Chicago

Nancy Bowen

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

Given the current political and legal battles being waged over women’s bodies, not to mention recent revisionist histories that flesh out centuries of social and psychological domination, it is not surprising that issues revolving around the representation of the body should be attracting attention in the world of art as well. While studies of gender have informed feminist strategy, these analytical dissections have also supplied fragments and body parts as materials of artistic expression. Picking up the pieces and reassembling them in sexual configurations related to, but different from, the iconography of earlier feminist art, Nancy Bowen invests a set of glass and ceramic vessels with an odd corporeality that seems to fall someplace between the imaginative poles represented by Disney and Bosch. Derived from medieval medical illustrations, which, because they defy modern scientific reason, seem fantastical, Bowen’s delicate layered monoprints incorporate flower parts, anatomical organs (especially hearts), braids, snails, and shells. In one series of velvety charcoal drawings on vellum, these rounded silhouettes commingle and intertwine in relations of dependency; the shapes constitute a new sign system for gender, one of variants and mutations.

But before the medievalism becomes either too lyrical or too arch, Bowen sends up these recognizable stand-up body parts as well as the entire tradition of pedestal sculpture. She paints the surfaces of her handcrafted terra-cotta vessels with a deliberately “feminine” palette of pink, lavender, and red. Venus, 1990, a very pink miniature tornado, unfurling clay streamers, is an exuberant caricature of its namesake’s mythical ocean birth. In Consort, 1988, bulging, larger-than-life fragments suggesting swollen lips, breasts, buttocks, and assorted organs are twisted together or locked in truncated embrace. In the most dramatic, technically impressive piece, Astriction, 1990, earthiness and elegance come together as a black vessel with three spouts or teats, which is connected to a heart-shaped amber glass receptacle. Here, the pedestal outlines the shape of another container, and the metal connectors are stained with red pigment to suggest bodily secretions and discharges, bloodletting or childbearing. The title is a medical term describing the binding together of soft organs that references Bowen’s concern with bodily regulation.

What is unsettling and provocative about Bowen’s structures is their manner of presentation. She displays all of her vessels on welded steel-rod supports that trigger multiple and contradictory associations, from prosthetic devices, to washstands and ornamental plant stands. In some cases, these structures suggest the stays in 19th-century undergarments, restraints that simultaneously confine and display flesh. They refer to dressmakers’ dummies—skeletal equivalents of the monumental flesh they inadequately support. The top-heavy Aeolipyle II, 1989–90, lies on the floor, a bit coyly, as if toppled from its metal perch. Indeed these artificial organs are insistently disproportionate; too heavy for their own stands, they confront us at eye level and become figurative surrogates, enlarged parts representing monumental wholes. Bowen arranges these fictitious body fragments not only to reward visual scrutiny but to incite self-perception and carnal knowing. In Globus Hystericus, 1990, the clinical title, suggesting a lump in the throat, only partially explains the anatomical curiosity of twin beakers—one of plaster and one of translucent glass—gone soft and cradled like a globe in a stand. Laboratory equipment and intestinal tubes, supported by a structure that resembles a spinal cord, are made synonymous in this implausible hybrid. Bowen’s materials, particularly the glass, are tremendously seductive, but, because this work acknowledges the power of and the sexual politics associated with the female body, it can afford the pleasurable irony and Mae West wit that informs its own self-conscious display.

Judith Russi Kirshner