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‘Poorly Watched Girls’ at Fabric Workshop has nuns, Judy Garland, needlework

Suzanne Bocanegra re-imagines three theatrical productions in a big new exhibition that takes up all three stories of the space.

Video stills from "Valley," part of Suzanne Bocanegra's new "Poorly Watched Girls," exhibit.
Video stills from "Valley," part of Suzanne Bocanegra's new "Poorly Watched Girls," exhibit.Read moreSuzanne Bocanegra / Courtesy Fabric Workshop and Museum

An art exhibition exploring the idea of women who are denied power and who require protection may seem especially timely right now.

But Suzanne Bocanegra's new show at the Fabirc Workshop and Museum, "Poorly Watched Girls," isn't drawn from the headlines so much as it's a story for the ages. "Women who have no power, who need to be guarded or watched, has been the story line for a lot of art throughout the centuries," Bocanegra said during a preview for the show last week. "We never get tired of Superman rescuing Lois Lane."

"Poorly Watched Girls" consists of three pieces, each taking up a floor of the Fabric Workshop. Each is a sort of remake of a different theatrical piece — one opera, one movie, and one ballet.

"One of the things I really love about the theater world is that they restage things,"  Bocanegra said. "They give an opera or a play or a movie an entirely new look and a new cast, and that can change the meaning of a piece."

Indeed, though Bocanegra began as a painter and sculptor, her work has moved chiefly into theater. This new show is her first in a decade to exist as an exhibition rather than a performance.

The show takes its name from the translation of Jean Dauberval's 1789 ballet La Fille mal gardée, a comic romance about a young girl rejecting her mother's chosen suitor. "The reason it has a happy ending is because she's poorly watched," Bocanegra said.

Her interest in the topic stems in part from her own romantic view of the agricultural life that her grandparents lived and that her mother escaped. "My mom always told me it's the worst life ever," Bocanegra said. "I understand that it can be awful, but I was a wannabe hippie when I was younger and I have a starry-eyed idea about it."

The La Fille piece of the installation is a collection of costumes and theatrical flats for an imaginary production of the ballet.

The Dialogue of the Carmelites piece in the show references Francis Poulenc's 1956 opera of the same name, based on the true story of nuns in the French Revolution forced to wear secular clothing on the way to the guillotine.

Bocanegra gathers pages from the '50s-era "Guide to Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States," which collects images of nuns from orders across the country, listing the guidelines for entry and the material used in their habits — "kind of like baseball cards but for nuns," as Bocanegra put it.

These pages were embroidered by staff at the Fabric Workshop and are arrayed around a room, accompanied by a piece of haunting vocal music written for the show by Bocanegra's husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.

Though visitors are mainly concerned with the "museum" part of the institution's name, it's work like that labor-intensive embroidery that sets the Fabric Workshop apart.

Even more impressive is the studio staff's work on Valley, Bocanegra's fascinating take on Valley of the Dolls. The video piece, which recreates Judy Garland's ill-fated wardrobe tests for the 1967 cult film in eight floor-to-ceiling versions enacted by a range of prominent female artists, required the recreation of the costumes, including, in one case, producing a fabric to match Garland's colorful caftan.

Providing artists with those kinds of resources and allowing them to explore is key to the museum's mission, according to executive director Susan Lubowsky Talbott. "Mostly the Fabric Workshop is about innovation," she says. "We offer artists the opportunity to work in areas that lead them down paths they might not normally take and give them the backup to do that."