The more than 40 women artists in “Material Witness,” at Agnes Scott College’s Dalton Gallery through November 16, approach the politics of self, community and world with wry wit and an intensity that is all the more potent for being tempered.
Sponsored by the Women’s Caucus for Art of Georgia, the exhibition is curated by Lisa Alembik, Marcia Wood and Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, who have done a fine job of hanging it to reveal emerging themes and stylistic commonalities among otherwise quite diverse works. The show suggests that the wrenching psychological exploration characteristic of much of women’s art at the end of the 20th century has given ground to a delight in irony, nuanced political commentary, a somewhat detached assessment of the feminine self and a certain amount of levity. Anyone who still contends that feminists lack a sense of humor will have to rethink that stance after viewing this show.
In Amanda Dumas-Hernandez’s “Self Reflection,” a dozen or more round makeup mirrors glitzed in silver sparkly stuff project from an azure wall, offering genial recognition of the dreamy adolescent narcissism that underlies the entire project of self-examination. Another of her works, a vacuum cleaner sprayed with the same silver stuff, typifies a vein of facetiousness that runs through the exhibit: It’s titled “Curse/Blessing #11: Suck Up.”
In counterpoint to “Self-Reflection,” Cecelia Kane’s “How Am I Feeling Today?” comprises a series of drawings based on photos she took of herself in the mirror first thing in the morning. We all know how we look first thing in the morning: goofy, tragic, angelic, vague, craven or disastrous. Assuming an almost scientific attitude, Kane is serious about her task, and the drawings are convincingly executed in a hodgepodge of styles to demonstrate the plasticity necessary to represent “the self.” The drawings also convey the arbitrariness of how we see ourselves: It depends on which side of the bed we get up on.
Elise Thompson’s painting, “Self and Others,” shows two evocatively rendered female figures sitting side by side. One’s face is a blurred gesture; the other’s is distinct. Which is the self and which is the other?
Political commentary is an important aspect of this exhibit and coheres comfortably with works that reassess the business of self-exploration. Cat Manolis’ “Unstable Environment #3, The Future Is Not Like Before” (another work with sequins) shows an Asian Communist icon and his crouching tiger courted by headless, glittering showmen bearing iPhones. A small banner hanging from his pocket says “Eat.”
Political awareness emerges as an inevitable extension of thinking, living and feeling. Carolyn Sherer’s photograph, “Shirley and Marge Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South,” presents her subjects with a dignified, almost classical pathos. Myra Eastman’s two “Voting Series #12” works, in gouache and newsprint on wood panel, are executed in the naive style of an untrained artist, suggesting perhaps that voting is both indigenous and endangered.
“Dia del Trabajo 1, 2, and 3” by Sandra Trujilo is a series of small drawings on clay that express the often futile, exhausting quality of everyday work. Kathryn Clark’s “Riverside Foreclosure Quilt” and “Albuquerque Foreclosure Quilt” draw attention to the vulnerability of home, to the financial crisis’ ruthless trashing of modest human attempts at comfort and security. Paula Evirett’s “Iraq,” a haunting monoprint, is a spectral evocation of the human cost of war.
Appropriately, some of the works echo Joseph Beuys, another artist who explored the spiritual, personal and human dimensions of political engagement. Julie Sirek’s “Secrets in My Closet” and “Vanishing” are dresses made of paper. Their fragility and ephemerality evoke nostalgia, and they contrast significantly with the sturdy reliability of Beuys’ felt suit. Dorothy Cheng’s “Fountain” and “Consume #1” are made of human hair, a material as powerful as it is unsettling.
Surrealism surfaces frequently here, demonstrating a delight in the uncanny. Kristin Skees’ “The Gannons,” an archival inkjet print, could be an homage to Rene Magritte. It pictures a couple “at home,” in a respectably appointed living room with a cat and a wall-mounted television that plays a burning fire. But they are encased in knitted sheaths that cover them from head to mid-leg: knitted condoms of anonymity.
Lucy Hall’s exquisite collages, “Killer Décor” and “Laying Waste,” invest domestic spaces with sinister attributes that are camouflaged by careful décor. Stacy Rexrode’s “Cherished Tchotchke Knows Her Place” is an orange ceramic monstrosity that mocks the role of women in bourgeois society.
“Where the Bones Lie, Rebuild,” a series of box-framed sculptures of bones and bone-like artifacts by Virginia Maksymowicz, reflects something important about the spirit of this exhibit. These works combine an archetypal sensibility with the scrutinizing gaze of an observant investigator. Like many other works in this impressive show, they stand as a “material witness” to the artistic intelligence that created them.
Larry Walker, Jiha Moon, Sarah Emerson and Don Cooper reflect on their world views and the forces that drive their work in a panel discussion moderated by Lisa Alembik, 3-5 p.m., October 20, in the
Katherine Woltz Reception Room, Rebekah Scott Hall. The gallery will be open 1-4 p.m.