The radical nature of Faith Wilding’s fantastical watercolors | Art Review | Chicago Reader

The radical nature of Faith Wilding’s fantastical watercolors 

Western Exhibitions puts on a compressed retrospective of the Paraguayan-American artist.

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click to enlarge Installation view of "Un-Natural Parables" at Western Exhibitions

Installation view of "Un-Natural Parables" at Western Exhibitions

James Prinz

In the fall of 1971, Faith Wilding was a young MFA student participating in the California Institute of the Arts' first iteration of its Feminist Art Program. Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, who codirected the unit, hoped to galvanize their students by encouraging them to tackle a major project while working through their own issues as women. Within months the students created Womanhouse, a now-legendary installation that took up an entire mansion in Hollywood. Wilding and the other members of her cohort labored throughout the southern California winter to renovate the house, which had been in disrepair, and conceptualize and install their pieces.

Wilding's major contributions to the final project were Womb Room, an entirely crocheted structure meant to evoke primitive environments, and Waiting, a performance piece that chronicled the life cycle of a woman. Though Womanhouse was exhibited 45 years ago, the themes that Wilding explored then—women's bodies, the environment, acts of transformation—have continued to manifest in her work ever since. Her new show at Western Exhibitions, "Un-Natural Parables," highlights this persistence: it brings together an older series, "Natural Parables," last shown in 1985, with a new project, "Paraguay: Republica de la Soya."

The first work you encounter at Western Exhibitions is "Natural Parables," which consists of watercolor paintings that hang beside oversize pod-shaped panels. The pieces are in superb condition, even though they've been in storage for decades. The watercolors are numbered and shown sequentially, and while they don't exactly tell a story, they're thematically united by colorful imagery drawn from mythology and nature, including depictions of the female body, and by their use of poems and diaristic passages.

The focus of "Paraguay: Republica de la Soya" is more pointed. The works stem from a recent visit Wilding made to her home country of Paraguay, the first time she'd returned since she moved to the United States in 1961. In recent years forests and farmland in Paraguay have been decimated in order to make way for soy crops—largely used to produce animal feed—which covers more than eight million acres, or greater than half, of all agricultural land in the country.

"Imagine what once was amazing jungle, now it's like thousands of miles of soy plant," Wilding says. "The kind of devastation that that's wreaking not just on nature but on the people who used to live there and make their living off the forest and small patches of land."

In Next Gen Cassava, a banner reads that the title plant is said to be the only staple crop that will actually benefit from climate change. The watercolor features a woman holding a flowering plant, while in the opposite corner a man looks to the sky, arms outstretched as if feeling for rain. In Organize, photos from Paraguayan protests are collaged above watercolors of nature-infused images, such as crops and paint blots that look like living organisms; near the top, a row spells out "organize"; the body of a multicolored snake circles the perimeter. One senses the interconnectedness of nature, politics, and people.

Wilding has long been thinking about these topics, which she says were in vogue in the worlds of both art and feminism while she was getting her start in the 1970s. Though these subjects fell out of focus in the '80s and '90s, she isn't surprised to see environmental and feminist issues returning to mainstream discourse.

"I'm an old person, so I've lived long enough to see everything comes back," she says. "We're not done with all of these subjects. If anything, they're more with us now because of ecocrises, and because so many people, young people, were not even born when that was going on. And now they're coming of age and they're realizing, you know, that things are getting worse, not better."

You can witness evidence of her observation at Volume Gallery, next door to Western Exhibitions, where the artist Tanya Aguiñiga is exploring the same kinds of connections that Wilding makes. Aguiñiga's work often deals with her Mexican heritage. In her solo exhibition, "Reindigenizing the Self," two sculptures, created with synthetic hair, hang from the ceiling. Both are titled Palapa, which are traditional Mexican shelters, usually constructed with palm leaves and branches. One of the sculptures is wide enough for visitors to fit underneath it, something many people took advantage of at the opening—an interactive element that's similar to Wilding's Womb Room.

In their introduction to the Womanhouse catalog, Chicago and Schapiro describe how the students worked together to create environments throughout the property. The kitchen wall, for example, was covered in fried eggs that slowly morphed into breasts; elsewhere, an overflowing garbage can full of used menstrual products was placed in an otherwise sterile bathroom.

"The age-old female activity of homemaking was taken to fantasy proportions," the introduction reads. "Womanhouse became the repository of the daydreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean, and iron their lives away."

Wilding's work still deals in such fantasy—mythology and paganism abound—and by extension hope is a dominant theme. In Paraguay, more than 85 percent of land is owned by fewer than 3 percent of the population, yet families and activists are fighting for their health and their land. Wilding is calculating about her works—she may paint beautiful nature imagery, but her message is unapologetically political.

"I use beauty as a terrorist tactic," she says. "To make people look, to suck them in. Then they look closer and they will see my message and my content."  v

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