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Now Who's Laughing? Feminist art and Irish eyes at Beaver and UArts.

15.05.2004
Robin Rice, citypaper.net


Laughter Ten Years After

Beaver College Art Gallery and Atwood Library, Beaver College, 450 S. Easton Rd., Beaver, PA, through Oct. 27, 572-2131.

Elaine Reichek: Guests of the Nation

Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, University of the Arts, 320 S. Broad St., through Oct. 26, 875-1116.

Laughter Ten Years After at Beaver College is no knee-slapper. When Jo Anna Isaak expanded this reprise of The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter, which she curated some 10 years ago, she did not go for the yuks. The token male in the earlier show of six artists, Mike Glier (husband of past and current contributor Jenny Holzer), is gone, and 18 additional women, including two African Americans, Carrie Mae Weems and Lorraine O'Grady, have taken his place.

During a panel presentation at the University of the Arts (made by Isaak in conjunction with Elaine Reichek's Guests of the Nation, which is reviewed below), Isaak said that many kinds of laughter are represented in the show. The kind she must relish is the laugh of power, the deep and dangerous chuckle uttered by the genie who has just been released from the imprisoning bottle.

Laughter Ten Years After evokes a spectrum of feelings that include admiration and respect, but there's an undeniable harshness. Ilona Granet's pink and black metal signs No Cat Calls and Curb Your Animal Instincts are the only items which elicit an unselfconscious smile. Kathy Prendergast's tiny knitted sweater, which palpitates to the rhythm of a mechanical heart, may cause a flurry of "warm fuzzies" in someone's Hallmark heart, but not mine.

Irina Nakhova's mannequins verbally abuse anyone who bumps them ("You get your hands off me you money-grubbing kike..."). They project a savage irrational satire, which in these pieces, as in many in the show, focuses specifically on the character and function of language. Repeated sexual references suggest a sociopathic link between sex and rage which is all too common (in most senses of the word).

Weems' racist jokes in Ain't Jokin', Cindy Sherman's arcane self-portrait and O'Grady's Miscegenated Family Album, which juxtaposes Egyptian sculpture and the artist's own American family portraits, are among the familiar pieces in the show. Perhaps Isaak chose such well-known images not only for their bitter humor but to illustrate the critical successes of feminist art in the last decade.

Who has not read Jenny Holzer's Inflammatory Essays? They (It?) are displayed appropriately in a room in the library. There one can also view work from Mary Kelly's Menace, from Interim Part 1: Corpus. Her pristine drawings coupled with glossy black panels of white writing are physically beautiful. It's nice to be able to decipher them without shifting from one foot to another, although I always suspect Kelly of intentionally tormenting viewers, at least a little. That tiny cursive writing behind highly reflective plastic demands more than passive receptivity. In the gallery proper, a Holzer LED sign, the Guerrilla Girls' posters and other textual works also make demands on readers, but they are funny.

Politics and the body (the body politic) are well represented. The masculine is exemplified by Dorothy Cross' urinals in the shape of Britain and Ireland. Dotty Attie's disturbing Mixed Metaphors puts the pain back in painting with a graphic castration threat. But the most disturbing images I've seen in a long time are Marie Baronnet's pseudo-alphabetic sequence of nude photographs which prove once and for all that a healthy, normally proportioned female body arranged in patterns which are abstractly pleasant can look utterly repellent. These pictures are to the Playboy centerfold as Anabuse is to alcohol. They oddly remind me of some of Bill Wegman's photos of his dog Man Ray: corporeality engaged in distressingly awkward activities. Maybe Degas would have appreciated them.

In Nancy Spero's frieze Sheela and Wilma, a Celtic fertility/destruction goddess stretching open her vagina links arms with an aboriginal fertility goddess. The resulting pattern has an interestingly non-erotic ritual character. Spero's is one of the few essentialist works in the show. Feminist art has tended to split into intellectual, often verbal artists who engage in a critique of society and culture and those who are more concerned with returning subject matter to female-centered and goddess imagery. Contemporary art fashion and Isaak seem to have come down mostly on the side of semiotics and deconstruction, at least for now.

Elaine Reichek is showing Yellow Man, a well-known wall piece. It consists of knitted images reproducing life-size aboriginal figures from hand-colored ethnographic photographs. The use of knitting has a feminist connotation, though the subject itself deals with broader cultural constructions.

In Guests of the Nation, a solo show at the University of the Arts, Reichek turns her culturally critical hand to Ireland. The work in this exhibition was first shown in Home Rule at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

A few weeks ago, Reichek spoke briefly about her work. Then Isaak and Isaak's husband, James Joyce-scholar Dan O'Connell, who co-authored the catalogue essay for the show, discussed issues of Irish identity raised by Reichek's work. At the reception following this event, people of Irish descent photographed one another with framed fabrics on which Reichek has embroidered the words of Irish writers. Behind me, an unknown person muttered, "I bet they're not posing in front of the IRA picture."

The voice was referring to Easter Lilies (I.R. A. Provisionals), in which Reichek uses her familiar strategy of enlarging an archival photograph to life size and reproducing figures in knitted silhouette. She has made two versions of each of a pair of armed masked men crouched behind a tangle of barbed wire. They are isolated on the wall to either side of the big black and white photograph, divorced from their context and consequently abstracted - deprived of meaning.

In her talk, the artist said, "The thing that attracts me most about these images [that I reproduce] is that I'm suspicious of them." She is interested in the way that photographs and other visual records, including kitsch made for tourists, construct identities. A favorite American example is Curtis, whose photographs of Native Americans utilize props and settings he provided according to his own whims. Yet, these documents have become for many the quintessential vision of the "Indian."

"What I'm most trying to unravel in my work," Reichek deliberately punned, "is my own Western culture." The process of "destabilizing subject/ object positions" is made doubly problematic by the fact that information concerning inaccuracies in the representation of the past is often cross-disciplinary. For example, Reichek, who has also deconstructed her childhood Jewish-American bedroom, relies on written records to reveal inaccuracies in Curtis' and others' photos.

Native Americans are viewed as fellow victims by the Irish, who are aware that Ireland's colonization by the English parallels the colonization of America. Colonization changes that which went before irrevocably. Some things are destroyed and others enshrined, but the weight and nuance of the pre-colonial culture cannot be recaptured.

Still, when studying a critique like Reichek's, we should be mindful that stasis is not possible. Violent processes accelerate and distort inevitable losses, but cultures always change with the passage of time. However, forced untimely change, like the death of a child, is particularly poignant. Like Reichek we must learn to question the stories every picture tells. Reichek's choice of "feminine" means - knitting and embroidery - is simultaneously appealing and daunting in the absolute perfection with which she copies the silhouette of a photograph or embroiders the words of a song. The gathered knitted negative image of a quaint thatched cottage is a record of a sentimental falsehood which is also a reality. These "little nuggets of Irish culture" are worth seeing.

Murder at the Museum

This weekend, it's sudden death overtime at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Sudden Death... Sports, Murder and Anthropology begins Friday night, Oct. 25, with a panel of noted sports murder mystery writers. Edgar winner and anthropologist Aaron Elkins, who with his wife Charlotte Elkins, created the only female professional golfing detective, will speak. He'll be joined by Harlan Coben, who created sports agent sleuth Myron Bolitar, and Troy Soos, who writes historical baseball mysteries. Panelist Jody Jaffe was born and reared in Overbrook Park, PA. Her second mystery, Chestnut Mare, Beware, shows off her first-hand knowledge of the expensive world of show jumping. Book signing will round out the evening. Saturday will showcase contemporary and ancient, domestic and distant sports and death. Anthropologist Dr. Jeff Kowalski's morning presentation on the "Mesoamerican Ritual Rubber Ball Game," in which the losers were sacrificed, is just one example of how high the stakes can be. The afternoon program includes a discussion with contemporary sports journalists. In the evening a reception and dinner in the suitably dramatic Ancient Egyptian gallery will involve guests in unraveling a dramatized murder with an anthropological theme.

Sudden Death... Sports, Murder and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Museum, 33rd and Spruce, Fri.-Sat., Oct. 25-26, 898-4000.

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