Sense of Self, at the Arts Exchange XChange Gallery through September 6, is the first curatorial venture of Jessica Caldas, whose work as an artist-activist has gained rapidly growing recognition.
Not surprisingly, the art of the half-dozen women artists in Sense of Self addresses Caldas’ personal interests — “sharing people’s stories and connecting those stories to the social issues that impact them, including domestic violence, homelessness, sexual assault and more.”
We might expect her show on “the impacts of society, culture, and community on identity and varying ideas of womanhood” to deepen our understanding of such topics, especially since she has taken care to choose artists with a range of age and ethnicity.
This is not the case, but it is not simply not the case. It’s worth taking time to explain why.
It’s important to analyze the show’s difficulties respectfully and precisely. As one of the exhibition artists, Elnaz Javani, writes, “Violence can be the humiliation that comes from a demeaning gaze.”
We never completely overcome our unconscious personal filters, so it is also important for me, as an older male, to say that this critical judgment is shared by women artists whose sensibilities I respect, and is in part derived from conversations with them.
So let’s make our way around the exhibition, more or less in the order in which the show would ordinarily be experienced by viewers who move round a room from left to right.
Elyse Defoor’s Shed 6, a life-size photograph of a crumpled black sculptural replication of a dress entangled with a black leather belt, can be read in several different, partially incompatible ways. Fortunately, Defoor’s artist’s statement makes clear her message about the pain involved in casting off outgrown circumstances in the way that an organism sheds a constricting exoskeleton.
If Defoor’s emotionally unsettling photograph creates subtlety at the cost of ambiguity, this is the problem with images in general, and has been throughout art history. The trade-off between subtlety and ambiguity is why an artist’s statement or wall-text commentary is necessary in most cases in which art functions as more than eye candy.
Caldas’ own artwork superimposes handwritten text on emotionally involving images, so it comes with its own built-in commentary, but her didactic devices aren’t unreasonably heavy-handed, so it’s a satisfactory solution to the dilemma.
Elaine Alibrandi’s artworks here manage to be visually pleasing while communicating their message either a little too obviously or too opaquely. The iron grillwork of Pretty Prison is a succinct, elegant allegory of the restrictions of traditional feminine roles — the visual pleasure reinforces the point — but the undergarments and fashion accouterments she turns into wall sculptures in Fill in the Blanks and Cast Off would be nothing but slightly unnerving formal compositions without Alibrandi’s commentary on society’s “one size fits all” expectations about the female body. (However, they’re visually and conceptually related to Defoor’s work in interesting ways, and this is one of Caldas’ better curatorial juxtapositions.)
Likewise, Kelly Kristin Jones’ dot collages would be pure decoration without their titles — Southern Lady, July-August 2013 and Seventeen Magazine, July 2013 — and the caption information that the materials are magazine cuttings. Even then, it’s not immediately obvious that these are skin tones in photographs; with that knowledge taken from her artist’s statement, we can ponder why a certain midrange set of colors dominates, while both lighter and darker shades seem to be absent.
This brings us to the biggest, most ambitious and in some ways most and least successful piece in the show, Grace Needlman’s collaboration with Elisa Gonzalez titled Nothing but the stovepipe. This consists of Needlman’s wall-filling painting as backdrop to cutout portraits of pioneer women and Gonzalez’ framed poems about life in a bygone North Dakota, accompanied by a table containing photographs with fragments of historical texts printed on the back. Viewers are invited to write brief stories elicited by these photographic cues, for perusal by later viewers.
Needlman’s harsh-colored painting is visually discordant with the muted palette of the historical narrative (the larger work contains images of everything from Duchamp’s famous urinal to architecture). Is the dominance of the insistently contemporary painting-collage meant to create viewer discomfort?
The artwork’s overall story is given in fragments to stimulate audience involvement — the kind of relational aesthetics that is at the center of much of Caldas’ recent practice. But many viewers are more likely to ask why we have been presented with a mystery without a key.
Iman Person’s abstract drawings about “what true balance feels like” are minor pieces by a fast-rising and frequently overcommitted artist. Although well executed, without her explanation they wouldn’t be recognized as studies of how it feels to inhabit a particular female body. In like fashion, Elnaz Javani’s handsewn images on fabric would remain conceptually elusive without her remarks about violence against women.
Thus the show is flawed but promising, a harbinger of more productively complex things to come from Caldas.
Closing reception, 1 to 5 p.m. September 6. It will include a talk and studio visit with Elyse Defoor.