carrot tools

by betty ann brown, ph.d.


"My mother had two faces and a frying pot

where she cooked up her daughters

into girls

before she fixed our dinner."

—Audre Lorde, From the House of Yemanja


Jane Brucker combines domestic objects into sculptures that sometimes shock, often amuse, and always delight. In doing so, she expands two avant-garde traditions with deep modernist roots: ironic juxtaposition with unsettling effect, and female investigation of gender stereotypes.

Dada artists may have been the first to pair domestic objects in jarringly unexpected and hence nonfunctional ways: think of Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 erection of a bicycle wheel on the seat of a kitchen stool and Man Ray’s 1921 adhesion of nails to the flat bottom of an iron. But it was the Surrealists who theorized the process of provocative juxtaposition. Early in his career, Andre Breton inserted found texts and other poets’ lines into his writing as a kind of literary collage. By the 1920s, he was analyzing the effects of bringing together disparate phrases and images: “…the elements confronted each other in the most paradoxical way so that human communication, led astray from the start, caused the mind that registered it to run a maximum of adventures.” Breton asserted that innovative conjunctions became “an infallible means of temporarily dismissing the critical mind, of fully freeing metaphorical activity.” Of course the Surrealist object par excellence is Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup, her 1936 Object (Le Dejeuner en fourrure).

“Some women marry houses.
It’s another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.”
—Anne Sexton, Housewife

Our culture has long linked the female with the home (“house-husband” still has a discomforting sound) and the home has been subjected to extensive analysis by women artists. Louise Bourgeois-who was profoundly influenced by her early exposure to the Surrealists, no matter how much she later denied it-began creating particularly female juxtapositions in the 1940s with her Femme Maison series, a group of drawings in which a house formed the torso of a female figure. She has continued her exploration of the home and femininity in her Cells, large complex installations that gather found and fabricated domestic paraphernalia to describe the structure of the unconscious. When Judy Chicago moved from Fresno to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, one of the first projects she organized for the Feminist Art Program was Womanhouse, a re-conceptualizing of domestic spaces from a female point of view. Chicago’s famed Dinner Party deploys an immense dining table, formally set for dinner, with tributes to hundreds of women who have made significant contributions to world history.

More modest in scale and less didactic in intent, Jane Brucker’s sculptures present the familiar in unfamiliar combinations. She compels us to reconsider not only the material context of our quotidian existence, but also the traditional gender categories to which we often unthinkingly assign the things that surround us.

Brucker’s Ironing Things Out is particularly effective. A man’s bronzed false teeth are balanced on fragile wires above an antique ironing board. The whimsical sculpture points to the culturally proscribed roles of man as the public “mouthpiece” of the family and woman as the (silenced) (unpaid) domestic laborer.

Speech and silence are also evoked, and ironically, in Brucker’s Domestic Tools: Hold Your Tongue. A wall piece composed of bronzed shoe shapers clutching a leather shoe tongue, it recalls medieval torture devices. Who performs the torture of speech? Is silencing someone a form of torture?

Brucker’s Carrot Sticks are comprised of wooden tool handles affixed to cast bronze carrots. Humorous and engaging, they also recall the classic division of labor along gender lines: male carpenters crafting wood into furniture, women scraping the skins off vegetables for dinner.

My Sister’s House of Cards is a small model of a ranch-style home, composed of football trading cards. At first glance doll-like and charming, the house actually appears to be self-destructing: cards slip off the diminutive wooden frame and cascade downward. First to slip off, and thus closest to the floor below the house, is the football trading card for O.J. Simpson. Viewers are forced to consider the disastrous consequences of romantic delusions-the abuse often hidden in domestic relationships, the violence with which so many share their homes.

Resonant and poetic, Jane Brucker’s sculptures unnerve even as they fascinate. Like all good art, they force us to reconsider our preconceptions and thereby expand our world.

BETTY ANN BROWN writes on contemporary art and is a Professor of Art History at California State University, Northridge.