J. Morgan Puett: Labor Portraits

Mildred’s Lane is an artistic experiment conceived by American J. Morgan Puett located in rural Pennsylvania. The one hundred acre site hosts residencies and fellowships informed by what Puett describes as “expanded notions of women’s work in the world”. Her own creative career is diverse, ranging from the fashion industry in the 1990s, to installation artist and archivist, and today Mildred’s Lane, where life and art are literally inseparable.

Gendered roles and any sense of hierarchy within hospitality – from cook or grounds keeper, to provisions for warmth and comfort – are all upturned at Mildred’s Lane. As Puett explains, “through the lens of hospitality we must relearn and drop old habits”. The providers of comfort, nourishment, and the home – and the labour this involves – are no longer assumed or fixed identities. Instead a visitor plays as much a role in delivering hospitality as they may enjoying its receipt.

The language of the entire endeavour is particular; events are swarmings or entanglements, the centre in nearby Narrowsburg, New York a contemporary art complexity. Vocabulary becomes a way to challenge entrenched assumptions about care, but also forms a particular aesthetic and creative style that governs the project. Conventional “art” is, as the name exposes, edited out. Instead the rambling site and its outposts in the local community are governed by a desire that “every project has to be functional”. “No plop art,” Puett explains categorically.

Labor Portaits is a photographic series that documents the various roles and contributions – literal and allegorical – at Mildred’s Lane. A Digestion Choreographer oversees nourishment; the Ministry of Comfort deals with all things sleep and rest related. But the series also includes the more obscure. The Minister of Serial Materialism (the sitter is in fact the photographer of the series Jeffrey Jenkins) alludes to the compulsion for collecting shared by many of the individuals who gravitate to Mildred’s Lane. Also present are an Ambassador of transhistorical agency, aka Nathalie Wilkin who coordinated the photo shoots, and a Master Hooshress: Rebecca Purcell, real-life creative director of the series and consummate mixer and complicator of visual meaning.

Purcell refers to a “transhistorial” approach to the series – magpie picking from across history to “collapse several genres” within each portrait. Fifteenth century religious portraits by Italian Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli provide one starting point. Arches above the sitters’ heads and columns to the side recur across the series thanks to his influence. (The Digestion Choreographer is adorned in a vegetable garland popular in Crivelli’s paintings.) But sombre turn of the eighteenth century American labour portraits – typically shot with the subject standing before a backdrop wearing everyday clothing – provided further inspiration.

The Labor Portraits are the sum of far more than a single set of hands or pair of eyes. Instead, in keeping with the Mildred’s Lane ethos, organic collaboration directed each stage of the process between Puett, Jenkins and Purcell, as well as the fellows who contributed to planning meetings and costume construction. Working from a list of job titles drafted by Puett, Purcell sketched out initial characters. In a conversation with no less than fourteen Mildred’s Lane fellows content was then further brain stormed, with Purcell noting, she chuckles, “every single comment”.

It may seem like an awful lot of voices and hands to create one cohesive set of images, but the collaboration between the three benefitted from decades of prior experience working together. In fact, Purcell explains that early in her career she sought out Puett and Jenkins after seeing their work, convinced that they “spoke language I identified with”. Nathalie Wilkin, aka Ambassador of Transhistorical Agency, coordinated the photo shoots.

The final synthesis of all these voices became, on average, two portraits photographed per day. (Puett fittingly makes her appearance in the series dressed in what looks to be Teflon but is in reality a silver woven fiber. As an Ambassador of Entanglement she is armed with tea cups at the ready.) All were shot in a barn working with the variances of natural light. Despite the variety of content within each image, there are constants that Jenkins confirms help the images read as a cohesive series: costumes tend to be white, props neutral. This coupled with the arch and columns creates a consistency within the series.

All three agree that the Land Steward, her feet coloured in the rich earthy tones of mud, is a particular favourite. And there remain several headings still to address. In keeping with the collaboration fostered by Mildred’s Lane likely hundreds more are still to evolve. A potential museum project is also in the works that would mean working with historical objects from the collection. For now we are invited to muse over the existing thirteen identities. Dressed beneath the poetry and costume of Labor Portraits are difficult, at times uncomfortable, concerns to confront about the value of labour and our expectations both as its recipients and providers.

Selvedge magazine spring 2016