Friday, March 13, 2015

Toward Dismantling Patriarchy

Toward Dismantling Patriarchy

By Tom Wachunas

    “…THIS IS THE POTENTIALITY OF / THE HUMAN RACE BORN AGAIN…”  - from This Is For You, by Sara Benton

    “…Do not fear your experiences, as we do not fear ours, only ask if your experiences have the oxygen to be remembered; recorded.”
- from A Moving Manifesto by Peggy Corlew

EXHIBIT: POINT OF REFERENCE, through April 6 at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday 11 AM to 5 PM, Saturday 10 AM to NOON. (Gallery closed March 23-28 during Spring Break)

A collection of works by artists from the Watkins School of Art in Nashville, and Middle Tennessee State University: Caleb Adcock, Sara Benton, Burt Blackwood, Peggy Corlew, Ashley Doggett, Kelsey Goessman, Corina Joyner, Mika Millenkopf, Maxwell Parker, Jill Schumann, Sophia Stevenson, Johanna Torre, Laura Whitfield

    Certainly the most resonant aspect of this challenging exhibit’ aside from any particular work, is its intensely probative and courageous character. It is decidedly not intended as casual viewing entertainment, or passive observation of artist-made stuff. Call it an experiential installation, and a very provocative one at that.  While it is comprised of many individual works, they’re all components of a remarkable communal identity united under the still-too-often misconstrued aegis of Feminism.

     To best grasp the conceptual backdrop of this project, I think it vital to read Peggy Corlew’s A Moving Manifesto, provided by the gallery. The document is not a strident call to arms, but rather a declaration of attitude and philosophy. It clearly transcends the superficialities of gender specificity to embrace authentic human individuality as a foundation for creating and nurturing a culture of empathetic communal action and compassion. We are so tired of being small,” Corlew writes at the beginning, and continues, “we want to be expansive. Feminism is the name of our expansive living, breathing space.” A little later in, we read, “How can we abandon our shackles welded by systematic patriarchy?”

   How indeed. From the outset, beyond words such as Feminism, there’s plenty of loaded language here to contend with. Start with manifesto, a potent term that often carries the connotation of propaganda, which in turn has lost its original, purer meaning of ideological propagation to take on unsavory associations with deception or distortion. Those negative associations aren’t relevant here.  And then there’s patriarchy. On the face of it, governance by men is not an inherently bad principle. But in this contemporary context, I think it helpful, and to a large extent fair, to consider patriarchy as a privilege and ideology that has been rightly perceived by many (women AND men) as imploding over time into a societal malaise fraught with ethical – and moral – turpitude. 

    Do the works in this exhibit present any new or persuasive canon of ethics, or tangible paradigm, for escaping such turpitude? Not specifically. Instead, they allegorically and metaphorically embody a worldview that eschews pedantic browbeating in favor of an impassioned sharing of deeply personal circumstance, identity, memory, and desire. That said, the unflinching honesty in some of the most compelling pieces here may well provoke emotional and psychological mortification, if not uncomfortable perplexity, in some viewers, myself included to varying degrees.

    Holy 3, a haunting video triptych by Burt Blackwood, has an autobiographical feel. It had an uncanny power to hold me in its dark narrative thrall, replete with unsettling imagery, including unmistakable references to pedophilia.  

    Likewise, the searing video called TAKEWANT / WHATNEED, by Jill Schumann, is still freshly branded in my memory. It’s a recorded performance piece wherein Schumann’s steady gaze at us is at once deadpan and impassive and ever-so-subtly plaintive and glassy-eyed as she is slapped firmly and repeatedly on her left cheek by a disembodied hand. SLAP. “Take what you want,” she murmurs. SLAP again. “What do you need,” she says. Slap, take what you want. Slap, what do you need. And so on, over and over, the intervals between slaps varied in duration, her cheek getting progressively redder.

    Works such as these, seeming on one level to expose the tension between tacit submission and a desired release from external forces of manipulation, generated a sensation of being a reluctant, mesmerized voyeur, entering secret places of the mind and heart (my own and the artists’), all the while wondering… who or what is in control?

    And who or what once occupied the voids covered by the upright robes or shrouds (made of slip-cast fabric) that comprise Sophia Stevenson’s untitled sculpture? Does this clustering of vacant shapes on the floor signify a funeral procession, or a resurrection? Imprisonment or liberation?        
   Sara Benton’s This Is For You is a metaphorical moment that in many ways speaks to the ethos of the entire exhibit and the community that gave rise to it. Think of it as an alternative or expanded definition of artful creativity, just as the works in this exhibit point well beyond their own aesthetic or formal trappings. A chunk of white marble and tools for sculpting it are on a wooden work table. Read Benton’s accompanying inspired poem and have at it. Strike the stone. Release the form locked inside. Chip away at old history to create a new one. What do you need? Carving as catharsis.

   Feminism. It’s not exclusively a woman thing (was it ever?), but a human one. Finally, a beginning of peace?

    PHOTOS (click on them for enlarged slideshow), from top: Untitled by Sophia Stevenson; Transgression by Caleb Adcock; Fantasma by Kelsey Goessman; installation statement

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