Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Reviews #3: Heavy Metal Women at Gallery 555dc

Written by Camden Place

With a title like “Heavy Metal Women” I entered Gallery 555dc with several preconceived ideas.  I assumed that all of the artists were female and worked with metal (they all do) which immediately piqued my interest as metal has been such a male oriented material in our culture and readied me for a feminist critique or at least work that addressed this supposed contrast.  I also wondered just how ironic the “heavy metal” allusion was meant to be and imagined possibilities involving rock star antics and creations that delved into the borders of popular culture where the taboo and obscene rub elbows with the familiar. 
However, the work presented by Joyce Zipperer, Joan Konkel, Minna Newman Nathanson, Donna M. McCullough, Leila Holtsman, and Julie Girardini was far more varied and outwardly demure than the title would suggest.  There are certainly commonalities in the work.  Yes all the artists use metal, but all the objects displayed also have a decorative aesthetic to them.  Everything displayed was crafted to look pretty, and to value that prettiness.  This is not just a reference to the mastery of craft displayed by these artists in handling their materials but to what I see as the intentions and aspirations of the work itself.  Some of the work embraces this fully and holds it centrally to its purpose, while others use their beauty as a lure, pulling in viewers for a closer read and allowing the work to build past its simple attractiveness. 
Joyce Zipperer’s exquisitely constructed women’s shoes and dresses demonstrated a deep familiarity with her medium as well as a desire to explore its boundaries.  Though her dress was clearly not functional, the shoes were far more subtle.  Not presenting them in matching pairs was completely reminiscent of how footwear is displayed in stores and almost had me looking under the podium for stacks of boxes filled with shoes.  The possibility of the shoes serving their supposed function was interesting, but I was far more captivated by the realization of their failure to perform this task. 
As it slowly becomes clear that this object cannot be put to use in conventional terms I was forced to readdress the piece and wonder at the correctness of my previous feminist read.  A gorgeous, alluring, woman’s shoe that intentionally fails its perceived function would seem to become critical of the potential user.  Even if it reconstructs itself as an art object, this perceived failure remains the initial read and chastises the viewer for potentially desiring it so incorrectly.  This manufactured misunderstanding stops the piece fully from making a human connection to the viewer and instead isolates and elevates it, forcing it be only experienced by sight, despite the desire for a more physical interaction.
Zipperer was not the only artist to play on the notion of failed function.  Donna M. McCullough’s dresses looked perfectly wearable, if only one was quite small enough to fit.  Crafted from a combination of found and bought materials, the two dresses displayed respresent two different bodies of work for McCullough.  The first, built from a variety of different metal tins, looks like a seamstress set about constructing a garment using an El Anatsui piece for cloth.  This intricate creation looks simultaneously flimsy and sturdy having both airy and chitinous aspects to it.   Though this piece has the slight allure of possible functionality to it, it is her second dress that truly confuses the viewer in a far more intriguing manner. 
Titled ”Team Sunoco Mercury” this dress is built from a discarded Sunoco Mercury oil drum.  The painted exterior of the drum is displayed outwardly, concealing the metallic nature of the piece.  Built in such lifelike proportions, it appears almost soft or pliable, belying its steely nature.  This double illusion raises the feasibility that one could truly wear this dress and become a cheerleader for the energy company. 
There did not seem to be a singular way to read this piece.  I would hesitate to take its intention as a garment representing or sponsoring this company honestly, as the artist has enthusiastically destroyed the original object and relocated the logo to an absurd location, the bust of a metal dress.  However powerful this critique of advertising or the influence of oil companies through absurdity may be, it is countered by the ironic fact that this piece of art is a commodity created to be sold, just like oil.  To fully embrace this I would hope that McCullough would not hesitate from creating a garment with her own name or logo emblazoned across the chest.  Then her viewers could truly join “Team McCullough” instead of just sponsoring it.
The other great commonality to the work displayed was that they generally defied the nature of the metal they were constructed with.  The metal present did not dominate the viewer and instead read more like a means than a purpose.  More often than not their metallic nature was obstructed, ignored, or obfuscated by the other aspects of the work that were far more interesting and appealing.  This is not to say that these objects should have been created with any other material, but simply that the medium was used gracefully and with nuance.  “Heavy Metal Women” may be something of a misnomer for this body of work, or perhaps I simply was not thinking ironically enough in my initial impression of the title.

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