The word distaff began life as a noun denoting an implement used in spinning flax and wool. These days it's most often encountered as an adjective (and a cliche) to characterize women's work or the female domestic realm in general.
One of these antique mother's helpers stands at the entrance to an exhibition called "Reimagining the Distaff Toolkit," now in the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College.
Larry Ruhl, one of 27 artists in this traveling exhibition, presents the early 20th-century distaff, an ovoid basket form on a stick, as a Duchampian "readymade" sculpture. It's paired with an antique whisk broom worn to a cylindrical nub, apparently by a frazzled hausfrau.
These pieces represent one of two ways in which the artists in this show use domestic items - either in a pure aesthetic state, as recontextualized "readymades," or incorporated into mixed-media works.
"Toolkit," organized by independent historian and author Rickie Solinger, seeks to illuminate the world of domestic labor. It surprised me to discover that five of the artists involved are men - after all, what do most men know, or care, about housework?
Reflections on domestic drudgery, which has been a female burden - a curse, even - for most of human existence, is a serious, multidimensional subject.
Consequently, "Toolkit" is as much social commentary as art. For instance, Dave Cole's Trophy Wife No. 3 of 8 is literally that, an antique dress form crowned with a pair of antlers and displayed over a fireplace like a moosehead. It's good for a chuckle, or at least a smirk, but not much more.
Tracy Krumm offers two hanging sculptures of knitted wire. The one that incorporates a dome-shaped cast-iron floor drain is the stronger because of its contrast between muscularity and fragility, and its sensuous "chain-mail" form.
Laura Splan's Doilies Series is most effective in isolating a common domestic object - in this case white machine-embroidered lace doilies mounted on black velvet - in a way that emphasizes their delicate beauty.
However, Splan's agenda is more ominous; each doily incorporates an image of a deadly virus - HIV, SARS, influenza. Oddly, the circular shapes themselves suggest more benign organisms, such as diatoms.
Eliska Smiley's Forgotten Garden offers a more easily recognizable comment on punishing hand labor. It's a short-handled hoe - a real hoe blade fastened to a short, red-glass handle whose color suggests blood. Slaves chopping cotton, perhaps?
Several artists contribute more pointed references to the role that black women, slave and free, played in the history of women's work.
Betye Saar's vintage washboard bears the words, "We Was Mostly 'Bout Survival." Each of her daughter Alison's two bronze frying pans carries a female face in bold relief on the bottom.
As you go around the gallery, the mix of aesthetics and social commentary varies from artist to artist. Marie Watt's colorful fabric reliefs are hand-sewn, but the perception of eye-straining labor is subordinate to the allure of the designs.
Sallie McCorkle's wall assemblage, built around three antique rug-beaters, moves closer to a connection with tiring effort without losing its aesthetic anchor.
Eventually you come to two polemical pieces that drive home the message of distaff toil with special force.
Kim Anno's Day's Hours is a simple list of daily chores, set down as if on a black chalkboard. It begins at 4:35 a.m. with "light lantern and go out to the shed and cut wood" and ends laconically at 9:45 p.m. with "to bed."
Tatana Kellner's Ironing pounds home its message through relentless repetition. Is ironing tedious? One minute with Kellner's video of an iron passing back and forth, back and forth, over a shirt will resonate powerfully with anyone who's ever had to press collars and cuffs.
If the video doesn't persuade, then a robotic iron, set up to repeatedly pass over a real shirt on an ironing board, surely will. The metronomic clack-hiss, clack-hiss of the oscillating iron sums up the punishing routine of household servitude with diabolical succinctness.
Innovative Dutch design. Being a small country, the Netherlands doesn't have any space to waste. Neither does the Amsterdam studio run since 2002 by architect Rianne Makkink and product designer Jurgen Bey.
Makkink and Bey's thinking about consolidating and economizing when creating private and public spaces takes material form in an exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum called "Soft Village."
This isn't easy material to absorb because many of the studio's concepts are so conceptually radical as to seem more fantastic than practical.
Yet it is possible for lay persons who are neither designers nor architects to appreciate the value of shattering conventions, even if only to initiate dialogue.
Basically, Makkink and Bey believe in sacrificing space to gain utility. They continually probe the demarcation between private and public spaces and the role of objects used in each.
In the Workshop exhibition, these concerns are expressed mainly through pieces from their "crate series" - rough wooden boxes with hinged lids, each a miniature room containing scaled-down domestic objects such as mattresses, chairs, a tall clock, and even cleaning supplies.
Dust Cabinet is a typical example. It proceeds from their rhetorical question, "What is the function of dust? Does dust exist to give the world its grey areas?"
Dust Cabinet contains a small mattress, a chair, and a hatch one can open to let dust either in or out, I'm not sure which. Next to it is an upright vacuum cleaner with a bag that, when the machine is turned on (you can do it) inflates into a chair.
Cleaning Beauty Locker, made of decorated Chinese boxes, is the most attractive piece, even if it's stuffed with rubber gloves. It comes with a porcelain mop bucket.
Down the block at the Workshop's New Temporary Contemporary, the Dutch duo has installed Tea Bag Garden, WashHouse (blankets hanging on a clothesline) and Social Sculpture #2, a piece of furniture that functions in several ways depending on which side is tipped up.
Tea Bag Garden is probably the most readily understood in terms of spatial consolidation. Bags of potting soil are stacked against a wall to varying heights. Topped with blankets, they become seating.
Holes cut in a few bags hold growing herbs whose leaves can be brewed into tea. Make your tea, have a seat, take a load off - if the potting-shed aroma doesn't give you a headache.