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Suzanne Bocanegra at Fabric Workshop: Farm life, nuns, and a riveting take on Judy Garland

Her "Poorly Watched Girls" exhibit fills the museum. The Garland piece, upstairs, is the star.

Still from Suzanne Bocanegra's video "Lemonade, Roses, Satchel" at Fabric Workshop.
Still from Suzanne Bocanegra's video "Lemonade, Roses, Satchel" at Fabric Workshop.Read moreCourtesy of the artist

If I were to tell you the exhibition "Suzanne Bocanegra: Poorly Watched Girls" fills three full floors of the Arch Street loft building that houses the Fabric Workshop and Museum, you would probably conclude this is quite a major show.

If, however, I told you the exhibition consists of only four works, it would sound like something you can take in without much effort.

Both statements are true.

Bocanegra, a New York artist whose work straddles visual art and theater, has produced only four scenes for this show. Even though they are elaborately realized, you can "get" each of them in a moment. Alternatively, you can approach them in a playful way, noticing the details, channeling her obsessions, and sometimes wondering why.

Bocanegra practices an art of indirection and ambivalence. Her best-known recent work is a series of "artist talks," in which an actor, listening to Bocanegra through an earphone, repeats her monologue to an audience. One of these, Farmhouse/Whorehouse, which will be performed in Philadelphia on Feb. 8 by actress Lili Taylor, is the source of Lemonade, Roses, Satchel, the short film that opens the Fabric Workshop show.

Rustic, once removed

As a child growing up in Houston, Bocanegra spent a lot of time on her grandparents' Texas farm, which was down the road from the establishment immortalized as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Her work often exhibits a faux rusticity, celebrating country life even as she recognizes that what she loves is mostly an illusion.

The film shows the singer Shara Nova wearing a bundle of sticks in her hair and strumming an autoharp, singing what sounds like a folkish melody. In fact, the tune, composed by the singer, consists of phrases that Bocanegra's grandmother, suffering from dementia, used to repeat over and over.

She complains that her husband never gives her money to put in her satchel, and sings, ineffectually, of her intention to make lemonade. Its nostalgic visual image is undercut by the stasis and repetition of the words — the utterances of a mind run aground.

The three other works were created for this exhibition, Bocanegra's largest to date. They are all about performance, and especially costume, in wildly different ways.

Dolls’ heads and chenille

La Fille consists of costumes and sets for the ballet La Fille mal gardée, first performed in France in 1789. The ballet tells the story of a young country girl who escapes the surveillance of her family and is able to marry the man she loves. It is a version of a bucolic life presented for the pleasure of urban balletgoers.

Bocanegra assembles her costumes and sets from things she has accumulated over the years, and she uses some of the same things — dolls' heads, miniature streamlined display platforms, nubby chenille bedspreads — over and over.

One can see that she is presenting an image of innocence that is very knowing, and the simple materials are quite sophisticated. Bocanegra's method is not to explain too much. But while this work is maximalist in its profusion of fabric and materials, it feels incomplete. It didn't take long before I said, "Got it," and moved on.

Dialogue of the Carmelites is named for Francis Poulenc's 1956 opera, though the music that accompanies it was written by Bocanegra's husband, the well-known composer David Lang. In fact, its inspiration is a 1955 catalog she stumbled upon, "Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States."

She refers to the catalog as "baseball cards for nuns," but it is actually more like a birdwatcher's field guide. Each page contains a picture of a nun in her order's characteristic habit, a description of the habit, and information on the history and purpose of the order and requirements for becoming a member.

The Little Sisters of the Assumption, for example, were then dedicated to "fighting present-day paganism." Most of the orders accepted postulants who had completed eighth grade.

All the pages of the catalog are shown on shelves on all four walls of a gallery. In each case, Bocanegra has hand-stitched subtle, almost invisible changes onto the nun's photograph, adding an extra black pleat of real cloth or a tiny gold crucifix.

This embroidery is a tribute to the devotion of the nuns, and to the sewing skills many were expected to have. But it is also a way to make us look at the pages and recognize a way of life and of thinking that has largely disappeared, even among contemporary sisters.

You can spend a lot of time here, looking at every page, marveling at the amazing variety of coifs and wimples on display. There is even one nun whose headgear makes her look like a face on a television set.

Garland’s garments

If nuns don't interest you, though, you can go up one flight and channel Judy Garland. Valley is based on her wardrobe test for Valley of the Dolls, the famously trashy 1967 film. The test was made in order to see how the garments, including an outrageous shiny orange rhinestone-encrusted pantsuit, would look on camera and move on her body.

She was fired before the film was made but kept the costumes, Bocanegra says. Fabric Workshop reproduced them for this work.

This is unquestionably the show's highlight, a dramatic installation that fills an entire floor with eight larger-than-life videos of accomplished artists, dancers, and actresses duplicating Garland's turns, bends, waves, and whistles. The films are synchronized so all eight women are making the same moves at the same time.

As one watches, this regimented, superficial, and repetitive spectacle becomes more interesting. The ballet dancer moves more decisively than the artist next to her. All are serious in getting their moves right, but some display a particularly fluid way of moving or a compelling attitude of detachment.

If you watch from up close, these women tower over you and show how a big screen works its magic.

Valley is terrific. I could hardly make myself leave.