in review: Lindsay Eyth, "Self-Defense"
At a recent art show, I found myself in a peculiar discussion. Sure, the work is good, but is it too obvious? a fellow visitor asked. Do the titles give too much away? I disagreed. I don’t believe that artwork benefits from inscrutability, I told him. Art should allow for multiple entry points and multiple interpretations, but there must be some way in.
Upon further reflection, I would argue that the more directly an artist can connect with their audience, the better. This is not an argument for simple work, although work done masterfully and effectively can take on the illusion of simplicity—the artist literally makes it look easy. Case in point: Lindsay Eyth’s Self-Defense, on display now at the RECSPEC Gallery.
Eyth is the creative force behind Eythink, a popular design studio and shop that specializes in brash feminist merchandise. Her I don’t fucking care if you like it shirt, inspired by Rebecca Traister’s 2014 essay at the New Republic, became a viral phenomenon and was ubiquitous around Austin. Since then, Eyth has expanded her clothing and accessories to include everything from Do not talk to me towels to feminist T-shirts and Male Tears pins and koozies. Her goods are now carried in shops in New York, Toronto, Tallahassee, and elsewhere.
With her exploding popularity, Eyth opened a small shop in front of the Museum of Human Achievement, a kitschy day-glo trailer called The Mall, and she continued to contribute work to MOHA’s infamous East Austin Studio Tour group exhibitions. But she never thought to put together a solo show until she was approached with the idea by RECSPEC Gallery. Thankfully, she took up the offer.
Self-Defense puts Eyth’s work into new context. Although the message is as on-point as ever, the gallery setting gives her work space for contemplation. It also gives her literal space to expand her pieces to a larger scale. The majority of the show consists of large pink acrylic weapons, including a nail-studded club, a guillotine, a knife, and a cat-faced self-defense keychain—an item that Eyth has been selling in her shop since 2014. The keychain has drawn greater attention recently with a slew of news articles indicating that the item is actually illegal to carry, classified under the same law as brass knuckles. This, in a state where it’s legal to openly carry assault rifles around with you, is infuriating.
Eyth draws attention to this gendered injustice in all of her work. Her titles are not oblique: messages like Fuck You, Paul Qui are pointed and obvious (Qui, a popular restauranteur, was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in March 2016; the charges were dropped this past April, but not before the Austin American-Statesman published a long, sympathetic “troubled genius” piece about the incident). Other titles vacillate between vulnerability and bravado: Some Nights You Dance With Tears In Your Eyes juxtaposed against You’re Not Hiding, You’re Not Worth A Thing. Others probe important questions, such as I wonder what the wage gap wld be if we took into account the lost wages of women reeling from trauma in a world that’s callous to our pain? Eyth’s work is no less powerful for its straightforwardness. Rather, it pulls its strength from this blunt approach, refusing to hide in ambiguity or cower in polite terms.
There is only way, essentially, to interpret Eyth’s work. Some may find this to be a weakness, to which Eyth would reply, appropriately, I don’t fucking care if you like it. In Texan society in 2018—in American society in 2018—these are issues that need clear, urgent expression. Eyth’s talent lies in the perfection of her execution: a delicate, sheer pink guillotine with a glittering chain, or a cute cat keychain capable of puncturing your jugular. Compared to her competitors making similar keychains, the quality of her design and the singular vision of her aesthetic is obvious. Therein lies the power of Eyth’s art, which is easily commoditized but refuses to be compromised for mass appeal (Eyth notes on her website that she will not modify or censor any of her messages). For many artists, the perfection of a singular style risks masking the vibrancy of the work, but Eyth maintains her power to startle through her stark messaging and uncompromising, visceral, violent resistance to the patriarchy. Far be it for me to pass my own meaningless judgment on Eyth’s work, but Self-Defense is, quite simply, vital.
Self-Defense is on display at RECSPEC Gallery through July 14.