Chicago

“Strong Works”

Artemesia Gallery

“Strong Works,” an exhibition by 20 women, includes a majority of art that transmits the sense of unseen forces and the powerful impact of those forces on one’s personal world.

These forces may be rhythms in emotional and physical growth, as in Vera Klement’s painting, Sonnet, where hot “angry” colors are juxtaposed with warm “inviting” colors, and flesh tones are stroked over undulating tree greens. Or unseen forces may be represented by the intuition of some “personality” in nature, as in Carole Harmel’s photographic views of the creeping textures of strange, grass-covered, portraitlike rock.

The ever-present if not immediately knowable is also conveyed as dispatcher of a personal threat. For example, a sense of weight, oppression, or burden in life colors Margaret Wharton’s Mourning Cloak, a lacy dresslike form attached to the holes in a handcarved hanger and regularly dotted with stones. Or a sense that self lies dormant under pervasive strictures appears in Phyllis Bramson’s collages on the theme Speak No Evil, which contain masks, flower-tipped darts, and blanket-swaddled figures whose high-heeled shoes peek out. Katharine Lehar demonstrates the evolution of solid stability into menacing danger; her cubes progressively diminish into higher and more hazardous spikes. And Hollis Sigler’s small drawings of hot-colored rooms present flaming meteorlike hands that soar over curiously vacant chairs—They always get you where you live—and wild dogs that hiss at the shadows of ghost-like lovers—Everybody feels this way sometimes.

As if to counteract all these signs of life’s trials, insecurities, and/or mysteries, another group of works, at least in this context, seem to concern themselves at an under-the-surface level with holding on, or being certain. For example, Joyce Kozloff’s pattern elements travel in, through, and under one another in a secure system whose parts are tightly interlocked and assuredly predictable. Nancy Spero, May Stevens, and Judy Chicago, each in their own ways, define the existence, suffering, or accomplishment of other women and come out with identity-oriented, archetypal sorts of clarifications of female existence in general. Then too, Audrey Flack’s renderings of ornaments, polishes, and pearls also give an objective existence to the flighty-in-real-life substance of an intimate world.

While this exhibition of art by women does not presume arbitrarily to define “woman’s art,” the thematic preoccupation with concerns of security and insecurity does make for a kind of unit, which is even further “answered” in two specific ways. First, by ignoring the forces that make for insecurity: Jennifer Bartlett’s dotted metal plates, usually discussed in terms of number systems, are here discernible as nonemotional routines which circumvent any involvement with the unpredictable. Second, as direct immersion in that insecurity or the forces which make for it: Sandra Straus’s large drawings—called Corners—seem to go directly into unnameable, unseeable, tumultuous forces, using intense color, strong solid line, and decisive scale to get across the physical and mental sensation of being “shut out” or “trapped in.”

All these works are very competent. That their concerns pivot so much around the artist’s sensitivity to being personally “upright, oblique, or beaten down” does, in the end, however, make a rather ironic title of “Strong Works.”

C. L. Morrison