Critics’ Picks

Louise Bourgeois, Cell XXV (The View of the World of the Jealous Wife), 2001, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Avignon

“Les Papesses”

Collection Lambert en Avignon
5 rue Violette
July 9–November 11, 2013

A medieval legend tells of Pope Joan, who hid her gender throughout her papacy only to be dragged and stoned to death after her secret was revealed when she gave birth. “Les Papesses” is a vast, bewitching exhibition, taking place in two sites, that conjures the ethos of this heretical heroine by uniting five artists (Louise Bourgeois, Camille Claudel, Berlinde de Bruyckere, Kiki Smith, and Jana Sterbak) whose roles as female creators might have provoked similar condemnation in a previous era. While parallels could be drawn between the misogynistic witch hunts in the Middle Ages and feminists’ plight over the last century, the show avoids abridged historical categorizations and prolix accounts of gender politics. Instead, the works from artists deceased and contemporary alike are left to commune with one another by dint of a nearly occult logic that bespeaks more an intimate, psychological truth than any categorical reasoning.

A talismanic example is Jana Sterbak’s I Want You to Feel the Way I Do. . . (The Dress), 1984–85, in which a nickel-chrome wire mesh frame in the shape of a ghostly, unoccupied frock is charged with electrical currents at regular intervals. An accompanying slide-projection text (one sentence reads NOW I HAVE YOUR ATTITUDE AND YOU’RE NOT COMFORTABLE ANYMORE) renders the garment turned torture device an agonizing instance of the pathetic fallacy. Louise Bourgeois’s Fragilités (The Fragile), 2007, offers a malignant view of the female nude in grotesque variations: Thirty-sex archival dyes on fabric present turgid breasts and fecund abdomens mutated into disfigured protuberances and arachnoid limbs. Vitrines display the pitiless autograph correspondences between relatives of Camille Claudel, whose unorthodox ambitions as a female sculptor of her era––and the lover and self-proclaimed competitor of Auguste Rodin––had her committed to a psychiatric hospital by her family for the remainder of her life. Here, as with Pope Joan, the irrepressible potency of women as creators of art and life in society is seen as a most fragile, compelling, and dangerous condition.

This exhibition is also on view at the Palais des Papes, Place du Palais, until November 11.