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Editorial: Reviews
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“Being Woman"
Sculpturesite, Oakland, California
Review by DeWitt Cheng


Bella Feldman, "Chance Instrument," 1994, zinc plated steel and brass, 19 x 18 x 18"

Continuing through January 10, 2015

"Being Woman" features the work of five established Bay Area sculptors: Jane Burton, Bella Feldman, Gale Hart, Carol Koffel and Suzanne Morlock. In her catalogue essay, Sculpturesite curator and gallerist Brigitte Micmacker acknowledges the progress women have made during the past half century since the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s "The Feminine Mystique;" but cites the major areas of unfinished business — the still legal pay gap between men and women; the continued sexual objectification of girls and women in American culture; domestic violence; and political marginalization. This, then, serves as the context for the show, which opened with a panel discussion by the artists with the purpose of educating and inspiring, while showcasing feminist art that is persuasive without sanctimony, and is sometimes mordantly funny about our cultural backwardness and hypocrisy. Micmacker states: “I have asked five remarkable woman sculptors to bring their perspectives to ... cultural near taboos such as gun ownership and violence, body image and control, women’s work versus ‘real’ work and the still ubiquitous glass ceiling.”

 

Gun ownership and violence in the U.S. have, of course reached alarming levels. For years Feldman has explored the glamour and sometimes sinister allure of tools and machines in her enigmatic, surrealist steel and glass sculpture, some of which resemble medieval war engines or torture devices elevated and enlarged to the status of monuments. Feldman asserts, “I have never believed that some subjects are suitable for men and some for women. Both sexes live in a world riddled with anxiety and war. I never accepted that, because I am a mother, my work needs to be about mothering.” Her twelve-foot-tall sculpture “Jacob’s Ladder” (2011) is decidedly un-maternal, with its huge metal wheels, cleated like nineteenth-century tractor spokes, supporting an unfolding ladder of glass rungs surmounted by handles that could serve as crutches for a giant or used to yank the ladder up to keep invaders below. The title refers to the patriarch Jacob’s dream vision in Genesis, a promise of descendants as numerous and ubiquitous as the dust of the earth. “Chance Instrument" (1994) and “Rock ‘n’ Roll" (1990) present the viewer with immaculately machined mechanisms that invite action but exude menace: the former is a half sphere of zinc-plated steel ringed by gears, and crowned by a huge spike, around which two small brass eyeballs roll in a circular track; the latter is a semicircular form like the rocker of a rocking chair, but made of steel plates, atop which a pair of wheels in the shape of a dumbbell oscillate back and forth between tiny ratcheted stair steps — another study in power and futility.

 

Hart also works with traditionally male imagery and materials to understand, but not necessarily deconstruct or critique, what she calls "gun lust:" “I began by attending a gun show, where touching, handling and caressing [!] is encouraged. Here I witnessed gun lust first hand ... There are no machines in the world that are so varied, so beautifully sculpted, and yet equally so disturbing as firearms.” Her ambivalence is embodied in sculptures conceived to appeal to both gun aficionados and gun-control advocates. “Last Rites" is a dazzlingly polished aluminum revolver mounted atop a circular pedestal, its mahogany-color wooden handle begging to be held, while its rear-facing second gun barrel gives pause. Shoot or be shot — a false dichotomy. “Cannot Grasp” is a semi-automatic handgun, likewise placed on a pedestal, and similarly enticing but for the Iron-Maiden spikes protruding from its grip.

 

The issues of female body image and mind control through socialization are explored by Burton and Koffel. Burton: “The victimization of women is rampant, and not just in Third World countries, but here in the United States. Rape in our colleges, enslaving and exploiting young girls through trafficking, ‘innocent’ sexual comments in schools, homes and churches, porn on the internet, and violent sex on prime-time TV are commonplace.” Her ceramic female figures, usually armless and footless, like ancient fertility goddess carvings that were stuck in the earth, are set atop steel bases. Constructed in stacked layers, folded and pleated, they resemble fabric. Each layer is inscribed with handwriting, letters or diaries — the thoughts of these anonymous women. “Three Tall Women,” referencing the classical Three Graces, intertwines the figures like tree branches. “Packaged Goods” and “Cinnamon Buns” satirically equate their faceless protagonists with the desirable acquisitions and delectable morsels sought by connoisseurs and gourmets. The calligraphic wall piece “Casting a Shadow” is composed of twenty-five forms derived from curlicue IUD designs. 

 

Koffel explores the female psyche as it transitions from the child-bearing years to elder wisdom: “Several of the works [in this series] ... communicate change, vulnerability and resilience, adjustability, and ultimately the lightness of achieving balance as an elder woman.” Koffel’s sculptures are tall, vertical and symmetrical, suggesting anthropomorphism yet not figurative. With their internal LED lighting, audio elements and their disks made from porcelain in the shape of estrogen rings, they call to mind Duchampian apparatuses, minus the Great Bachelor’s plumbing jokes. Rather, they are memory machines, or vehicles of spiritual transfiguration — feminist Constructivism, with a bit of Dadaist machine humor. “Thirteen Stages” refers to the thirteen annual lunar and menstrual cycles and by extension to the cycles of women’s lives. “Listening Shell” with its primary-colored geometric shapes and linear traceries resembles a Calder mobile or a Miro painting, but that strange suspended white face — fish? Cyclops? — somehow evokes Ed Kienholz’s tableaux.

 

Finally, Morlock tackles the thorny issue of ‘women’s work’ versus ‘real’ work. Morlock: “Committed to methods viewed as ‘low brow’ and techniques often described as ‘women’s work’, I seek a continued exploration of concepts, processes and alchemy to fuel my practice.” Reclaiming knitting from the realm of gift sweaters, scarves and mittens, Morlock fashions “Pod," a sack of recycled reel-to-reel tape large enough to serve as a burial shroud. “Mother” is a white woolen hand-knitted dress that is flat, like a cardboard cutout, tapering to a point too small even for dainty feet. “Newspaper Balls” is made up of twisted, knitted newspaper: giant twine balls for the demise of linear print media. A swanlike installation that is also fashioned from knitted newspaper, “Freefall II" drops from the ceiling and drapes over a wall, a net of unreadable, irretrievable information.

 

All five artist may be loosely labeled as feminists, but the work here is primarily grounded in aesthetics, self expression and craft. The personal and the political strike a balance, but make no mistake, the political content is central, intended and compelling.

Sculpturesite Gallery

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