A merkin is a pubic wig for women. Merkins started being used in the 17th century by prostitutes, in order to keep them employable after they shaved their private parts due to STDs. Linda Gass, curator of the art show Intimate Apparel, decided to research the history of the garment after she heard it mentioned in a joke.
“A few days before I left for the [2005 Surface Design] conference, a friend sent me a link to a satirical Web site made to look like an online store for ‘must-have’ gear for Burning Man, the week-long communal camping and art event that takes place in the Nevada Desert every year around Labor Day,” said Gass. “One of the items on the Web site was a ‘Flashlight Merkin’ complete with a photo of a woman’s torso modeling this pink fur patch with an LED headlamp attached to it. Any woman who has gone to Burning Man can appreciate what a useful hands-free item this would be for the porta-potties at night.”
Gass was surprised at how little others knew of the merkin’s history, and so she and her friends starting asking around at the conference if others knew about it. The question of what a merkin meant to others fascinated Gass, and resulted in her inviting artists to reinterpret their understanding of the rare accessory. The exhibit, which features the work of 22 artists from all over the world, debuted in June 2007 at Pi Gallery in Kansas City.
Intimate Apparel came to Minneapolis last weekend, opening last Saturday at the Textile Center. The exhibit runs until October 24, when it travels to the University of Massachusetts.
To participate, Gass selected only female artists. “The subject of the exhibition, the merkin, is historically about a female part of the body. Many of the artists’ interpretations are very intimate and really tap into important female experiences that cover the complete emotional spectrum from joy and ecstasy to fear and protection.”
Materials used by the artists were diverse. “Most of the artists work in areas related to surface design and their typical materials consist of some form of textile,” said Gass. “Many of the artists really branched out and used unusual materials that really enhance the visual experience and impact of their work.”
Robin Crowley matched unusual materials to the theme of her piece, Bait, which comprises purple fishing lures. Fig Leaf, by Emily Dubois, was made out of Photoshopped pictures that were then woven on a computer-linked Jacquard loom. Anna Peach collected lichen from the Black Forest in Germany for her merkin, evoking an air of mystery. Dirty Book is an erotic collection of poems edited by Charlotte Bird. The merkin-shaped book contains the poetry of Walt Whitman and John Dunne among others, and includes images of crabs and spots of blood to remind the viewer of what the pubic wig originally concealed.
Gass addresses voyeurism a piece of her own: Caught You Lookin’, a merkin adorned with eyes and mirrors adorning the piece. “Like many of the artworks in the exhibition,” says Gass, “Caught You Lookin’ explores the wide range of issues associated with being female. Other artists explore fertility, shame, pleasure, power struggles and domination, flirtation and seduction. It’s interesting for me to observe that many of the works have a ‘dangerous’ quality to them, mostly through their choice of materials but sometimes through their imagery. We’re clearly dealing with a ‘dangerous’ part of the body here and those artists addressed that straight on.”
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