped the hair over the nail. She picked up her hammer and another nail. As she repeated this cycle throughout the day, the tree grew metal branches, the hair hanging from them like black moss. Over time, some of the paint got on her clothes. And her hair got more and more ragged.
The overall effect was eerie; watching (to say nothing of taking photographs) felt intrusive. It felt exploitative, objectifying, and at the same time, Hornak was in charge, making her statement, building her piece from her own body, bit by bit. She was giving up so much, but also taking control.
Without referring to national politics explicitly, Hornak’s piece was made all the more vibrant by the many, many pieces around her that did.
Rashmi’s The Writing on the Wall was a collage of screen shots of Twitter feeds from news outlets that together formed an expression of chaotic outrage. The artist explained that this piece was the first of a two-part piece, the second of which would be on display in the upcoming Nasty Women exhibit at the Institute Library.
Justyna Dabrowski’s Coretta made a new kind of iconography by combining the signature baseball caps from Trump’s political campaign, a quote from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement about why he silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren as she was reading a letter from Coretta Scott King on the floor of Congress, and the likeness of King herself.
With the statement printed in bold letters on the bedspread — “we cannot rest our heads aside a frustrated man without fearing our bodies may become their battleground” — Dee Roulx’s The Bedroom Revolution echoed Barbara Kruger’s landmark print Your Body Is a Battleground, which Kruger had made for the Women’s March on Washington in 1989 in response to anti-abortion laws passed at that time. Roulx’s 2017 take on the theme showed both how gender roles and sexual politics have changed a lot since 1989, and how so many aspects of the old fight remain.
Even pieces that might not have seemed as obviously political in other contexts became more so. Elizabeth White’s Stickershock + Awe — a clever photograph of a handful of burdocks shaped and fitted with a handle to resemble a hand grenade — only seemed whimsical for a split second, before a potent statement about messing with nature (and perhaps ignoring climate change) emerged. And in Sheri Schwartz’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Chaperon, it became easy to read into the neutral expression on the subject’s face, to imagine tension in the jawline, determination in the set of the lips, until the young man emerged as someone quietly insisting on his humanity and equality. Schwartz’s aesthetic choices gave him that. It remains to be seen whether society will follow suit.