No Rest for the Women
Visual Art Exhibit
Eppley Gallery, Eppley Auditorium
Sioux City, Iowa
Through September 17, 2021
I was already familiar with the paintings in Klaire Lockheart’s “Feminine Attempts” series, which constitutes half of the two-artist exhibit now on display in Eppley Gallery on the campus of Morningside University. I had seen them at the Sioux City Art Center and I had browsed through Lockheart’s website, where images of the work are posted. In each of those encounters I was looking at the paintings as paintings, individually. But now that I see them together again in “No Rest for the Women,” a few (more) things stand out to me.
Lockheart herself has talked about the balance (or imbalance) in her paintings of the subjects’ imposed domesticity and assertive independence. To quote from the exhibit literature, the paintings provide “the realistic view of women at home carrying the other aspects of their lives and personalities with them as they address women’s labor. Her real-life women carry babies and wear leather while facing down the viewer directly.” This can be seen in all of the “Feminine Attempts” paintings featured in “No Rest for the Women,” but during my most recent experience with them, one painting stood out most of all.
Let’s consider Hallie Brings Home the Bacon. The exhibit literature points out that the women “[face] down the viewer directly.” In most cases this is true. The paintings, which range from 72 inches to 84 inches tall, are hung with their bottom edges at least two feet above the floor. This makes the women even more imposing figures than they are already. And yes, they do seem to face down the viewer; many of their gazes look down at us, the viewers, the voyeurs. But not Hallie. Hallie is one of the few—maybe the only—painting featured on an 84-inch canvas. It is the largest, therefore the tallest, and by virtue of these physical facts, that much more imposing than the others. But Hallie herself—the subject not the painting—seems above the viewer in another way. Her gaze is not trained down at us, but looking straight ahead, if not slightly above. She doesn’t have to “face down the viewer” because the viewer—and here you might want to insert the notion of the male gaze—remains inconsequential to her. It is one thing for the viewer to be looked at dismissively; it’s quite another for the viewer to be dismissed entirely.
But it’s not just her canvas’s size or her gaze that stands out. I think there’s something even more gendered, something even more sexual in this painting, than is apparent in the others in the series. In all the “Feminine Attempts” pieces, a woman is featured doing housework of one kind or another. In many paintings they are cleaning—or holding some kind of cleaning instrument. Hallie is making bacon. Okay. So what?
What is bacon like when you put it in the pan? It’s greasy and limp. It’s flaccid. And what is it like when it’s done cooking? It’s hard and it’s straight. (Are you getting the phallic connection here?) Hallie, in her painting, looks to be about to flip a piece of limp bacon. But you don’t flip limp bacon, right? You wait until it’s partly cooked (and partly hard) on one side, and then you flip. But I think it’s important for us to see the bacon—which we couldn’t see if it weren’t on the spatula—for the painting to work its power over us. And what is that power? It seems—to me, anyway—to be saying, especially to a male observer, You think you have this power, but you don’t. To demonstrate that, I will not look [down] at you, and I will hold this pathetic and flaccid thing in my hand.
Is that a little bit too much of an over-read? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Consider what else we can see in the kitchen. Consider the knives, a classic phallic symbol, hanging over Hallie’s right shoulder. These are her knives, her symbols of power—that is, if you accept the phallic as a symbol of power. And there are a lot of them. Well, of course she has knives, you might say; she’s working in a kitchen. But take a look at Haven Takes after Her Mom. This painting seems to be set in the same kitchen, but no knives are visible—or maybe just part of one, the smallest one, from the set in Hallie’s painting. An artist chooses what she wants to display. The bacon could have remained in the pan, out of sight, but it didn’t. It could have been crisped and hard, but it isn’t. Instead of knives in the background, Lockheart could have included flowers. She didn’t.
In a gallery full of impressive paintings, Hallie Brings Home the Bacon remains the most impressive to me. Many of the things I noticed this go-round I wouldn’t have noticed without the context of the other paintings. The details of her gaze would never have occurred to me if I could not have compared them to the other paintings. The same is true of the kind of domestic work she was doing—cooking instead of cleaning. Although you may already be familiar with a work, don’t ever count it out. You never know what it—or its surroundings—may be ready to say to you.
Brendan Todt teaches creative writing at Morningside University and coaches his sons’ soccer team.