We like to imagine that the arc of history follows some kind of trajectory, like a book or a movie. Artists like Margaret Meehan, however, recognize that there is no clear chain of events, that history is illogical, directionless, and unpredictable. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” her recent exhibition, interrogated the iterations of contemporary feminist protest by examining it as an unstable cycle that moves forward and regresses over time. Meehan’s works mine contradictions, emphasizing the precarious nature of cultures and social structures.
The main part of the exhibition consisted of several slogan-bearing pink fabric objects resembling shields. The fabric is stretched over sturdy branches. Displayed in pairs on opposing walls, the shields bracketed a centrally suspended pink structure similar to a lobed, pointed tent. Meehan took the fabric from a 1967 British military parachute. The slogans are embroidered versions of texts once used in feminist protests: “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Bleeding,” “White Supremacy is Terrorism,” “Deeds Not Words,” “Eve was Framed.”
This body of work had its inception in vintage photographs collected over several years: images of women of all races and backgrounds, and of birds. For Meehan, birds are symbolic of feminism (“the way flocks of birds come together with movement, but how they can also turn against each other or leave each other behind”); they also represent hope, flight, and fragility. Each photograph is bound to a brick, which can serve disparate uses, from weapon to building block. The bricks were piled under the folds of Through a Window, Over a Wall, the big central structure.
“Hope” featured an intensely poetic collection of indexical signs and symbols. Meehan’s works evoke a spectrum of emotions—shock, familiarity, numbness, and humor; they also generate a distinct aesthetic jolt through their incongruous mating of beauty and politics. The wide-ranging imagery and energy levels plumb Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic categories of “interesting,” “cute,” and “zany” while making profound commentary on sexism, cultural conventions, and pop culture. Deeply personal, Meehan’s use of text, images, and objects unpacks cultural memories via vintage photographs and source texts; it’s intensely and non-didactically feminist.
While her work can be theatrical and confrontational, it also lends itself to a slow and meditative read. Through narratives of heroism, political purity, and innocence, Meehan adds a distinctly ethical dimension. Encouraging a nuanced and thoughtful relationship with the world, her objects promote a genuine criticality. With playfulness and dark humor, she critiques institutional structures and the social practices embedded in them.
Meehan’s process includes the formation of a file/index containing texts and images linked to particular histories and generational/cultural memories. Under intense conceptual pressure, these sources are brilliantly reconstituted through a multimedia series of compound, often dissonant images, texts, sounds, and objects. Assembled and multiplied, these recombinant ideas are cleanly fused; the transformed elements speak eloquently across media and histories, addressing the body personal, the body political, and the embodiment of gender.