Contributed by Sharon Butler / Walking into Michelle Vaughan’s show at Theodore:Art, visitors are confronted with a small oak bookcase, desk, and chair in the center of the gallery. The walls are lined with forty framed portraits of notable conservative women, meticulously rendered in faded pastels on gray paper, that seem to be drawn from publicity shots. Each woman, truncated at the neck like a hunting trophy, smiles and stares at the viewer. The bookcase is full of books they have written, and small glass cases on the desk contain election memorabilia.
The installation establishes a library-like atmosphere, and indeed, Vaughan did copious research about her subjects. In one corner, visitors can browse through 4 x 6 inch file cards containing hand-typed facts and information. She has turned some of the more offensive quotes into hand-printed letterpress posters, revealing that these ladies are hardly as benign as their pretty pictures suggest. They are the anti-feminist activists who serve the patriarchy while feminists are still fighting for a level playing field. The older gals preferred the status quo – a world before women were at all liberated, when they couldn’t apply for mortgages, obtain credit cards, or get birth control without their husband’s permission, let alone demand equal pay as their right. They were happy abortion was illegal, but, claiming fiscal conservatism, opposed legislation that would help women pay for medical insurance, childcare, college education, or other family-friendly expenses. Many of the pieces in the show are presentations of fact, but it is in the selected quotes that the viewer discovers Vaughan’s point of view.
The paradox, of course, is that each of the forty women the artist has chosen is ambitious and career-oriented. Contemporary Republicans like Sarah Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, Laura Ingraham, and Sarah Palin are included alongside historical figures like Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant. Despite the generational differences, most have felt unfairly maligned by liberal women, and many younger female conservatives say they feel uncomfortable telling their classmates that they hold conservative values. On campuses, sensing there is no place for them in existing women’s organizations, some have started their own “consciousness raising” groups.
Vaughan does not skewer these women savagely; that’s not her style. Nevertheless, her sly aesthetic choices – the letterpress printing, faded pastels, typewriter text – gently but assuredly convey the hope, originally ignited by the first generation of feminists, that their retrograde ideas about women’s choices will one day be truly behind us. As I watched Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearing on Monday, I reckoned that day had not yet arrived. But the bigger picture of embattled, frustrated, and incoherent conservatism — a platform, according to the polls, with shrinking support — may justify Vaughan’s resolute if quiet optimism.
“Michelle Vaughan: A Movement of Women,” Theodore: Art, 56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY. Through October 24, 2020.