Look beyond 'Women' to view art
By Timothy Dyke
Special to The Advertiser
By Timothy Dyke
If we were to read, say, Toni Morrison's "Beloved" in a college course on black American social history, would we experience the novel differently than if we had picked it up at the mall bookstore just for fun? If we saw "Brokeback Mountain" at a gay and lesbian film festival, would we view the story differently than if we had seen it on date night at the multiplex when it first came out? Does the context in which we encounter art affect what we experience? If we look at creative expression through a specific cultural lens, do we see the art or do we see the lens?
Such questions reverberate around "Women Overcoming the Body," the GiRL FeST-affiliated art show at The ARTS at Marks Garage in Chinatown. The very definition of the show's title challenges viewers to see the work on display not just as pictures existing between frames, but as signs pointing to greater issues of gender, body image and sexuality. If the work is just the tip of a gyno-conceptual iceberg, then it probably matters that I am a man looking at this show by, and perhaps for, people of the female persuasion. If I were really, really honest with myself, I would probably acknowledge that I can't fully understand a show called "Women Overcoming the Body," because as a gay male, I've actually had very little experience with women's bodies, overcoming them or otherwise.
I offer those two paragraphs as disclaimers. In the end, I reject almost everything they imply. Art may speak more loudly and profoundly to those who have a connection to the culture from which it emanates, but if a book, painting, or piece of music aspires to rise past the level of sociological artifact, it should offer the potential for entertainment and enlightenment to anyone who bothers to look or listen. A black man in Chicago can love Bjork and a white guy in Iceland can groove to Buddy Guy. Likewise, the work on display in "Women Overcoming the Body" speaks to anyone moved by the mystery and beauty of the human condition. Universal themes derive from specific bodies of experience, and in this show these bodies are literal, female and profoundly provocative.
Consider, for example, the photography of Rita Coury. In "Dee" the artist offers a large black and white, 35 mm print of a nude woman with her hands locked in gesture in front of her chest. The shot portrays the woman from the top of her waist to the bottom of her neck. We never see the face of the subject. We strain to imagine what she looks like. At the bottom of the framed image, Coury discloses the scraggly top edge of her subject's pubic hair, but we are cut off from any exposure to what might be the most private areas of this woman's body. Even her breasts are obscured by the way the subject positions her hands. Coury's camera reveals and conceals until revealing and concealing — covering heart and breast, for example, with expressive hands that yearn — become different versions of the same action. We stare at this image that is striking in part because it makes us aware of how we are staring.
The best work in the show connects the way people look at women to the way people look at art. The theme of overcoming bodies applies as much to viewers as to the artists and their subjects. In the untitled prints by Malia Leinau, we see faces of women altered by cracks, drapery and photographic manipulation. I stared at the work with its webbed and sinewy forms, and tried to figure out exactly what I was looking at. In my head I had some notion of what a woman was supposed to look like, but to follow Leinau's train of thought, I had to surrender my preconceptions and allow the artist to recalibrate my ogle. The artist gives me a body to stare at, and my eyes have to overcome the body in order to see the art.
Jennifer Thorbjornsen crafts intricate, boldly colored illustrations that would look at home in the Richard Scarry children's books I craved as a kid. Upon examining the planes of her compositions, however, it becomes apparent that her figures bleed, die and fall apart. (They don't necessarily do these things on the canvases, but glorious gloom looms just outside the frames.) This is what Richard Scarry might create if he were scared, scary, female and scarred.
In the hands of lesser talents, a show title like "Women Overcoming the Body" could overcome the art, reducing it to mere political statement. This exhibition compels viewers to make sense of how they make sense. The artwork may focus on bodies, but the artists take hold of our minds and insist that we look at ourselves.
I entered the gallery wondering if I could see past the lens I look through, but when I left, I realized I'd spent most of my time gazing at beauty, then gazing at my own gaze.
Timothy Dyke is a teacher at Punahou School.