Women Looking Inward

"Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation," now at the Miami Art Museum, features paintings, photographs, sculpture, and film by some of the most notable artists of this century. Not coincidentally, they are all women. The 22 artists in the show represent three generations, from names associated with Surrealism to contemporary artists influenced by that historical art movement. Invariably they are the subject of their own work.

"This exhibition looks at how women represent themselves," says MAM associate curator Lorie Mertes, "whether through actually photographing their own bodies or through surrogate forms like clothing or objects. The works reflect all the monumental places where women were in the history of making art and struggling for recognition."

Organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Center gallery, "Mirror Images" is an intimate exhibition -- at times excruciatingly so -- in both its size and subject matter. Much of this is tough stuff. French artist Annette Messager's mixed media work Piece Montee No. 2 pictures her with her mouth open in a scream, vomiting bloody body parts. Cindy Sherman photographs herself as a dead body left to rot by the side of the road. With her characteristically devastating candor, Frida Kahlo portrays her own miscarriage in a small 1932 lithograph, The Abortion. The fetus is wrapped by the umbilical cord around Kahlo's leg and her vagina weeps drops of blood. Above her, the man in the moon is crying too.

Kahlo, whose work has become a recognizable symbol of women's suffering and strength, is represented by three other minor paintings, grouped with the work of female artists of the Surrealist period, who were often overshadowed by the men for whom they were models and muses. The English artist Leonora Carrington typically used fanciful animals as stand-ins for human figures. Her effort to find herself through her art is reflected in Stoat Race, a painting that depicts a group of ferrets wandering through a garden maze. Other important Surrealist women included in the show are Remedios Varo, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, and Dorothea Tanning.

The show continues with work by women who have used images of the female body to explore women's roles in society as well as their feelings about themselves. Featured here is Louise Bourgeois's 1945 painting Femme-Maison, considered a classic feminist artwork. Also on view are small pieces by Eva Hesse and Kiki Smith, and a display of Cuban-American Ana Mendieta's hauntingly beautiful photos of her silhouette drawn in the earth with flowers, blood, and mud.

Other artists in the show are not as well known or appreciated. They include photographers Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 when she was just 22 years old; and Claude Cahun (born Lucie Schwob in 1894), who was shunned by the Surrealists for her aggressively androgynous demeanor. The radical Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who suffers from mental illness, was until recently mostly written off as a Sixties eccentric. Now nearly 70 years old she is being honored with a large show at New York's Museum of Modern Art that has critics proclaiming she was simply ahead of her time.

"I think what these women have done has been very gutsy," says Mertes, who adds that the show has inspired her to think more about her own identity. "Seeing the exhibition makes you want to talk about yourself, to deal with your own image, and to think about all kinds of human connections, whether they be male or female. Looking at yourself is always a painful thing. It takes a lot of work to find out who you are. With these women, there's been the additional struggle of trying to be recognized as an artist at the same time."

-- Judy Cantor

"Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-Representation" runs through November 29 at the Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St. Admission is five dollars. Call 375-3000 for hours.

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Judy Cantor