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Gambit Weekly Rituals, Dreams and Gender

By D. Eric Bookhardt

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  There's been a lot of it going around lately. Gender art, that is. Shows like Feminine Products at Zeitgeist and the Chick Art show at Positive Space injected a hint of controversy into an otherwise somnolent summer. But it didn't end there. Gender art abounds this September, as we see in the work of Audra Kohout, Alisha Young and various others about town.

In Kohout's case, the gender part is not all that obvious at first. A glance around the gallery reveals some very classical box sculptures, surreal reliquaries of "found objects" assembled in the whimsical tradition of the late American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Indeed, Kohout's technique by now has come up to speed with her vision, and while her style is still looser than Cornell's, it is an oddly precise sort of looseness.

Yet, despite such parallels, the tone of Kohout's work is wholly different. As different as boys and girls. Cornell, in his way, was an eccentric gentleman who searched for artifacts imbued with magic and lost innocence amid the refuse of civilization. He was a junk store poet of time, memory and desire -- and of desire transformed over time into a kind of dreamlike nostalgia.

Kohout too deals with dreams and desires, but in ways that probe more deeply beneath the ordinary civilized veneer. Mute, for instance, comprises a weathered antique box containing a mysterious winged creature. Almost angelic-looking at first, it soon becomes even more mysterious as we see that it is a mere husk of bleached bones, hair and feathers, with wings sprouting like angelic airfoils from the shoulders. Ritualistically bound in dark twine, Kohout's winged creature displays pale, womanly thighs beneath her alien mein, like the desiccated remains of a nymph, maenad or fairy queen.

Where Cornell used civilization's castoffs as magic symbols in which time and space were crystallized into a visual poetry of his own, Kohout deals more with the mysteries of creation as seen in nature and the body -- especially the female body. In this, she is like a diviner who perceives the confluence of night and day, shadow and light, creation and decay, in uncanny constellations of salvaged objects. This uniquely personal and female take on nature and the body places her well within the current discourse on art, women and society -- a discourse in which the art appears to have assumed an independent life of its own.

It seems that images are more flexible than words, which are so often constrained by conceptual logic. Words divide the world into this and that, which tends to become this or that, his or hers, black or white. Them or us. Words specify differences while images indicate what is seen, either visually or in the mind. This is a more universal perspective than most verbal concepts.

Kohout's Mute says much without the restriction of words.

In contrast to the sometimes rigid feminist dogmas of the past, the new women's art often seems to blur the hard edges found in traditional rhetorical arguments. So instead of rejecting any notion of feminine "allure" as a sexist plot, some female artists simply modify such things to their own liking. This was evident in the Chick Art show and now in the work of Alisha Young at the Neighborhood Gallery & Book Store. (A phenomenon in its own right, the Neighborhood Gallery for years has emphasized art as a way of empowering inner-city dwellers, and its spacious new gallery and adjacent book store mark a quantum leap forward.)

On the walls, Alisha Young's fantasy paintings epitomize the diversity of the new art in work that might have scandalized earlier feminists. A self-taught emerging artist, Young creates the sort of unabashedly sexy views of women that were formerly the domain of sensational or "adult" media venues. Many evoke fantasy or science fiction as well as the soft eroticism of Olivia, Vargas or Virgil Finlay, at least at first glance.

In this vein, we see various Afro-Aphrodites, island girls in idyllic settings that, at their best, display Young's developing flair for exotic illustration. And if some resemble escapees from the pages of Penthouse, a closer look reveals no dearth of irony or edgy humor overall. Man Eater depicts a creature with the upper torso of an attractive woman but the lower body of a giant squid or octopus, while other equally dreamlike works evoke not only fantasy art but also the edgy realm of ironic surreality seen in so much of the new gender art. What does it all mean?

Much of the new art suggests an emerging new paradigm, a sensibility not yet explained in words. Such matters can never be reduced to either/or equations or absolutes but must be sensed intuitively and on many levels -- as we see in the arts -- in work that resonates with our inner lives, as time goes by.

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