A&E » Visual Arts

Domestic goddesses

Maid in the U.S.A. celebrates the humble homemaker



A cursory glance at artist Tracy Wagner's paintings might make you think she has wiseacre irony in mind.

The 33-year-old Cabbagetown artist creates paintings that look like recruitment posters for 1950s housewifery.

But in talking to Wagner, it becomes apparent that this soft-spoken graduate from Savannah College of Art and Design, who counts Henry Darger and Ida Applebroog among her influences, is after something a little more complicated than simple winking irony over the ecstatic middle-class plenitude of the '50s home front.

In Wagner's magazine glossy paintings, a gorgeous Myrna Loy brunette with apple-cheeks and sparkling teeth gives household grime the cheery brush-off with her cleaning rag. In another image, a lovely blond mom holds a freshly washed pinafore aloft for her waiting pigtailed daughter. A larger work done on wood and painted on two sides, like a totem pole interpreted by Ladies Home Journal, features a woman in an apron and a ballerina skirt holding a vacuum cleaner nozzle aloft like a Stalin-era Soviet worker wielding a scythe. Above her, adorable bluebirds are set against a powder blue sky. Those hovering, Disney chirpers are a recurring theme in Wagner's work, a reference to her grandmother's premonition months before her death, of bird song.

Wagner does not disdain the ebullient innocence of the '50s, but is a little punch-drunk over that decade's vanished charms. Her Cabbagetown cottage is decked out like "I Love Lucy"-meets-eBay, decorated with metal kitchen canisters, vintage packets of Jack and Jill Jell-O, a Naugahyde turquoise easy chair and a collection of Col. Sanders and Count Chocula bobble heads. Wagner's aesthetic influences -- Life, Ladies Home Journal, vintage teachers' workbooks and coloring books -- are equally retro. But her spiritual guide is the ceaseless domestic labor of her own family members -- the mother, aunt and grandmother who defined her down-on-the-farm Indiana girlhood.

Wagner's paintings represent a slightly more enchanted and perfect version of her own home life. Her mother and aunt were archetypal '50s-style stay-at-home housewives devoted to the unceasing, uncompensated care of their husbands and children. Wagner grew up amidst a close-knit family in southeast Osgood, Ind., in a small enclave of trailers within walking distance of each other. Her family never understood her desire to go to college and wanted her to stay close to home, to marry and have children.

Her paintings are, in a way, an homage to family and to the often smirked-at labor done by her mother and her aunt, who now work as cleaning ladies.

"Sometimes people in their community think they're lower class since they're cleaning," acknowledges Wagner of the stigma attached to women's work. "But it's just a job."

Cleanliness in Wagner's nostalgia-drenched images becomes a labor of love. Though the works seem kitsch in the extreme, unlike much kitsch, the work is defined by emotional over investment rather than detachment. Wagner tends not to see Momism as some smothering joke, but as a comfort of sorts.

Executed in shades of cantaloupe, buttery yellows and a perfect vintage seafoam green, Wagner's seductively cheerful paintings suggest housecleaning, vacuuming and the presentation of elaborate peach Jell-O molds are the equivalent of religious ecstasies of Catholic saints.

Wagner's cleaning ladies and household saints will be featured in a solo show, Maid in the U.S.A. The show opens Sept. 11 at local indie curator Susan Bridges' White Space Gallery, a carriage house that sits behind her Edgewood Avenue home.

Wagner says she hasn't thought too much about her show's title, Maid in the U.S.A., or the opening date, on Sept. 11, but it's hard not to read the show as a kind of proud corrective to a central American myth. In Wagner's post-ironic hands, the marginalized labors performed by homemakers -- the ultimate working class -- present a vision of an "other" America worth celebrating.


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