New York, New York – 2 projects, 2 artists, 2 stories
Memorial to a Marriage
by Patricia Cronin
A few years ago Grand Arts, the Kansas City–based nonprofit art projects institution, invited me to make a dream sculpture project. I had just finished a series of bronze horses, and I started looking around New York City at all the public equestrian monuments. In these nineteenth-century war memorials, the men were specific, the horses were particular, but, alas, the women were all allegorical. I loved these sculptures but found them lacking. I tried to find images of women in public that were particular. In Manhattan the only sculptures of specific women I could find were a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, a bust of Golda Meir, Joan of Arc (on a horse), and then, Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose! That was it. Three real women in all of Manhattan and then two storybook characters.
I discovered that the same artists who made the massive equestrian war memorials had also made art for cemeteries, the original American venue for sculpture. For example, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ renowned monument Adams Memorial (1886–1891), commissioned by Henry Adams in honor of his wife Marian Hooper Adams, is in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and his Sherman Monument (1903) is at 59th Street and 5th Avenue at Central Park in New York City. Soon I was researching cemeteries and the “garden” or “rural” cemetery movement, as it was known, where men, women, and children are specifically remembered.
In addition to correcting the glaring omission of women from public commemoration, I decided to address a federal failure, the prohibition of gay marriage in the United States. Since the federal government won’t accept any individual states’ civil union or marriage certificates for same-sex couples, my partner and I had to have lawyers draw up legal documents (wills, health care proxies, power of attorney, etc.) in an attempt to simulate some of the legal protections of hetero-sexual marriage. These documents are depressing because their only usefulness is if one of us becomes incapacitated or dies. It’s not about our life together; it’s about the end of it. Since I am only officially afforded death, I decided to make an elegant and dignified monument to our relationship. I chose a nationalist form, nineteenth-century American neoclassical sculpture, to address what I consider the federal failure to give gay Americans the basic human right of legal marriage.
With the Grand Arts grant, I made Memorial to a Marriage, a larger-than-life-size three-ton Carrara marble mortuary sculpture [pictured below]. It is a double portrait of my partner (the artist Deborah Kass) and me. To prepare, I studied the Western history of sculpture, which is preoccupied with death and remembrance, the cemeteries of Paris, and the history of dying in the United States. Memorial to a Marriage was installed on our actual burial plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, designed as America’s Pere Lachaise, in Bronx, New York. Deitch Projects represented the project and assisted in the purchase of our plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, where it will be on view through eternity. The marble statue has just been moved indoors to protect it from the elements and a bronze version is there now. The statue addresses issues of lesbian invisibility, gay marriage, love and loss, and power and status. In death I make official my “marriage,” which is still not legal while we are alive.
by Judith Shea
However you receive your daily news, you’re viewing images of horrific assaults on humanity juxtaposed with sumptuous pictures selling glamour and wealth. Whether by editorial choice or advertising price, in the design layouts of news pages there is little indication of a hierarchy of significance, a difference in importance between the two. And in our consciousness, perhaps, they get merged as well.
A body of work that I began in 2005, based on the events of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, explores this incongruity. As a resident of Lower Manhattan for many years, I wanted to locate the imagery there, to keep it personal, human scale. In photos I took in the months following the attack, the empty windows of the Brooks Brothers store directly across from Ground Zero presented a unique metaphor: the projected image of success, American style, reflecting a grandiose attempt to topple it. This format seemed to provide an obvious construct to work with.
Using a gray flannel vocabulary, and the overcoat and sheath forms central to my work, the figures were carved to resemble mannequins, to reference fashion—the marketing of “self-image.” They are elongated, soaring, and mostly paired, like twins; but their faces are uplifted, downturned, or anxious, and their clothes are stained with the dust and light of explosion, the green of thermal night vision lenses, or the darkness of a night raid. In this collision of imagery they become expressive and narrative, rather than glamorous and promotional, the clothes more descriptive of their experience than their style.
At the same time I began to digitally merge photos of the sculptures as they were evolving in the studio with pictures from the neighborhood, constructing scenes, narratives that guided the development of the work. Over and over in these photo-sketches, I used the images of Brooks Brothers’ blackened windows as the setting, as if by looking into them we could witness the moment again reflected, to investigate, to understand.
The first installation of the work, both sculpture and photographs, was at the Humanities Gallery at LIU-Brooklyn in the anniversary month of September 2009. The space is a large, all-glass enclosure, centered in the busy entry hall of the Arts and Humanities building, which houses a theater as well as drama, dance, and art studios. Given this high volume of foot traffic around the gallery, I sited the figures for the view from outside the glass as well as from within it, with dramatic spot lighting on the faces. The effect was intended to parallel the allure of a store window.
The show was titled JUDITH SHEA: Legacy Collection, suggesting a variety of references: first, of course, to the complex legacy of 9/11; then as a poke at the ubiquitous use of such terms promotionally, to assert a kind of lineage of style, a pedigree of both money and “class”; and finally, to the long trajectory of my own use of clothing to add meaning and context to the image of the human figure.