Louise Bourgeois

New York

Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, installation view (2011): Images courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, installation view (2011): Images courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

By Charlene Lau

Louise Bourgeois
Cheim & Read
May 12 - June 25, 2011

An ominous sentiment blankets the gallery where fabric “drawings” created during the last eight years of Louise Bourgeois’s life comprises the exhibition, The Fabric Works. Fashioned from Bourgeois’ own collection of clothing and textiles, the works juxtapose the degenerative qualities of time and aging with youthful jouissance.

Named after Balzac’s 1833 novel of the same title, “Eugénie Grandet” is a series of sixteen small works on cloth featuring all the things of a haberdasher: rhinestones, silk flowers, buttons, pins. These serve as portraits of the heroine, Eugénie, and offer a glimpse into her oppression – a similar fate Bourgeois would have faced had she not escaped her circumstances as a young woman in France. Despite the white cube room, I feel suffocated – maybe it was the humidity of the city – as if the space is stuffed with an insurmountable quantity of these trimmings, like a grandmother’s sewing basket. The works are similar to gimmicky tchotchkes that simultaneously bring immutable memories trapped in a distant past. One of the works in the series features rhinestones laid out like numbers on a clock, functioning like a suspended reminder of one’s mortality. Yet it is not only the purely ornamental materials that put me at unease; the implied performance of this feminine pastime, of making pretty things while sequestered in the private sphere of the home, is also discomforting.

Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, installation view (2011)Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, installation view (2011)The larger gallery space feels like space for exhalation in comparison to the room that houses “Eugénie Grandet”. Several untitled two-dimensional fabric works experiment with hypnotic patterns that recall spirals, orifices or beach umbrellas, while others resemble coordinated designer fabric swatches. “The Waiting Hours” (2007) is a focused suite of twelve works that suggest a seascape changing as the day turns into night. Light and bright blue textiles call to mind a beachy, lightheartedness, but as the works progress, the light disappears. It is depressing, like one’s vision is slowly diminished to small circle of light. One more blink would bring darkness as blindness or death, but Bourgeois does not go there.

The installation “Untitled” (2010) is a commanding presence in a room at the back of the gallery. A large wood and glass vitrine houses a torso without appendages, prostrate on a stainless steel examination-like table. The torso, replete with a pink fabric-lined anus, is peppered with eight berets that are stuffed to mimic breasts. A pendulous dark rubber form and blue spools of thread hang from an erect tree-type form. The display is both surgical and weirdly organic. What does it mean? Like a summation of Bourgeois’s practice, this work conveys a real sense of finality and investigates the themes that have permeated decades of her work: the corpus, female identity, masculine power structures, personal psychology, memory and the past. This is the stuff of Bourgeois.

Charlene K. LauCharlene K. Lau is a Toronto-based writer whose reviews have been published in Akimblog, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Fashion Theory and PUBLIC. She is a doctoral student in Art History and Visual Culture at York University.