Two Luminous Women
Louise Bourgeois: Stitches in Time," organized by the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and "Ellen Gallagher: Murmur and DeLuxe," curated by Museum of Contemporary Art director Bonnie Clearwater, link the kindred spirits of two iconoclastic artists in an exceptional exhibition at North Miami's MoCA. Both Bourgeois and Gallagher draw inspiration from the grid, a seminal modernist motif. For Bourgeois, the daughter of tapestry restorers, the grid of the weaver's loom and the tapestry canvas are deeply imprinted. Gallagher has inherited systematic processes and repetition from her aesthetic godmother, minimalist Agnes Martin. A reverence for meticulous craft unites both women and gives their works an assured psychological power.
The religion of geometry can quell grief with its comforting rhythm and uniformity. But the grid is also a metaphor for the social fabric, and as such is a matrix with which to reckon. Neither artist is a conformist, and their collective subject matter addresses the plight and power of the misfit and the alien, the child and the black-skinned person. But rather than overtly politicize, Bourgeois and Gallagher are wily enough to keep the enemy close by in order to exploit his process. In their hands, the relative order of the grid is subverted to highlight the dissenting ripples, the interesting aberrations.
The rise of advertising in popular magazines, from the Thirties to the Sixties, conspired with a powerful urge to enhance grooming and hygiene for a new generation of African-American women and men eager to blend or pass in mainstream white culture. Creams to lighten dark skin and tame "bad" hair sought to repress natural African features and concepts of beauty. Alternatively rebel movements that fetishized Africanness, such as Afro hairstyles, exhorted African Americans to embrace their roots. It is this moment of confusion that artist Ellen Gallagher, herself of African-American heritage, addresses in her print work DeLuxe.
With DeLuxe Gallagher does more than review the perplexing range of cosmetic options available to African Americans from that era. She practically exhausts the lexicon of printmaking techniques currently available to artists. Listing abrasion, aquatint, burnishing, digital, direct gravure, etching, drypoint, four-color lithography, screenprint, stencil, even tattoo machine as her methods, Gallagher's edition of twenty prints, produced by Two Palms Press in New York, also includes delicately modeled plasticine forms, foil papers, coconut oil, ink, toy eyeballs, and crystals. She uses these various compounds to affect transformations on the original archival material of the magazines. The 60 pages of DeLuxe, each measuring 13 by 10.5 inches, are mounted on the wall in a grid formation and evoke association with a large geographic map.
Some pages retain a deadpan, taxonomic, catalogue layout. In others Gallagher has a field day with fanciful doodling, blaspheming the carefully coiffed and earnest wig models with grotesqueries and swirling, Medusa-like strands. Equally irreverent with textual elements, she whites out selected syllables and freely carves up words and phrases to mock the promises of the advertisers. Eyes are often whited out, masked, or otherwise replaced by plasticine or toy eyeballs. The miniature figures become gods, goddesses, or oracles in some obscure pantheon, their hairdos alternately helmets, abstractions, or independent organisms entirely, writhing and jiving, vying for attention.
Gallagher's Murmur is a collection of handmade 16mm film animations projected at close range in a darkened gallery. They are black-and-white, composed of grainy drawings and collage elements which gently undulate. Murmuring sounds from the projectors whirring in the darkened room summon up the sensation of a cave in which prehistoric drawings are animated by the flickering light of a fire. The banality of much contemporary video art can't approach Gallagher's inspired experiments with the moving image.
Her scraped and pricked paper drawings are on view as well. Precise surgical whittling of the paper allows her to create a multitude of inflections on the bodies of the underwater creatures in her Watery Ecstatic series. DeLuxe, Murmur, and the drawings on view at MoCA confirm that Gallagher is an artist with an eccentric and persuasive vision. Her works construct new mythologies that obliterate obstacles in the imagination and in social life, and we are all enriched in the process.
While Gallagher's star is ascendant at age 38, Louise Bourgeois's is already affixed in the firmament, having achieved living-legend status as an artist. An explorer and innovator in the experimental arenas of installation and performance art, continually pushing the envelope as a sculptor, she shows no signs of retiring at the astonishing age of 94. Her work from decades past seems incapable of aging, always contemporary. Bourgeois is like one of the enormous spider sculptures for which she is renowned, spinning from the center of her web works of tension, fragility, and strength.
The premise of the MoCA exhibition is to examine the importance of needlework in Bourgeois's oeuvre, which has played a significant role in her career since its inception. Recent works such as 2003's Woven Child Book and other small flaglike weavings created in 2002 reiterate themes established by the artist early on.
While a child, Bourgeois suffered her father's betrayal of her mother with her governess, a trauma that provided the singular dynamo of her career. It is a legacy to which she has returned again and again, withdrawing a lifetime's worth of imagery. Like a person suffering a recurring nightmare from which she never awakes, Bourgeois's obsession with the primary events of her childhood has been successfully sublimated into an endless artistic investigation.
Her aesthetic ruminations encompass the human drives for affection and sexual conquest, the simultaneous craving for and fear of intimacy, and the sense of isolation found within couples and families. Her Seven in Bed from 2001, composed of seven small figures intertwined in embraces in a doll-size bed, provokes an array of human emotions. At first glance the work expresses the familiar comfort of siblings sharing a bed, and then shifts before your eyes to the more complex adult exchanges of lust, solace, need, desire.
From the apparent simplicity of such fundamentals as figure, bust, red, black, blue, Bourgeois uncovers depth, density, and intensity like very few artists of any recent generation. Her sewn and stacked sculptures achieve a verticality normally reserved for rigid sculptural materials, and no artist flirting with the use of torsos and garment shapes can avoid a reference to her. Bourgeois's palm-size figures, such as Arch of Hysteria, stitched of homely terry cloth, possess the same eternity and authority of the ancient Venus of Willendorf. The selections at MoCA are mere snippets from an extensive oeuvre, but they offer an excellent introduction to her work for those unfamiliar, and should prompt more research into one of this century's most original artists.
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