“What are little girls made of?” Those familiar with the well-known 19th-century nursery rhyme will answer: “Sugar and spice and all things nice. That’s what little girls are made of!” Artist Katie Hovencamp, on the other hand, provides an alternative response in her solo exhibition, Sugar, Spice, Not Very Nice, which is on view in the Linder Art Gallery at Keystone College, from 2/28 through 4/28. Against a backdrop of hand-painted, 19th-century-style wallpaper, the show features Hovencamp’s Parochial Collar series, accompanying photographs of the artist wearing the collars, and a collection of Victorian-style drawings, all of which subvert traditional ideals of femininity.
The fourteen collars in the show hark back to those worn in an earlier time, when women were expected to be prim and proper. However, rather than being comprised of soft fabric, reflecting gentle femininity, Hovencamp’s collars are made of hard metal, including steel, aluminum, copper, and cast iron. Some of the collars also incorporate lace fabric, which provides a nice contrast to the metallic colors and textures. Hovencamp carefully crafted each collar, providing intricate details, such as cut-out patterns on several.
Complementing the collars are photographs of Hovencamp wearing her metallic neck attire, and, as with the collars themselves, the photographic images offer conflicting ideas of femininity. While the collars themselves suggest feminine propriety, the pieces appear against the nude flesh of the artist.
In addition to the collars and photographs, the exhibition includes pen and ink with watercolor drawings produced in 2016/2017. The Victorian style of the drawings suggests a corresponding subject; however, upon closer inspection, the subversive nature of the images becomes clear, enhanced by titles with layered meaning. For example, the most recent drawing, Extension, from 2017, portrays three women dressed in long 19th-century style dresses. Each woman has floor-length hair spilling down her back, suggesting the idea of hair extensions. However, shockingly, a child appears at the end of each woman’s hair, resembling an insect trapped in a spider web, thus commenting on the close connection between a mother and child, to the point that the child becomes an extension of the mother. Untamed, from 2016, also has different levels of meaning. Four women wearing long evening dresses, complete with petticoats, face toward the viewer, though with gazes turned away. The women appear restricted in the formal dresses, and their expressions almost seem to indicate submission. Countering all of this, though, is the head of a wild feline covering each woman’s genital area. From left to right, the untamed cats are a bobcat, leopard, tiger, and lion, and all four have their mouths wide open in uninhibited roars. One can imagine that these Victorian-era women, though constrained by society’s conventions, refuse to be tamed at heart.
Other of Hovencamp’s drawings reference motifs the artist explored in performance pieces. Her 2016 drawing, Kingdom, which represents the head of a woman incorporated into the castle of a kingdom, shares similarities with her performance entitled Reverie, from 2016. In both, a female head appears at the center of a castle, confined by buildings in the drawing and fabric in the performance work, and, again, suggesting the conventions that bind women and hold them in place.
In an earlier drawing (not in the exhibition), and performance of the same name and date, Frivolous, 2014, the artist’s body is enshrouded by a huge mound of fabric, bows, and lace, with only her legs and feet sticking out.
Returning to the Victorian theme of the Parochial Collars and several of the drawings, the title expresses the perception of women then, and, sadly, to some even today, as being silly or foolish, and not having any real purpose, except to bear children and appear attractive. The restrictive nature of women’s clothing during that time (and in some ways—stiletto heels and strapless dresses–in our own!), such as long, full dresses worn over petticoats and corsets (Hovencamp’s drawing, Cinch, 2016), only served to reinforce those ideas, prohibiting women from moving freely, while, at the same time, appearing fashionable.
Hovencamp’s exhibition communicates the artist’s love of her craft, particularly the collars. It also conveys her desire to be “not very nice” as she uses her body and art to comment on women’s issues.
By Sara F. Meng