at Gallery 2, School of the Art
Institute of Chicago, September 10 and 11
The title of one of Katharine Boyd's pieces--Superbia Who's Been Turning Around in Your Driveway?--reminds me of an incident that occurred when I was living in the suburbs with my mother. A neighbor regularly turned her car around in my mother's driveway, smashing my mother's flower beds. We had to plant new ones every time a grouping was destroyed. When I confronted the neighbor, explaining that about $100 worth of plants had been ruined, she asked imperiously where else she might turn her car around if not in my mother's driveway. One answer would have been, "Why, the street, of course!" But her reply made me realize that this woman epitomized something that a confrontation would not remedy and further discussion should not dignify.
This incident, and others (another neighbor demanded to have a sundial in my mother's backyard, saying it really belonged to them because it had been part of their property at the turn of the century--at least 70 years before either of them had bought), helped remind me of the malignant acquisitiveness, pettiness, and stupidity rampant throughout our culture but perhaps underlined in suburbia, where such issues as property lines, landscaping, septic systems, and cars all seem to be fodder for endless discussion, analysis, speculation, and confrontation.
Boyd seems to have an innate understanding of the manifest absurdity of white middle-class suburban life-styles and values. For the last three years, she has relentlessly deconstructed and examined what she herself calls "the underside of the American dream." And she understands the culture so well that the result is often both repellent and fascinating, while her knowledge and manipulation of props and set make her work transcend performance and become a sort of installation art.
In her first full-length solo evening of performance, at Gallery 2, Boyd continues her cultural analysis with Superbia Who's Been Turning Around in Your Driveway? The second work of the evening, Virve Leps Listings, about the general plight of women in the work arena, reviewed here a few months ago, has been restaged with some interesting and effective changes: instead of sitting under a table Boyd sits on a couch, which makes her more visible, but she maintains the same sense of claustrophobia with her posture--legs together, hands clenched. One senses that Boyd's persona in Virve Leps Listing is a simple person without vision who seeks to order her universe with an inventory of objects, whether in her office at a dialysis center or at the scene of a crime.
In both pieces it seems Boyd's performance is still evolving. Though her pedestrian manner is often beautifully integrated with the strategy and set, overall her choreography needs to be more detailed so that every motion, big or little, counts in some way--and no time is wasted. Boyd has a tendency to turn toward the audience with a persona-flattening "deer caught in the headlights" stare; though it's a look that's been embraced by many performance artists here over the last 15 years or so, it should be a technique of last resort for all except fashion models and performers in Robert Palmer videos. Fortunately, Boyd's conscientious attention to the details of costume, set, lighting, and staging make for two wonderful studies.
In Superbia (presented in bits and pieces over the last year and a half), she is a suburban woman ("Superbia") seeking to channel, emulate, or become (it's not quite clear) the young Jacqueline Kennedy. The extravagantly inventive set is comprised of a blue brocade chair with a photo of JFK and Jackie somehow embedded in the back, a dollhouse festooned with Christmas lights and surrounded by a little track with a race car going round in circles, a stack of files ten feet tall, a tea cart, fake "love logs" that crackle and snap like a real fire, and a heart-shaped shag rug with a garden hose stuck through the middle (later in the piece the hose seems to wave in the air of its own accord). Each object--and Boyd herself--is covered with a clear plastic cover. She removes the covers one by one, as she responds to a recording that sounds much like Jackie Kennedy's early-1960s White House tour, after she redecorated. We hear over and over "Hello, isn't it wonderful . . . " and other phrases, such as "This has been the most magic for me," as Boyd waves and gives her audience a glazed smile. She moves her tea cart to stage center, puts her dollhouse (dream house?) on it, and looks through the windows at the audience, repeating such phrases as "Who's been turning around in my driveway?" and "I can't get the rinse off of my hands."
Superbia communicates a sense of urgency, of odd propriety (Boyd wears white gloves throughout), and of helplessness as Boyd lovingly touches each of her sacred objects, repeating sentences sometimes as many as six or seven times until the meaning is lost and all that remains is a sense of futility and absurdity.
No performance artist of late, except perhaps Timothy Buckley, has done such interesting things with props and costume: they capture the mindscape of the persona Boyd's investigating and make that abstract reality quite joyfully tangible, sad, and real.