On Kris Strawser’s Switch: An Essay by Nancy Mahl
On Kris Strawser’s Switch
An Essay by Nancy Mahl
Whether one perceives a necktie, any necktie, as a noose by which the subject may lose his agency, an arrow emphatically guiding a viewer’s attention toward the wearer’s groin, or a sartorial marker of class, it is impossible to see this simple piece of cloth as neutral or neuter. It is a switch of specific cultural engagement or disconnection, whether flipped manually with intention by the wearer, or socially by induction from larger circuits.
To discuss neckties is to collapse many shades of gender. The necktie is a tiny pennant on the ramparts of the default binary. It’s a curious garment, perhaps the only item of traditionally masculine attire that is not worn commonly, or without irony, by women. Although some form of cravat has been sported by European males since at least the reign of Louis XIV, the seven-fold, wool-lined, pieced, bias-cut, sword-shaped variety in question is a product of Jazz Age New York1, where it performed the complex cultural work of signifying compliance, class, assimilation, and occupation in a society with new-found anxieties about ethnic purity and social respectability: to wear a tie signified a profession that would not soil it. It is this sort of middle class tie, rather than the more dapper and individualistic bow or ascot that Strawser presents us within her installation at NAPOLEON.
Like baldness, it is a marker of masculinity for which few men have real enthusiasm.When it is compulsory, it short-circuits self-expression; it is a flag that its wearer claims to be complicit in whatever power structure is at hand, that whatever policy he is enforcing or advocating originates above him, and the results of those policies bring blame or glory to his team, party, nation, corporation, etc. and not only to him. To tighten that knot is to trade agency for commodious living. And yet…as the girdle once was for women, it is an article of fascination for those banned from wearing it.
Strawser comments: “By using so many —creating my own landscape in which to ponder all of this —I am saying, no-I wield this if I want to. Draw your own conclusions, but these are in some ways my meditation and my bathroom wall graffiti.”
Strawser’s work asks a question that is deceptively simple: in a world where woman wield power at the highest levels of law and government, why don’t they wear neck ties? Let’s send Butler, Freud, and Lacan out for beer and talk about this amongst ourselves. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Not all men wear ties: the Pope and his clerics have never worn them. Working police officers, soldiers, tradesmen, dot com workers, artists, artisans eschew the tie. Lawyers wear them yet judges conceal them when on the bench. College professors rarely wear them. Bankers, politicians, and executives wear them but cubicle workers, less so. Doctors, like judges, conceal them when exercising their greatest powers. So where does that leave us?
The tie is imbued with a lot of cultural meaning with regard to the structures of power, and yet 51% of the world is essentially, with the exception of a few female security guards and grammar school uniform-wearers, absolutely verboten to wear it, even if they wield or administer that same power. It is just not possible at this moment in history for a female to put on a tie without it being perceived as the opposite of what it means for a male to wear it. It can be Annie Hall twee, or dominatrix sexy, or militant, or ironic, but it can only be subversive. How can this be?
“The only really useful function a tie serves is the sense of relief when you get home and take it off; you feel as if you’ve freed yourself from something, though quite what you don’t know,”Paulo Coelho Veronika Decides To Die3
A binary system requires an impermeable divide between two opposite and interdependent entities and the necktie is the visible Checkpoint Charlie in the gender binary. To let theory back into the room: what does a necktie signify? We can talk about a phallic representation. We can say that although any man may have a penis, men who wear neckties have ‘the phallus.’ Reams have been written about the difference and sameness of the penis and the phallus, but in our cultural imagination when we say phallus, it is an ithyphallic image we conjure: empurpled with desire and dominance. The penis is less consistent in its presentation. When it is seen publicly, it is most often shown in a state of shyness on a statue, painting, or in a medical illustration. When someone describes a structure like the Empire State Building as phallic, it is imagined as a representation of an erection. Curiously, an erect penis would be seen at such an angle if its owner were on his back; more an image of onanistic, fruitless pleasure than dominance. Likewise, the necktie which points at its wearer’s penis, both geographically and metaphorically, dangles. An effort is required to keep a tie out of the wearer’s lunch and away from uncapped pens. The non-generative public phallus is on unavoidable display in opposition to the mysterious, privately fertile penis.
Strawser’s piece, it could be argued, with its walls studded with fallible, torqued, straining, floppy, and fluttering neckties is more penis empathy than penis envy. It opens up discussions of where and from whom the nature of that power flows-who serves, and whom is served. Why are women immune to the tyranny of the tie? For women, perhaps there is no badge of compliance required, no symbol of the sword they checked at the door on entering the compound. The necktie seems vestigial, like an appendix, a thing that served an obsolete purpose now a potential site of inflammation and discomfort for wearer and women alike.
What’s Strawser’s relationship to these ties? Although a warm, and engaging person, she plays her cards close to the vest, and friends refer to her stone-walled, tool-lined studio in the Callowhill neighborhood as Fort Strawser. Her award winning design career at the San Francisco Chronicle and Miami Herald would have put her in close contact with endless images of men in ties doing deeds that required journalistic documentation. She was raised in a home with males who wore ties; not unusual in Philadelphia, but less so where she grew up in semi-rural Idaho and on a reservation in Wyoming. Whether or not she has sported one herself, or wanted to, is unknown. Like most women of average height, she has spent a fair amount of time at eye level with tie knots.
About Switch she states:”The tie-ness of the piece is central, I have to say. But I hope that in their unfurled and torqued and …whatever …ways they begin to be something else the longer you look at them. You, viewer, do visit what they have meant over the time you spend with the piece, but I want that drift of possible to happen. Also, it’s maybe a little like a pantie raid in the boys’ dresser.”
The larger body of her work often utilizes her particular technical skills as a sculptor of wood, but her familiar concerns are represented here as well. The difficulty of drawing an audience into deep consideration of two-dimensional imagery and text in an image-saturated culture was the challenge of her newspaper career, the shadow twin of her studio practice. She embraces all manner of 3-D, projected imagery, electronic components, “and anything else that works”in skewering, analyzing, and revealing the gaps between private truths and public statements, shame and glory, power and abuse. Her frequent subjects are politicians, disease, and her identity as a proud daughter of Idaho. She says of herself: “I work with the mutability of truth —an elusive target weaving through time. I intervene to set things right …or set things differently.”
The simplicity and familiarity of the object are made new by multiplication and context. A garden of unblown tulips, the ties surround the viewer as he/zhe/she confronts and explores his/hir/her feelings about ties, and in particular, Kris Strawser‘s ties (for they are, after all, hers.) Threading through the space trying to avoid crushing, soiling, or being touched by them, we find ourselves pondering a zone where a woman, although not wearing a tie, per se, flaunts it, plays with it, brandishes it, and gets away with it.
1. Necktie U.S. Patent Office, #1,447,090 Patented February 27, 1923 by Jesse E. Langsdorf
2. Coelho, Paulo Veronika Decides to Die, Harper Collins, NY 1999 trans. Margaret Jull Costa
3. For a good overview of Butler and Lacan on the phallus: Salih, Sara Judith Butler, Routlege, London and New York 2002
About the Author:
Nancy Mahl is an artist, curator, and elevator mechanic who works in New York, NY and Jersey City, NJ. She has served on the boards of several arts organizations, and her curatorial practice involves themed interdisciplinary collaborations with artists, academics, and performers. Projects include Filthy Lucre (on art and patronage) at Gallery Aferro in Newark, and Consent at CUNY Graduate Center in NY, NY. Her own work explores Ozymandian architecture, and sad fun.