Wednesday, June 1, 2011
By Tom Wachunas
If it isn’t apparent to you by now from my last two posts, a visit to the Canton Museum of Art these days will place you firmly in thrall to women artists. “A Celebration of Women in the Arts: Director’s Choice II” is a thoroughly captivating group of exhibits not only in the main gallery, but also in the upper gallery that features the work of 55 women artists from the museum’s permanent collection. And let’s not forget the two “side” galleries either. The smaller of those two spaces has been given over to the work of Lisa Hertzi, while the larger spotlights that of Juliellen Byrne.
“Journey in Stitches: Art Doll Adventures” is the title of the showing by Lisa Hertzi. A doll-maker extraordinaire, Hertzi makes highly textured figures from wildly colored and patterned fabrics, skillfully interwoven with such things as yarn, feathers, stones, beads and wire. But these dolls are a few steps beyond just the ruddy-cheeked, plump facsimiles of human babies meant for little girls’ playtime. They do, though, have a childlike, giddy abandon about them, often to the point of outright funkiness. A few, like “Mazel-Tough” and “Dead Mari”, are puppet-like characters that look like they’d be right at home in one of Tim Burton’s quirky, humorously dark animations.
Most interesting about this eye-popping collection as a whole is its family resemblance to “primitive” figurines from various civilizations and eras that have clearly fascinated Hertzi. Many of her forms hint at ancestor totems or ritual artifacts from Africa, for example, or perhaps North American Hopi kachinas. In any case, these lovingly rendered, bright objects, in their suggestion of the “spirit catchers” from other cultures, can also be rightfully viewed as contemporary human spirit lifters.
While not as electrifyingly decorative as Hertzi’s dolls, there is nonetheless a totemic, doll-like quality about many of the clay sculptures by Juliellen Byrne in her exhibit called “Cradle Casket Boat”. But these figures, with their ambiguous expressions and ghostly, pale visages, seem like strange cousins of antique porcelain dolls, and are less overtly optimistic in mood, even if there are moments of innocent joy - as in “You’re Pretty Too”, wherein a baby exuberantly licks at the opened beak of a bird. “Toe Tag” is much more sobering. From the baby’s head, praying hands protrude, the torso swaddled in cards identifying dead soldiers. It’s a jarring remembrance of children who will grow up with no father.
To varying degrees, many of Byrne’s stunning figurations here exude a gently measured melancholy – sometimes latent, sometimes very present. These odd, even cryptic visions constitute a personal, symbolic iconography characterized by haunting juxtapositions of boats, bunnies, rats, babies, and grownups. They occupy a common emotional ground, described by Byrne as “…a consuming frustration about war, concerns about parenting, patriotism, and the politics of engagement in conflicts.” Byrne concludes her statement with, “Add to this, the darker fear that things like human trafficking, and corporate greed is part of the fabric of this civilized society and my little boat feels very small and not so safe.”
In as much as these works are codifications of human failings, fragility, and mortality, I think they’re also soulful calls to resolve universal dilemmas, to right our moral compass, to consider alternatives. To embrace the possibility of hope. And in that, they are eminently powerful embodiments of desire.
Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Pope on Wheels” by Juliellen Byrne, on view THROUGH JULY 24 in the exhibit, “A Celebration of Women in the Arts: Director’s Choice II” at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North in the Cultural Center for the Arts. Phone (330) 453 – 7666