When read or spoken, these simple words, “Grandmother’s china cabinet,” conjure up a flood of emotions, fragmented memories, and a nostalgic longing for an unattainable past. A time that is cherished, untouchable, and often full of color and kitsch. For artist Cheyenne Chapman Rudolph, these words hold a unique power, since much of her inspiration comes from growing up in her Mema’s home, surrounded by a large, loving family and strong female voices, and embedded in Southern traditions. Her family frequently used humor to overcome difficult times. This playfulness informed her studies in performance art, theater, and the ceramic arts at Murray State University in Kentucky and the University of Florida where she received her undergraduate and graduate degrees, respectively.
Growing up in Paris, Tennessee, Rudolph witnessed the sacrifice and dedication of her female family members in the service of others. These women led lives immersed in domestic tradition, following what now might seem like rather antiquated concepts of the ideal home. Rudolph explores this servile image in her work, breaking it down to its raw, stereotypical assumptions of gendered roles throughout the American South, and the image of the Southern belle—roles that continue to be in practice today.
Rudolph was drawn to these powerful female role models, not only for following the Southern traditions, but also for how those traditions defined them. Mema, as described by Rudolph, was a woman of strength and independence who grew up in a home founded on American relics and ideals, a house and objects that shaped Rudolph’s identity as a young woman in the South. As individuals informed by our environments, we often look to family for guidance in the development of our own identities. As we grow older, we begin to defy those pre-designated categories to create a unique character. However, the past always tends to leave a scar.
Rudolph’s Mema, an independent woman who found ways to defy her oppressive, gender-centered life, spent her life giving guidance and care to her family. She also had a love for ceramics. Centered inside her home was the traditional beloved shrine to kitsch, the prohibited, untouchable china cabinet, a time capsule of dinner parties past, along with other delicate and fragile family heirlooms that carry complex histories from one generation to the next.
But what happens when you realize that those idealized ceramic antiques are merely a fabrication or representation of wanting more, objects that are viewed as symbols of wealth, power, and a culture that one does not actually possess but simply yearns for? Rudolph’s work stems from questioning these ideals and the underlying power systems. She transforms and reframes this urgent conversation on gender roles, class, and systematic poverty into highly engineered objects and staged performances, all wrapped in a veil of absurdist humor.
Disrupting the idea around the sensual allure of the 1950s–1960s cocktail hour and dinner party, she redefines a framework within which to bring these metaphorical objects of wealth, class, and the ideal out of the china cabinet and obliterate them. Rudolph orchestrates overly saturated nostalgic performances, displaying and questioning this imagined glamour promised to us all, with a distrustful spotlight thrown on the objects that are part of the performances, such as Tables Center-Peas, Lemon-Aider, and the Sassy Sipper. She quite literally throws open the cabinet doors, exploring the hidden messages that are the key to all our own histories, our own variations on Grandmother’s china cabinet.
Rudolph and her artistic practice are also defined by the South, which she references through hints of Southern charm. Rudolph works to bring joy and humor, and to have meaningful interactions with her participants while raising an awareness of American consumerist culture that we all participate in—hoarding, collecting, and possessing objects. She subversively critiques a world and culture where you can never settle, needing to plan your next purchase, forever unfulfilled.
3–4 KitschInventions, Lemon-Aider performance installation (detail), 2018.
KitschInventions is a one-woman performative project focusing on delivering the (long retired to requiem) American Dream. The work references a domestic environment, which becomes a live set for her performances, armed with colorful backdrops and costumes referring to stylized gender stereotypes, and featuring interactions with the public leaning on dirty implications.
“These performative works capitalize on nostalgia and absurdity, using humor to broach sensitive topics related to the female body, the male gaze, and antiquated gender expectations.” Rudolph says. “The Lemon-Aider is an interactive mobile beverage cart—a traveling performance designed to challenge the collective assumptions surrounding gender identity and women’s self-sacrifice. A nostalgic lemonade stand, the Lemon-Aider is operated by a caricatured female, whose good intentions in service are peppered with indecorous insinuations brought on by the mechanics of operating the juicing device. This is not your childhood lemonade stand.”
Her creative productions present Rudolph as the central figure in a Cindy Sherman-esque performance. Rudolph explains, “. . . to begin, the Lemon-Aider arrests the viewer with its overstated retro aesthetic, pastel colors, and cartoonish proportions. Similarly, the viewer is greeted by a Lucille Ball–type character, whose single objective is to winningly demonstrate the merits of the mechanism.”
Rudolph continues to use childhood symbols of innocence and nostalgia to redefine our past, asking us to remember the truth, to rewrite our memories, and question the ideals of childhood. Are we guilty of romanticizing childhood, Americana, and to that effect the roles our parents played and continue to play in our lives? Her performances eradicate iconic symbols of innocence, so now lemonade stands feature phallic lemon squeezers and cups engineered with a hidden chamber for hard liquor to discreetly mix with lemonade or tea.
In the Sassy Sipper, staged and choreographed in a way to shatter the innocence of youth, Rudolph encourages us to stop taking part in this advertised and sexualized American wet dream. She explains, “. . . this drinking set combines yesterday’s vintage appeal with tomorrow’s innovative technology for today’s modern woman. The clever double-walled design of the Sassy Sipper allows users to secretly fill the hidden flask of the cup with just a tip of the wrist. This conceals both the sight and smell of the strong spirit and a second, more wholesome liquid is poured into the vessel. The two liquids can then mix in the mouth as the user drinks from the spout in the rim. To fill the cup, the user employs the Toddy Tankard, a three-part thermos. The colorful base is a removable flask, which stores the hearty liquor drink of choice. The central patterned pitcher stores the mixer, and the lid of the pitcher functions as a measuring shot glass. The entire set is decorated with colorful stylized pansies and is stored in the Sassy Satchel, a portable Pour-Table that will stock your sippers, tote your tankard, and transform into a picnic table with a grass-like blanket and comfy cushions for sitting.”
A Singular Space
As the first person in her family to graduate from college and the only to attend graduate school, Rudolph fulfilled the dreams that were set for her and defied the odds. She is both an insider and an outsider to her family.
“It is a singular space to exist, intriguing and lonely, and much of my art practice is a reflection and projection of my origins and my purpose,” she says. “Using humor and nostalgia, my work blends functional ceramic objects with campy performances and satirical videos. These elements pull from my background in theater and photography and contextualize the handmade ceramic objects, which are ambiguous and outlandish. The resulting absurd domestic scenarios illustrate childlike assumptions about family, relationships, and cultural expectations. The aesthetic is approachable, the ideas accessible, and the audience hopefully engages with vulnerability and openness.”
Rudolph brings a hyperawareness to the gender-specific, consumer-based capitalistic American culture sold to us, whether we embrace and accept our role or participate unaware. Within Rudolph’s performances we are presented with the sharp and mouth-watering bitterness we all love from lemonade, with a twist of the ever-present harshness found in our relationship with our pre-designed realities in the American culture.
A Pause in the Performance
With the loss of Rudolph’s grandmother and mother, she found that there was a definitive end to her history. She no longer had to bear that identity; she no longer had to restage those belief structures handed to her that defined her for so long; a dynamic shift has taken place. She now finds herself with a new voice and inspiration for the future with her own child’s birth. Rudolph hopes to offer light and inspiration to a new generation and help older generations embrace our contemporary world.
As she continues to focus on developing her practice in 2021, she sees the potential power in the poetics of the dinner party, and like the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, she wants to use this to bring communities together. Planning for an uncertain world after the COVID-19 pandemic, she feels it is time to redefine the dinner party to bring forward an untainted and unburdened understanding of social interaction and connections. In her ambition to reshape the voices of yesterday, while continuing to empower tomorrow’s agents, Rudolph co-founded the Socially Engaged Craft Collective (www.sociallyengagedcraftcollective.org) with a mission and commitment to rigorous practices that seek and produce research based on materiality, relational aesthetics, community building, and social practice.
Rudolph is currently developing a new series of projects that will use the strength found within contemporary art, clay, performance, and social participation to share this awareness with others around her. She will focus on redefining our relationships with the past, planning for an uncertain but engaged future, since within her practice, the foundational building blocks have been radically changed.
the author Edith Garcia is actively engaged in critical research on the convergence of contemporary art and design, technologies, and education with curatorial projects, publishing, and the realization of creative productions. Garcia is the director of communications for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and a professor at California College of the Arts. To learn more, visit www.edithgarciastudio.com or find her on Instagram @edithgarciastudio.