Three years ago, when Warren Jeffs was jailed for being an accomplice to rape in arranging polygamous marriages between under-age girls and older men, I was fascinated by the hand-sewn 19th-century clothing the women at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in West Texas wore. These were magnificent dresses, yet I couldn’t help thinking that, like burqas or chadors or babushkas, they have a way of keeping women in captivity.
At the Hunterdon Museum of Art and the nearby Red Mill Museum, Katherine Mangiardi’s two-part exhibit, Reflected Absence, reminds me of how a woman’s garb affects her role.
At the Red Mill, Mangiardi has chosen a room that displays artifacts associated with 19th century “women’s work,” especially spinning and weaving. Inspired by objects in the Red Mill’s extensive collection of clothing and textiles, the artist has constructed a series of women’s bonnets and two dresses, combining new and vintage fabrics with canvas and paint. For Mangiardi the garments suggest the traces of forgotten women who may have inhabited these spaces long ago. The artist will suspend the empty bonnets in the Red Mill, where they will reflect the absence of the women who may have worked at the spindles, looms, and sewing machines. Using yarn, thread, and wire she will hang a floating dress whose disintegrating strands will unwind and flow through the room, suggesting movement, the passage of time, and the erasure of memory.
Adapting the idea into a contemporary art installation, Mangiardi wore the bonnets and posed for a series of photographic portraits that will be displayed in the River Gallery. Mangiardi also created a painted dress as a stand-in for a woman she calls Eileen, whose spirit is said to occupy the Red Mill’s spindle room; a digital scan of this discarded dress is at the center of the River Gallery installation. The objects in both museums echo each other and explore how contemporary visual art provides a different lens through which to view the past. Mangiardi explains, “I am hoping to link the histories of the Red Mill Museum and the Hunterdon through the work I create, filling in absences at both of these sites through my own presence and experience in the spaces.”
The dual installations form a visual link between the two mills, referencing both their history and their present roles as cultural and educational centers.
The artist explains, “I want to reinvent the history and aesthetics of these places in a way that makes the past feel alive again.”