Springsteen inaugurates its new Highlandtown gallery location with Women’s History Museum show
For Springsteen’s current exhibition in its new Highlandtown digs, the lights are uncharacteristically low, and the room is rather empty, except for what look like stage set pieces: a pale, marbly witch and a large, bubbly, puzzle-like frame. The outside light from an overcast morning dissipates through the storefront’s frosted glass, creating a cold, quiet glow, like that of my phone screen with its brightness turned down a bit.
On March 2, Springsteen opened the new space to the public with its inaugural show, Poupées Gonflabes, a Women’s History Museum biennial. (That the show opened during Women’s History Month was a happy accident.) Women’s History Museum is the name of the collective under which New York artists Mattie Barringer and Amanda McGowan make their work, a sort of anti-fashion, fashion-and-art practice. The collective has become known for their spectacular, highly collaborative fashion shows: The models, hair stylists, fashion designers, makeup artists, videographers, musicians, nail artists and many others who help produce their shows are integral to the collective’s functioning.
Women’s History Museum, “Bertine’s Lib,” “Pix Palace – A Closed Opening,” “SEZ X 1,” “SEZ X 2”
As a sort of tribute to this exchange, Barringer and McGowan incorporated work by 23 of their frequent collaborators for Women’s History Museum’s first biennial. During the opening, the low-lit front room held an audience for performances by RiichPSYCHO (aka Ajakia Smith) and Sean-Kierre Lyons (both artists have work on display too); Women’s History Museum created the theatrical sculptural objects installed here. The white wooden frame piece, “Pix Palace – A Closed Opening,” feels fluid and stringy like spit or bubble gum despite being a large, sturdy, jigsaw-cut structure; the piece’s right-hand-side panel resembles kid-like testing grounds with a scratchy drawing of a woman’s face bordered by the words “PORNO” and “SEX.”
Behind this, a broke-ass, bulb-lit vanity mirror isn’t a mirror per se, but a blue-glowing image of a reclining nude woman’s silhouette, such as one might have as a sticker on the back of a pickup truck or that might advertise a strip club. The witch-like figure in front, titled “Bertine’s Lib,” is painted slick with blue and white oil paint; cut wooden planes interlock to stand her upright, like a balsa-wood construction kit. She wears a white fox-fur scarf fixed with a vintage brooch, a classic elegance made boorish with orange and purple streaks in the fox fur.
The Women’s History Museum language that’s legible here offers various self-referential phrases, images, and shapes that encircle themes of purity, vanity, lust, exploitation, agency—these modes and values that girls and women spend their lives navigating which to follow or break, to challenge or give in to. In a lucite display case, open-Bible-shaped plaster casts display images of early-2000s-looking digital collages featuring photos by Tyler Jones of young women in suggestive poses wearing clothing that Barringer and McGowan made. The pages look like both porn/peep-show ads and outdated magazine covers, with text overlaid like “Mystery and PURITY” and “Atelier Secrets / Victorian Vice.” The images of the women are often cut into strips or circles, explications of a self-image distorted by media and advertising which try to sell us ideas of perfection. Also in the lucite case, lying on a shelf: a pair of pale pink tights wearing a gray jersey-knit thong, screen-printed with text: “Romanticism in a troubled time.”
Noel Freibert, “From Ewe”; Loren Mindak, “Hello and Goodbye”; Alma María Arias, “75810: Anatomía de un Toro/Anatomy of a Bull”
That phrase reappears on ready-to-wear clothing nearby, on a rack that holds terry cloth bikinis, a leotard, a fleecy tiger-print hat, puffy ski jackets and more. The phrase seems so lovely and fitting near Ada O’Higgins’ three-page diary entry, chronicling observations (some paradoxical) about sexual abstinence and “sobriety”: the extra sensitivity to touch, the spiritual awakening, the addiction of control, the remnant feelings of guilt and shame. “I thought the purity and denial would take away the shame but in some ways it heightened it,” she writes. In the pages’ decorated borders, like a teenager’s notebook margins and an illuminated manuscript both, are tiny pornographic doodles.
Though the work’s range is vast and varied, the throughline is clearly the body—how it is decorated, loved, harmed, stereotyped. There are garments and adornments for the body, like the fleece cloven-hoofed costume, hand-stenciled with organic and toothed graphic shapes, created by Firpal Jawanda; the body in pain, like Alma María Arias’ surreal, mythic, Kahlo-esque oil painting of a nude figure floating high above ground, but bound in thread that ties them to the earth and to a floating set of lungs, a blood moon, and a bull. Gogo Graham’s trash-fashioned, model-thin mannequin recedes into a corner, clearly violated: her insulation foam beehive/head burdening her body, her genitals protruding from below her skirt, her femur and kneecap seemingly busted and bloated.
Women’s History Museum’s collaborative biennial is an energizing reorientation to Springsteen in its new building, which gallery directors Amelia Szpiech and Hunter Bradley purchased in 2017. Though Springsteen’s exhibitions have been typically much smaller and less explosive than Poupées Gonflabes, their program has always facilitated an exchange between Baltimore and elsewhere, whether that’s exhibiting local and non-local artists or broadening their audience through curated shows in New York, San Francisco, and Mexico City.
The couple founded Springsteen in 2013 when they put up walls and installed what would become a kind of signature bright white lighting in their third-floor Copycat apartment. In 2015, they moved the gallery to a storefront space downtown on Franklin Street, where it could be more physically accessible at street-level and join a nest of small galleries and project spaces already on that block, near Paca Street.
And then their Franklin Street building went up for sale. With each exhibition, Szpiech and Bradley had pushed their practice as professional curators; to keep it going, they knew they needed to seek out something more reliable. When they found what would become their new home and gallery on Highland Avenue, they saw its potential behind outdated drop ceilings and uneven walls. The building had new electrical and plumbing systems, and much of the necessary repair was more “cosmetic” than drastic, so the decision was practical too, Szpiech says. “It was viable for us to think about living here and working on it.”
After buying the building, with the help of some friends and several YouTube tutorials, they started renovating—gutting the first floor, ripping out the drop ceiling, transporting actual tons of debris to the dump, drywalling, flooring, painting. “Every bucket of paint we bought, everything we do is just part of the project,” says Bradley. “And it’s not something that somebody else is just going to inherit and raise their property value.”
Amelia Szpiech and Hunter Bradley among art by Women’s History Museum
Walking towards the middle and back of the Women’s History Museum biennial, the entrance’s dim light gives way to Springsteen’s signature, icy-white LEDs. A series of stringy dolls of denim and leather by Candice Saint Williams and Dachi Cole perch eerily forlorn on a wooden shelf. Yves B. Golden’s mystical, looping, gold “Estival Braid” made of rope tacked with crystals hangs from the ceiling on a hook, some hybrid form of mega-craft-store floral decor and a sacred object.
Way in the back, in a piece by Hu Diѐ, a rubber hand sports acrylic nails that depict a couple fucking in an adorably ornate space. Nearby, Sean-Kierre Lyons’ plushy, felt pack of Newports sits on a small patch of astroturf like a baby in a sandbox—all cutesy distractions until it hits that its shining eyes and red lips are uncomfortably reminiscent of racist rag doll faces.
Many of the artists included in Poupées Gonflabes do not regularly show their work in galleries, and for several of them, it’s their first exhibition. I enjoy walking through the exhibition, not knowing exactly or immediately for whom that is true.
Women’s History Museum Biennale: Poupées Gonflabes is on display at Springsteen through April 20. For more information, visit springsteengallery.com.
Photos by Jill Fannon.