Things were going swimmingly in the Garden of Eden before a sinister serpent offered Eve, Earth’s first woman, an apple. Though such a partaking was expressly off limits, Eve simply couldn’t resist the seduction of the deliciously bright and crisp fruit. Letting her selfish desires overtake her, Eve’s consumption of this forbidden fruit led to the downfall of all mankind.
Since its inception, this moral parable’s aim has been to instruct us on keeping our lusts and desires in check. Still, this indiscretion is singularly focused on a woman, the actions and body upon which Western society has often projected its fears and insecurities. The apple too, has become an amorphous icon of this event, signaling contradictory notions of lust, health, and vitality. Artist Amy Jorgensen maintains a longstanding fascination with apples, which appear in many of her works. Whether she’s bobbing for them, taking a bite of a bright red one, or demolishing one with a gun, for Jorgensen the apple is decidedly corporeal. Now, in her exhibition Labor of Love, currently on view at Nox Contemporary, Jorgensen once again explores the apple’s iconic significance. The show comprises three sections — two sets of dinner napkins and a series of photographic prints from her ongoing series “The Body Archive” — crafts a powerful commentary on the beauty, horror, and isolation of female identity, reminding us that “the self” is discursive and ephemeral.
Women long have been defined by their link to the domestic sphere, with the preparation and serving of food at the core of traditional notions of femininity and motherhood. Jorgensen’s art evidences her fascination with the politics of domesticity, which is rendered obvious by her use of hand-stitched linens. In her first grouping of works, she presents 13 large dinner napkins, stained by apples. In a defiant act, Jorgensen smashed apples with a hammer onto the napkins’ surfaces and let the residue rot in the sun for days. The result is unsettling. The stains appear ambiguous in origin and can easily be mistaken for vomit or urine. Their putrid color marks a strong contrast to the pristine and delicate stitched napkins they have marred, and evoke the rigors and toils of “women’s work.” Jorgensen’s use of 13 napkins references Jesus and his 12 disciples, the 13 men present at the Last Supper. For Jorgensen, the napkins are material items that signify the women’s labor which occurs behind the scenes. “When you look at the image of the Last Supper, there are 13 men around the table and I wanted to shift the focus to women’s work. What’s happening behind that image; who is making the meal?” she asks.
Indeed, Jorgensen’s act of marking the napkin’s surface with rotted apples is akin to smashing the patriarchy, which she describes as “realized through mark-making and the residual staining and flesh of the fruit, the linen cloth alludes to the spiritual and corporeal body.” These dinner-table accouterments contrast a delicate, ethereal quality with the wanton stains marking their surface. Indeed napkins and handkerchiefs are commonly used to conceal and remove fluids, rather than expose them. The use of pristine white to achieve such a purpose alludes to longstanding societal expectation of ideal womanhood as pure, unmarked, and virginal.
The ceremonial aspect of Jorgensen’s napkins also references important works within the feminist canon. For one, Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” the definitive symbol of First Wave Feminism’s obsession with “core imagery.” For later generations of feminist artists, Chicago’s triangular dinner setting for 39 “guests of honor” has come to represent the constrictive visual language of feminist bodily symbolism: the piece has long been criticized for its reductionism, namely in the simplification of historical female heroines to their bodily counterparts. It’s clear that for the generation of women who followed, the characterization of the feminine would be more discursive. Artists such as Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, and Adrian Piper grappled with the validity of crafting fluid definitions to begin with, choosing instead to analyze the external forces that shape female experience, rather than attempting to capture any notions of innate female essentialism. Here, Jorgensen’s practice is most closely akin to Kelly’s work. The two share a common desire to suggest rather than instruct, using the visual and the conceptual to evoke a sense of corporeal perception, while leaving open room for interpretation. Jorgensen, like Kelly, evidences in a gestalt way the various materials and substances of womanhood.
In a series of smaller napkins called the “Blood of Women,” Jorgensen uses her own blood and red wine to mark the surface of each geometric square. These squares are much smaller than the apple-stained napkins, evoking a tighter grid when viewed as a whole. In this series of geometric pairings of hemstitched linens, stained centers radiate outward from the middle, sometimes spilling over the carefully stitched frames. For Jorgensen, blood is a multifaceted symbol, evoking simultaneously the act of menstruation, violence, and labor (the proverbial blood, sweat and tears).
The final component of the exhibition is a series of brightly colored photographic prints from the ongoing series “The Body Archive.” For this series, Jorgensen creates an experimental process in which a light sensitive emulsion is placed underneath her clothing. When exposed to light and heat, the camera-less emulsion captures the abstract marks compiled from her actions and movements throughout the day. After removing the emulsion from her skin, Jorgensen processes the images on 4” x 5” slide film, followed by a high-resolution drum scan. The result is an exquisitely rendered, colorful abstraction. Even lacking the context of the images’ creation, viewers are likely to be captivated by the forms freckled on their surface. Viewing the mysterious gradations in the texture of these photographs, one can read a corporeal interpretation without knowing that they do in fact record and detect bodily activity.
“What is interesting about the ‘Body Archive’ is that it eliminates perspective, allowing the body to author its own point of view,” Jorgenson says. “When you’re looking through a camera, you’re one layer removed from experience, so what I like about this process is that it relinquishes my control and hands it over to my chosen medium and my body.” Here, the body rather than the mind becomes an author by eliminating and inverting the authorial gaze. Indeed, Jorgensen considers each part of the exhibition as both tactile artworks in their own right but also evidences or documentation of a past performance. One can readily detect the enigmatic power imbued in this process, which Jorgensen describes as “beautiful and grotesque at the same time.” In Labor of Love, Jorgensen succeeds in crafting a discursive, complex and conceptually fluid exhibition, one that artfully explores the act of women using their own space to destroy a patriarchal structure and using art as a visualize resistance to that system.
“Amy Jorgensen: Labor of Love” with “Justin Watson [human],” Nox Contemporary, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 10. Reception Oct. 20 6-9 p.m.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.