Sun. Sep 25th, 2022

In 1969, Nancy Buchanan (b. 1946), Marcia Hafif (1929–2018), and Barbara T. Smith (b. 1931), met as students in the inaugural class of the University of California, Irvine’s MFA studio art program. The three artists, all divorced mothers, quickly found kinship in their mutual penchant for experimental genres and feminist issues. After graduating in 1971, Smith and Buchanan became involved with the Southern California feminist art movement, while Hafif moved to New York to pursue her career as an abstract painter. Despite their diverging paths, the trio remained lifelong friends. Curated by Michael Ned Holte, “how we are in time and space” spotlights their intersections via an eclectic mix of videos, paintings, drawings, performance documents, and archival materials. 

To peruse this exhibition is to meander through a labyrinth of personal and artistic details that, given time, lead to all manner of discovery. Works are grouped into three thematic sections—“bodies/embodiment,” “communication,” and “dwelling”—that merge seamlessly into one another. From school days to recent years, each artist has pushed the boundaries of traditional media while maintaining a commitment to mining the quotidian fabric of her lived experience and surroundings, gathering threads of insight to weave into art.

Included in the show are several dual collaborations; but only one, a mail-art project initiated by Buchanan, directly involved all three. Yet the presentation’s most intriguing revelations are the serendipitous visual and conceptual affinities educed among works they created as individuals. For instance, the wry humor and fanciful narrative of Buchanan’s WOLFWOMAN, 1976—a magazine spread in which the artist imagines herself as the titular creature, preying on male artists when she menstruates—finds its counterpart in Smith’s wall installation, The Conspiracy, 1972/2022, featuring a sensationalistic array of semifictional character sketches, such as “Van Man: A hunted criminal,” based on snapshots of her assistants and cohorts.

Three pieces take on those quintessential Californian themes: banality and the ocean. Installed side by side at the exhibition’s terminus, they make a lasting impression. These are Buchanan’s kitschy landscape print, After California: William Wendt, 1999–2017, depicting dismal contemporary beachfront condominiums; Smith’s introspective The Westside, A Blessed Time, 2011–15, a photomontage that splices together urban scenes, seascapes, and domestic interiors; and Hafif’s contemplative hour-long video Beach Rocks, Winter, 1999, which features an all-star cast of seaside stones. Taken individually, these works might not have seemed so significant; but in unison, they resonate powerfully.

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