The Secret Place I Hid: Kit Kite and the X Housewife Portraits
At Home in the Puppet Closet
Five-year old Kit Kite is watching television on a Saturday morning. She turns the dial, flipping through the cartoons. She stops on something she has never seen before. Costumed women are gathered on a stage, their legs long, their necks bare. They are standing on their tippy-toes. Kit turns up the volume and hears the tom-tom of drums, the deed-a-reedle of a fiddle, and the sweet hum of flutes. A man, dressed all in white, enters to applause. He pirouettes across the stage, takes a deep arabesque, and catches a woman who has sailed into his arms as if by magic. The lights turn the stage a silvery blue. More people appear. They form an equal-armed cross, and like a pinwheel, they circle round and round, then separate, and suddenly, the man and one woman are alone.
It is the Boloshi Ballet performing Cinderella, and five-year old Kit Kite has discovered the Theater.
At six years old, she has all the vinyl of Gilbert and Sullivan. Picture her, humming along to Pirates of Penzance. At ten, she attends a community art guild. She is its youngest member. She strikes up a friendship with a Civil War battlefield painter. She enjoys gardening, writes assiduously, and illustrates her works on butcher’s paper. One book is called The Back of the Winged Door. Another, The Secret Place I Hid. She guards her work. She is a private child, given to preferring stretches of time alone.
She says of her creative world, “I felt so micromanaged, that if I let anyone into that world, it would be managed, too.” As she grows up, she continues to be protective of her work, laboring under perfectionism and keeping it from sight. At twenty-three, she is married, and if she creates anything, it is in secret. This way, the husband cannot control this prism of her multitudinous self.
After the divorce, she fends for herself and her children. She is ready to create.
Each Suburban Wife Struggles with It Alone
At 10:00 am, the Housewife has finished her chores. The children are absorbed in a parent-approved learning program on the television. The beds are made, the dishes done, the house sanitized and polished. She pours herself a glass of water and sits down at the table. Suddenly, the glass seems more real than she is. The objects of the home surround her; the appliances emit their faint buzz, the hands of the clock move, the faucet drips into the pristine sink. The fan whirs overhead.
Feeling less and less like she can define herself, feeling less and less real, the Housewife begins to disappear into the world of the home. At the same time, the objects that surround her are enhanced. She melts into the wallpaper. She is displaced among the kitchen utensils, the iron, the mop. Even she cannot find herself among these items.
Says Kite, “Everyone’s felt displaced or replaced at one point or another. They’ve felt put aside. They’ve disappeared in a room, were not acknowledged, felt less than. Or they don’t know what their use is.”
A Vacuum Bag is No Good without a Vacuum Cleaner
The series began with the X Housewife Drafts, iPhone pictures taken by the artist in her bathroom mirror. She twists a measuring tape around her head, fans several mousetraps across her forehead like a hand of cards. A bouquet of light bulbs springs from her ear. The names are cheeky: “Do I Measure Up?” and “The Humane Hunt of the Suburban Kill” show the artist placing her work in context, but not without a wink. The wordplay in the titles balances their conceptual weight. She shot 11,000 of them over two years, selecting some to post on Instagram.
Kite performs the Housewife in ten X Install Portraits, which she affectionately calls “the bitches.” These silver gelatin 32 by 48 inch portraits feel big as life. In these, she dramatizes the same theme. The shots are composed to corner and trap the Housewife; her world is monochromatic, her instinct for intimacy with others subdued. You can almost smell the Clorox in Kite’s immaculate scenes. She’s suited in a black jumpsuit with her hair wrapped in a scarf, her straight-edged bangs framing her face. The prints have high contrast between crisp, clean whites and deep blacks, along with the signature silvery tone of gelatin processing. It’s a perfect fit for the pristine, menacing scenes that Kite performs.
In Forked Over Consumption, the silverware leaps from the drawer, pulling the Housewife in headfirst. In Backed and Racked, she carries the heavy burden of cooking and baking tools – frying and saucepans, colanders and muffin tins. They cling to her back like a cape, pinning her down. In my favorite, The Levitating Rooms of Vacuum, the Housewife sits on the floor wrapped in extension cords like a straightjacket, the vacuum suspended above her. “Who’s pushing whom?” Kite asks us.
She admits, “there are some things about the work that are in fact in our culture that just happen to be suburbia, domestic tools, the wife or stay-at-home mom, but it was very personal to me. There was no shouting back or telling someone how it was.” She continues, “This is not a critique. This is about relationship. The rules of relationship. How we treat each other and how that defines us. How we relate to relationship.”
Those who have felt completely alone in a crowded room will empathize with the Housewife. Her plight is well known. It is less about gender roles than it is about getting lost in the life you are supposed to love, waking up and wondering how you got there. Wasn’t this the plan? How is it possible that I was wrong all along? Why aren’t I finally satisfied with myself?
Kite’s hindsight is wiser. “How do we know it’s a failure? How do we know that our failure gauges our worth? What makes something right or wrong? There has to be room for the element of failure. Success is built on a series of failures. We seem to despise or shun the failures, but that’s the gold. When I grasp that concept, I can look back and not be resentful.”
The Problem that Has No Name
In my earnest study of Kite’s work, I rummage through unpacked boxes to find my heavily underlined copy of The Feminine Mystique from a women’s studies seminar I took in college. Of my many annotations, I find “housewife as political agent,” “lack of self–>self absorbed into family,” and “Mary Tyler Moore dyes hair blond=turmoil,” and “Functionalism!?!?” underlined three times. The moment of these discoveries is made comical by single words asked as questions: rebellion? childlike? regret? Identity?
If only things were that simple, that clear. Patriarchy aside, the loneliness persists, ancient and pressing.
A Melodramatic Moment
Object X is a one-room house installation and short film. The house is painted black, more like the shadow of the house than the house itself. The interior is the blank white of the subconscious, big enough for a single viewer to sit in a white chair. The black and white film begins to play; it is a visual narrative of the X Housewife Portraits. Kite compiled close-up shots of the objects in her home–the second hand of the clock, the whirring fan, the leaky faucet. Kite’s voice addresses the viewer: “Think of yourself in a room. Think of the objects that are found there. What did you see? How did you feel? What did you perceive as real? When have you felt overlooked? Now, what do you look like in the room?”
A man comes out the Object X house. His eyes are wet. He shakes his head as if confused. “I think I understand how that felt.”
“It’s not a critique,” Kite says. “This is about relationship.”
Kit Kite’s “Object X” and “X Install Portraits” are included in the group exhibition Paper, Thread, and Trash now on view at Nashville Public Library Art Gallery in Nashville, TN until March 29, 2015.
See the X Drafts on Instagram @kitkite.
Images courtesy of the artist. © Kit Kite