Boston

Bonnie Biggs

Helen Schlien Gallery

Bonnie Biggs dives headlong into that transformational sea of conflicting desires and free-floating expectations that threatens to engulf women in their mid thirties. She creates a literal but germane feminine metaphor for what is, in fact, a generic predicament. Biggs’ personal heroine contemplates surfacing from the confined coziness of a womblike underwater world; smothered yet embraced by the tutelary prison of the past, she considers the rigors of an uncertain future, which she may still avoid through inaction. Liberation or disaster? This perplexity engages the viewer in a female dilemma encompassing a common human quandary. Courage is the only antidote to internal paralysis, which may be culturally induced but which ultimately reflects a universal fear of change, of what we do not know.

In the four-part, life-sized “Allegorical Container Series,” 1983, Biggs sandblasts an image of a transparent female figure, submerged in pearly green water, onto wedge-shaped 6-by-3-foot sheets of laminated safety glass. The glass is further sandblasted in some places to expose an interior layer of clear polyvinyl, which when heat-treated turns an obscure brown, adding a muddy color to the palette of translucence and opalescence. Biggs can also vacuum-form the laminate into bulbous, enigmatically oppressive forms—a boulder, a weighted belt, a suitcase. Entering the third dimension, these obstacles to surfacing grow “heavy” and “real”; although they’re ugly, however, they’re not insurmountable. A slight motion or effort of will is all that’s needed to emerge to air unimpeded; tremulous, Biggs’ figure hovers in the moment of choice. She may act, or remain anesthetized, suffocated by the sluggish comfort of the familiar.

The themes of containment, confinement, and transformation are explored on multiple metaphoric and allegorical levels, with mixed results. The image of the suitcase as excess baggage is pedantic; branchlike forms in the figures’ hair, identifying woman as nature, lose their punch through didacticism. (It’s almost impossible to do this sort of thing without becoming overly literal.) However, Biggs’ implied metaphors allow the viewer to complete an imaginative circle. Plays between transparent and opaque space, brittle and soft forms, and apparent surface and hidden layerings suggest connections between emptiness and plenitude, rational thought and sensual perception, the illusory and the real. Repeated ancient-cup forms suggest nurture, and the large vessel-shaped sheets of glass appear to “hold” the human figure, itself the repository of feeling. Muddy air rising to the surface implies the emanation of emotions, and the use of glass as a correlative of water suggests a symbolic allusion to constant flux within stasis.

A second series of “Aquatic Cups,” 1983, employs similar techniques, with a concentration on the sculptural qualities of the vinyl. In each, two tiny figures are encased in a classic vase shape; they confront each other across transparent but insuperable barriers, as when a man and woman facing each other hold between them a wide glass pedestal, a trophy of their failure to traverse the chasms which divide them. Vaguely mythological, the works assert their contemporary nature through their invocation of alienation and separation. Less pessimistic is Consciousness Interruptus, 1983, in which the macho recreation of two Herculean warriors is rudely disturbed by a huge vessel toppling from a looming marble column. Biggs pours cold water on the old order even as she expresses humorous empathy for the authentic perplexity of those threatened by the shifting, murky tides of the new.

Nancy Stapen