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Gambit Weekly Pondering `Female Images'

By D. Eric Bookhardt

July 21, 1997:  As a subject for artistic and metaphysical -- not to mention physical -- speculation, women have been associated with mystery since the beginning of time. It sounds like an absurd thing to say about one half of the world's population, but it's true. And while it might just be a quirk of history -- historians are usually male, after all, and males are historically baffled by females -- it also is true that even women are sometimes mystified by women.

Why? There are many theories, but most come back to James Brown's old maxim that "It's a Man's World" -- at least in the sense that most of civilization's infrastructure historically has been the product of the male mindset. Women are considered closer to nature, and if males define the most visible constructs, that leaves women looking mysterious by default. But then again, women were mysterious even before civilization. The Venus of Willendorf predates the Brooklyn Bridge by at least 15,000 years.

So what is it with women, anyway? I raise the issue with some trepidation -- guys are always getting into trouble with questions of that sort. But I am on a mission for art, if not science, so I shall carry on. Actually, it was the Female Images show at Sylvia Schmidt that caused these matters to bubble up in my heat-dazed brain sometime last week. And while the show itself does not really offer any concrete answers, at least it raises the question in some rather revealing ways.

On balance, Female Images amounts to a mirror reflection of the way women are perceived in much of American society. Many stereotypes as well as a few archetypes are here in images that range from campy to vampy to oddly authentic -- and these days, nothing is more mysterious than authenticity. There is, however, not much in evidence of the newer female approaches to the figure (although Sharon Jacques' House Trap, an image of a woman's body flattened by a huge Monopoly board piece, makes a pretty emphatic statement). Even so, most of these Female Images deal with traditional mysteries of a more familiar sort.

Sometimes all too familiar. Xavier DeCallatay's somewhat hokily titled Serenity is a gauzy pink and green watercolor of a doe-eyed babe reclining on some floral pillows. Her peachy pink physique sprawls Duchess of Alba style -- coy but not discreet -- while some vaguely Eurasian kids behind her are doing something poetic with poincianas. Technically, it is impressive, yet the overall effect is weirdly anachronistic, like some cheesy French romantic fantasy from the colonial past, soft porn for geriatric globetrotters. Nicely done, though.

The only other image that even comes close in camp value is Roy Pfister's Brushing Up on Her Shakespeare, a voyeuristic view of a voluptuous blonde in a parlor. Lost in reverie, she pauses before a hefty tome on an end table as her open robe reveals her anatomical allure, an effect like classy Victorian bordello art. The only mystery about these images is not the women (cliched fantasies at best), but why they are still around in 1997.

On the other hand, David Eddington's seascape of a slender nymphet astride a giant grouper or jewfish ought to be campy -- and it is -- but it is so sincerely peculiar as to attain an authenticity all its own. In fact, this is the precise point where romanticism veers (rather drunkenly) into surrealism. Peculiar too is Raphael DiLuzio's interior with an archetypal siren attired in iridescent Frederick's of Hollywood kink-wear as she embraces a dalmatian. They are observed warily by a tabby cat and walking catfish, and the whole affair is convincingly Felliniesque, mainly due to the artist's admirable (if slick) control of his painterly medium.

Convincing but not so slick is Adrienne Pierluisi's Bathtub, a large oil painting of another sort. Here a woman in an old-time tub ponders some cats curled up on the floor as goldfish swim in a nearby bowl. This looks almost normal until we see ripples made by some larger goldfish swimming along the surface of the picture itself -- and the question arises: Who is the observer, and who is the observed? Life is like a goldfish bowl, a shimmering realm of images. Our bather is an Aphrodite in a bargeboard cottage, but the sea from whence she arises is the psyche, the nonconceptual space of reveries and dreams. Like the fish rippling along the surface of the picture, the dreamer is a reflection of the dream.

And this touches on the mystery of creation and the psyche, a realm that such diverse personas as Andre Breton, Carl Jung and the Dalai Lama all refer to as the female energy of the universe. The muse, our psychic link with nature, is female, but her magic vanishes when subjugated by ordinary logic. Such is the point of origin from whence true creation arises -- and such is the mystery that the modern world forever fails to fathom, even now.

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