Washington, D.C.

“Gathering Forces”

Brody's Gallery / Gallery K

This joint exhibition featured the recent work of a loosely associated group of artists who met at the Corcoran School of Art and who now call themselves “Gathering Forces.” It comprised 35 works of drawing, sculpture, and assemblage, all linked, as Martha McWilliams states in an accompanying essay, by a shared belief in “meaning, the significance of myth and dream, and in art’s capacity to express emotional and spiritual realities.” Genna Watson and John Dickson, the most sophisticated of the group, seem to be its inspiration—both lecture at the Corcoran School and use assemblage techniques. Dickson’s assemblages, such as Washington Inversion, 1989, feature diverse found objects—lamps, typewriters, stuffed fish, an animal horn—congealed together with strands of resin that evoke decay. Watson’s mixed-media tableaux include furniture, sticks, dolls, and hollow wire figures; patined silver-gray, as in Lunar Seas and Unkept Promises, 1989, they suggest emptiness and fading memories.

Most of the other group members tend to make work that is directly involved in myth and ritual. (One exception is Susan Harlan, who reflects on the nature of memory in her mixed-media work, A Vessel with Charts and Journeys, 1989.) Michael Katz’s life-size mixed-media sculpture, Charon the Rower, 1988, recalls the ancient myth about punishment and death. By contrast, Kerima Gabbay’s small, stone relief of a haloed goddess and Cynthia Bausch’s life-size figural group, both Untitled, 1989, mythify the female as a primeval, creative life force. Much the same idea is found in Cheryl Casteen’s Lunar Passage, 1989, a cast of a nude, squatting pregnant woman with a luminous orb protruding from her womb. Charles Flickinger and Thomas Mullany associate the female figure with personifications of Mother Earth, raising environmental issues. Flickinger’s Fire and Ice, 1989, employs a kneeling, life-sized nude who bears a classical column on her shoulders. Leafless branches at the column’s apex warn of impending disaster. Mullany’s Iroquois Angel, 1989, parodying 19th-century public monuments, uses the figure of a winged Native American female to confront the problem of pollution; in full headdress, she stands atop an orb in the guise of the avenging angel.

Although obviously concerned with the destruction of our natural environment, these artists are doing more than mere consciousness-raising; they are attempting a reenchantment of life, constructing their vision around some notion of the “eternal feminine.” This essentialist view of women is one that feminist theory has been at pains to deconstruct. Ultimately, it accepts culture for nature, betraying a Rousseaulike romanticism toward the primitive that is basically a fiction, a nostalgic and sentimental attempt to flee our own troubled circumstances.

Only Dickson and Watson successfully avoid this construction. Through his focus on decay, Dickson questions the logic of a system that conflates materialism with material necessity. In complementary fashion, Watson’s evocation of the empty self is a recognition that modern social problems also have a psychological dimension. Although most of the other work here lacks this sophistication, “Gathering Forces” remains provocative.

Howard Risatti