| 23 April, 2012 09:38
Affairs with Serpents and HeroInes,
River's Edge Gallery, Wyandotte, Nov 7, 2011- Jan 31, 2012
Natalie Haddad, Ph D. candidate in Modern and Contemporary Art,
University of California San Diego, freelance art critic
San Diego/Los Angeles
As the body announces itself in the soft curves of a back and hips barely covered by a black shawl it refuses to give itself, as the object that makes flesh the Cartesian cogito of Man. She refuses capture. She faces away. She stands barefoot on a grassy path in the woods, legs poised to walk on her way. Anyone may follow.
One of several photographs by Patricia Izzo in Affairs with Serpents and Heroines at River’s Edge Gallery, “Persephone Returns” distills something of the exhibition. Where often exhibitions focused on women challenge the oppression of the fairer sex within a male-dominated society either by cultivating an environment of exclusion and hostility toward men or by fashioning equality through sameness, Affairs invites the viewer, female or male, to cross over into its world. Drawing much inspiration from mythology and the psychical worlds of women, the show’s three artists––Izzo, Barbara Melnik Carson, and Birgit Huttemann-Holz––create a space permeated with the sediment of life, all the experiences, senses, and secrets that form the stratified landscape of each moment. The diversity of the works, along with an emphasis on time-honored techniques (Huttemann-Holz works in encaustic, Carson in clay, and Izzo paints many of her photographs) augments the sense of timelessness and free passage between mind and myth. In Izzo’s painted photograph “Bed 23 Is Going Home,” a young woman in a yellow dress sits on a narrow institutional bed, projecting a melancholy smile to the camera. The woman is the artist’s grandmother, photographed in 1944, a fact that adds to the layers of meaning in the work, but it’s not necessary background for the viewer to feel a sense of identification with the image. Another of Izzo’s photographs, of a strapless dress on a hanger, emerging from darkness and painted an electric blue (“Broken Spell”), reflects on “Bed 23” like a future or past in perpetual wait.
The subtlety of the artworks in the exhibition is disarming; they play with socially accepted associations between femininity and passivity by coaxing in the viewer with soft, lilting beauty and then revealing the full strength of the feminine gaze. It’s a gaze that dominates the gallery. Carson’s clay and found object sculptures of semi-androgynous faces with puckered red lips and large, drowsy eyes, mounted, seated on pedestals, or enclosed in boxlike “frames” with ephemera, surround the viewer like a chorus of ageless seers, and cast a spiritual net that enchants the entire space. In this context, the more worldly women and girls, particularly those in Huttemann-Holz’s paintings, assume an otherworldly air.
In one work “Young Ariadne”, a girl of age ten or eleven dressed in red, with long blond hair, is the Minoan princess who crucially helped
Prince Theseus overcome a minotaur and escape death in her father’s labyrinth, and later became the mortal wife of the god Dionysus. Leaning against a wall, arms stretched behind her head in a lounging pose, she gazes out and into her own reverie with enough ease to capture time in the eternity of dreams. The image suggests that both youth’s innocence and adulthood’s wisdom are mere phantasms.
A portrait of a young woman with downcast eyes and pensive face, pale skin sheathed in the billowing gown of a ballerina and bathed from behind in shadows "Serenity" could be its grown up sister.
Though any conventional notion of feminism is upended by the work in Affairs, the claim, made famous by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949), that women are made “other” by male-dominated society, is more appropriate here than its academic origin indicates. De Beauvoir argues that women are given a false aura of mystery by men. What’s too easily lost in the statement is that oppression is the enemy, mystery is not. The women comprising Affairs––forest nymphs and goddesses, artists and viewers––invoke the strange spectral “otherness” that hides in the light of the mundane, eluding those who lack the eyes, ears, or heart for it. Long before de Beauvoir, Woman was already the province of the “other” in mythological traditions. Stories of superstition and mysticism, which corrupted the purity of Man’s idealized woman, begat tales of feminine threats, nearly always rooted in powers that required (masculine) suppression. Among the most infamous of demonized women is the daughter of the sea god and goddess Phorcys and Ceto, the Gorgon sister Medusa.
Caught with Poseidon by the jealous Athena, Medusa’s punishment––snakes for hair and a gaze that turned onlookers to stone––was also her power. Even after her death at the hands of Perseus, her defeat was never quite complete: her head became the face of Athena’s shield; the goddess of war was forever represented by the chthonic mistress. In more than one work, Carson turns to the figure of Medusa. A sculpture entitled “Medusa” is a chalky white head mounted on a piece of found driftwood, from which rainbow-colored snakes emerge as wild waves of hair. Another work, “Out of Eden,” is a shard of a woman’s face––eye, nose, spirals of wire hair, and a glimpse of lips––mounted on an image of an apple and placed next to a snake.
Everyone knows this story, but the work’s proximity with “Medusa,” along with Izzo’s “Persephone,” Huttemann-Holz's " Young Ariadne", and all the women so defined by these legends, cuts a seductive swath of night across the garden of the known.