Sunday, January 23, 2011

We Contain Multitudes

Have you ever been "boxed" before? By this I don't mean literally contorted into a UPS package, but rather categorized based on your appearance and mannerisms. Though a necessary social tool, categorizing can result in narrow or unrepresentative judgments. The Hybrid Identity exhibit at Columbia Art League both reveals our human proclivity to "box" and encourages us to operate beyond it by exposing the many identities that dictate our self- (and collective) understanding.

In what amounts to portraiture, the exhibited artists explore their fantasies as action heroes, their seemingly incongruous identities, and the (sometimes scary) recesses of their subconscious. While some identities are accepted or rejected, others are in the process of negotiation and exploration. Some artworks are straightforward like Tom Stander's Twisted wood sculpture, while others like Lauren Orscheln's mixed media work, Where Is the Way to the Dwelling Place of Light?, are mysteriously ambiguous. Through a variety of mediums, these artists attempt to visualize a concept that so strongly defines us, abstractly and manifestly.

The process of visualizing identity is not always a cake walk, and Jane Mudd reveals this reality in her oil on canvas, Muddled Face.
In this painting about painting, Mudd captures herself in the process of making a self-portrait. We are given the impression that she is standing before a mirror in an attempt to create a likeness of herself. The comical expression on her face--a combination of struggle and haphazardness--makes it difficult to keep a laugh in. The artist's expression and said-muddled state suggests her difficulty with self-portraiture, provoking the viewer to consider the labor of art-making and in turn de-romanticizing the artistic process. Mudd's transparency is refreshing and reminds us not to take a completed artwork for granted.

Similarly amusing is Bill Manion's Abstract Expressionist Cartoon. It satirically alludes to Jackson Pollock, a figurehead of the 1940's and 50's Abstract Expressionist movement that championed
personal expression and the use of big, manly canvases. Pollock was a paragon of masculinity and self-inspired creativity who made a name for himself with his action, or "drip," paintings. Invoking both control and chance, he splattered paint across a canvas in a manner that was physically engaging and considered heroic by some. Manion's cartoon parodies the masculine bravura characteristic of Pollock. Clad in home-made jean shorts and what has come to resemble a tie-dye shirt, our painter looks like a cross between a hippie and surfer dude. A glass of wine has replaced Pollock's signature cigarette, lending to our cartoon artist an air of dainty civility. Manion likewise subverts the active, heroic gestures of the Abstract Expressionists and their strong physical involvement with the
canvas. The cartoon artist looks askance at his painting, appearing more concerned with his wine and the activity beyond his workspace. Another jab at the Abstract Expressionists is Manion's integration of high and low art, which to loyalists of traditional art is a form of heresy. The work produced by figures like Pollock was considered "high art," while comics, etc. were considered "low" since they were readily available to the masses for consumption. By blending these categories, Manion is thumbing his nose at Abstract Expressionist purists and perhaps criticizing the boundaries of high art.

To continue in the realm of parody, Susan Taylor Glasgow's "You Are My Sunshine" Cookie Jar from glass and mixed media is more than appropriate.
In this clever and suggestive piece, Glasgow parodies the sexually inhibited 50's housewife by means of a hybrid woman-cookie jar. The upper torso of a housewife erupts out of a jar bearing a frontal hole. The woman peers down with an innocent, happy-go-lucky expression, apparently in response to the hand reaching inside the jar for a cookie. The hand is feminine and banded, presumably hers. By synthesizing woman and jar, Glasgow plays up the woman's reduction to the role of homemaker. Moreover, the jar's dual function as a cookie receptacle and lower torso allude to the maternal and sexual functions of the female. If we consider the jar as a metaphor for the woman's womb, Glasgow has essentially chosen a vessel to represent a vessel (Cookies in a womb. Hm.) The jar alludes not only to the child-bearing capacity of the woman; the suggestive location of the opening offers new meaning to the woman's pleasure as she peers down at her hand.

The above three works are a mere fraction of this large exhibit, yet they convey the diversity of ideas explored. Like our own identities, the works themselves can sometimes be hard to read, suggesting that we can only garner so much information from the surface before becoming intimate with a person's inner complexity. Moreover, identities are not solely a product of our own making; other people and institutions contribute to our self-understanding. Glasgow's cookie jar, for example, reflects how social constructs can inflect a woman's identity. Ultimately the various identities confronted in the exhibit results in a collective heartbeat that leaves you feeling more attune to the realities of human-ness. Sure, we all know that everyone has a dark or confused or hopeful side, but seeing them visualized makes this knowledge more tangible.

Hybrid Identity is on exhibit through February 26, 2011.


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  2. Olivia, this is a really great entry. I'm kind of in love with the "You Are My Sunshine" cookie jar! Although the media and tenor has changed, the general sentiment reminds me of the Femmage movement, perhaps most notably embodied in Judy Chicago. The Femmage movement combined images of the female body with womens' crafts, which had heretofore been devalued as "low" art.

    However, perhaps Glasgow takes the message further. Judy Chicago called on vaginal imagery in order to celebrate womens' bodies unironically. In contrast, Glasgow is using humor and satire to de-naturalize gender stereotypes. The idea that cookies can be pulled out of a woman's vagina is so absurd that it undermines the assumption that women have an inborn ability to provide sustenance and comfort.

    I also really enjoyed your reading of Bill Manion's work. Keep up the good blogging!

    <3 Niki

  3. I just saw this link on my FB and decided to see what you were writing about. I really glad to have done so because this was a fascinating blog. Like the previous poster, I really enjoyed your comments about Susan Taylor Glasgow's "You Are My Sunshine" Cookie Jar. In addition to the Classical allusion of Pandora, which relegates the female body and sexuality to fertility (as you mentioned), I also thought of the modern connotations of the proverbial "hand caught in the cookie jar" as focus of taboo and prohibition. From this perspective the work comments on how female sexuality is objectified as male possession (I may be going a little to far with this gender theory interpretation). The jar focuses our attention onto who is allowed to access the jar and who is not, while the imagery of the wedding band reminds of the parties that are involved, the husband and the wife. Of course, the irony is that the woman's husband is the one who is traditionally privy to the "nookie" while the woman is prohibited from her own body. Here, however, the connotations of the taboo cookie jar highlight deviant nature of women exploring and enjoying their own sexuality.
    Great work, Olivia. I'll try to keep up with the blog and not be such a smart ass in the comments. =)

  4. Olivia! Fellow blogger & CAL Volunteer.... Did you notice the back of the STG cookie jar? It's an image of the same woman, only she's stripped down to a bra and panties. I think your criticism is dead-on. -- Alice

  5. Alice, sorry for the delay! I've been neglecting my blog (it's too easy to let un-urgent stuff go by the wayside.) Believe it or not I have no recollection of the image on the back of the cookie jar. All I can say is I'm relieved it reinforces my argument slash I can't believe I missed it. Thanks alot for the enlightening info!