The old custom of a young girl and her mother filling a hope chest with hand-embroidered linens and clothing and domestic niceties to prepare for her marriage seems to have gone out of vogue. It isn’t even taken for granted now that a woman will marry, let alone spend her adult life pressing linens and thinking of her own daughter’s dowry. When the tradition was still alive, what kind of return did women feel they received on their investment? What compelled them to encourage their daughters down the same path? For her latest exhibition “Trousseau,” Rebekah Johnson interviewed three generations of women in her life about marriage. She asks: “What else was folded up in the cedar chest with the linen? What replaces these items as time goes on?”
From these handwritten interviews, Johnson selected quintessential phrases and cut them into vellum. Superimposing layer upon layer, the thoughts overlap and are partially obfuscated. The penmanship is the only hint regarding to whom the thoughts belong. I found this device to be full of potential. The light travels though the cut-out words like a sound wave, with the brighter spots looking like clamoring voices. The light boxes are an elegant representation of an inter-generational gathering in which matriarchs trade reflections on childbirth and the turn of mutual friends’ lives, while the younger women participate precociously, soaking up wisdom and listening for inevitable references to sex.
This potential, however, was not fully realized. The writing is blown up so large that the space within each chest only allowed for one or two sets of superimpositions. I found myself expecting and wanting a greater amount of visual complexity. For example, Rachel Hellner’s piece “Married in Red” addresses a related convention and cliché though handwriting as well. Her text builds up and overlaps on the page like a cognitive feedback loop, and the viewer feels the over-determining power of matriarchal pressure. Johnson decorated the texts with stenciled borders of folksy origin, but they seemed more to take up space than truly contribute to the meaning of the pieces. They are also so simple and easily identifiable that rather than opening the piece further by connecting it to the generative and compellingly intricate decorative arts, (a major part of the “feminine through-line” Johnson is exploring) they close each piece with the quick finality of stereotype.
The chests themselves were a motley collection from Island thrift stores, ranging narrowly in style from plain milled-cedar from the 1950s to cedar with horrid veneers and doweling from the ‘70s, in the fashion of ‘built-in’ TV sets. Johnson put a considerable amount of research into the provenance of the chests, and the backgrounds of their makers. It is interesting to contemplate their mass production, especially when they provide a connection to an era of hand-made clothing and dowries. I disagree, however, with the method of presenting the research. Printed onto 8 1/2x11” cartridge paper and taped to the inside lid of each chest, the material detracted visually from the elegance of the light boxes, and besides, was too difficult to read, being so long and so low.
This issue relates to the other main component of the show: a short story by Anton Chekov transcribed by hand and hung on cedar shakes around the gallery. The story is one of a mother and daughter obsessively preparing a trousseau, and contributes greatly to Johnson’s exploration of the tradition, but one must read the story in its entirety and in sequence to benefit at all from it. Furthermore, the writing is on vellum, which is glued to the cedar shakes. The vellum does not relate to the cedar except that it is also used in the light boxes, and the writing is done in brown felt pen. I understand a lot of craftsmanship went into the production of the cedar shingles, so it is a shame they are covered up and serve so passively, at best decoratively.
Reading the Chekov, it became clear that the use of cedar and mothballs to slow time’s inevitable decay was an important motif to Johnson’s work. I would have liked to encounter these smells in the exhibit. I also found myself wondering about how one protects against changes in style over the years—a chest stuffed with 20-year old clothing might be even less useful to a new bride than a chest of moth-eaten scraps. Perhaps this is where Johnson’s inclusion of the ugly 70s era hope chests fits in: not even the best intentions can prevent fashion from changing.
Johnson’s stated intent was to explore individual and societal changes in emotion around and attitudes towards marriage, to track “the history of hope.” Her exhibition engenders a meditation on the emphasis put on marriage, the sheer investment in the idea, and the pleasantries and follies of older generations guiding the hopes of the younger. The difficulty is in the presentation of some of the more complicating ideas such as the Chekov, which introduces humor and pathos, and the research on the chests, which give a sense of the larger economic picture of making and keeping a trousseau. A more atmospheric and less didactic approach might create more space for contemplation. The evocative power of scent would be well-paired with her use of light.
Stepping back to judge the overall success of the show, I am left wondering. Was the overall aesthetic intent of the show for it to be an installation or a collection of works? If an installation, the atmospheric potentials of light and scents were missed; if a collection, the pieces needed further distillation or development. The subject is indeed complex and well worth investigating, and Johnson has succeeding in starting the conversation, but the show reads like a presentation of reflections that might be woven together and teased apart; it appears as a beginning of an idea rather than a resolution of one.