By Tucker Neel
Originally published in Artillery Magazine. Vol. 1 No. 5, April, 2007, 34-35.
At first glance, New York based artist Cindy Smith’s Moral Museum: Selections from the Bick Archive installed at The Ben Maltz Gallery looks deceptively like a well-lit exhibition from the Museum of American History. However, after a closer look at the objects on display and the wall text provided, the exhibition reveals itself an imagined archive pulling at the loose-knit seams binding truth to objects and to history.
The Moral Museum charts a fictionalized history of Violet Bick, best known as the independent minded woman in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. The show posits that the It’s A Wonderful Life character was based on the ‘real’ Violet Bick – Smith’s own imagined Violet.
According to the exhibition’s wall texts, Violet was born in 1923 in Seneca Falls, New York, birthplace of the Women’s Rights movement. She grows up to become, amongst other things, an accomplished fashion designer, architect and feminist activist. Along the way she crosses paths with many important figures such as Gloria Grahame, Frank Capra, Marcel Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim, and Angela Davis. As a dedicated activist, Violet protests against the Vietnam War, joins with the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice to protest nuclear weapons, and participates in Act-Up to raise awareness about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The wall text also informs us that she died in 1989.
This personal history is juxtaposed with events such as the passage of the 19th Amendment, the stock market crash of 1929, and Malcolm X’s assassination. In this way Bick becomes a sort of historical conduit; events particular to radical politics, art, and design, flow through and around her.
Smith further enriches Violet’s life through objects in vitrines and on pedestals. Some are “authentic” historical artifacts, like a photograph of high school students from the 1930s to evidence Violet’s interest in shop class, or an antique sewing machine to underscore her forward-thinking fashion sense. Smith fabricates other objects to fit the archive, like Four Jills in a Jeep, a book Violet wrote about her time spent entertaining troops overseas during World War II. Smith also created glowing purple neon “V”s reminiscent of Violet’s logo when she was a top designer in New York City. Once in the archive, all of these objects serve to validate Violet’s existence, to make her more “real”.
This conflation of an imagined history, existing as text, with a real material history, tied up in objects brings up the questions: “Does historical truth or value reside in the objects themselves, the story surrounding them, or the person that owned them?” and, “Why create this Violet Bick?”
One could argue that Smith’s Moral Museum undermines the work of feminist historians. After all, there are real women with real archives whose stories have yet to be told. One could also say that by fictionalizing Violet Bick, Smith only replicates what museums have done for centuries: to select artifacts and position them so as to highlight certain histories to serve an ideological function.
On the other hand, the installation is powerful specifically because it confounds traditional essentialist exhibition tendencies. Because it’s a work of art it is given license to exist in a confounding and unsettling site where meaning and truth are not so easily understood. Smith embraces this idea, takes it to a place where events, both real and imagined, exist on a similar playing field and in doing so encourages her viewers to question the entire notion of an archive, not as a negative force, but as something that can be played with, teased out for connections and ideas that were otherwise impossible.