New York

Ava Gerber


It seemed that every corner of the gallery was littered with detritus, in the form of nearly 30 filthy, scrappy assemblages. Using dirt, hair, mildewed clothing, and other repulsive materials, Ava Gerber created a stale, claustrophobic environment; the space, covered with trailing wire and strings, resembled a spider’s web.

In several pieces dirt, the archenemy of housewives, became a metaphor for the female self, depicting the underside of femininity as hideously abject. In Head in the Clouds (all works 1992) a small “cloud” of pressed dirt hung near a larger version of the same quatrefoil cloud shape made of a wire armature festooned with black acrylic hair. The depression this work implied yielded to illness in IV, in which inflated paper bags hung from the ceiling by invisible wire, each attached to a neatly molded ball of dirt on the floor by a length of black ribbon. Refusing to allow herself to be made into a perishable object, Gerber instead rendered everything she came into contactwith perishable. In Carrot Top, wax-dipped carrots hanging from a beige garter belt were suspended from a padded hanger to form a gruesome mobile, the phallic remains of the carrots visibly rotting.

At once lovely and sickening, Golden Shower was a kind of screen or curtain made of plastic baggies full of urine; its range of colors, from pale yellow to nearly red, suggested illness, forming a perverse reliquary evocative of a medieval mystic’s delight in the putrid. A wax-covered corset was hung from satin ribbons, sister to the girdle that crushed Snow White, while the long, loose, and braided tresses of Change the Locks evoked——by way of Rapunzel—the dark territory of the Brothers Grimm, in whose stories female puberty is depicted as a dangerous passage involving enchantment, disappearance, seduction, and, sometimes, even entrapment and servitude.

Parental figures are the ghostly targets of much of Gerber’s anger. She engages in all kinds of filial heresy, doing much that might hurt a mother: letting hair down everywhere, playing with rotten dough, and fashioning dirt balls the size of oranges. Her sewing reveals compulsive, visible stitches; here there is no binding and healing. The hangers and knitting needles, recurring motifs, become the symbolic weapons of her embattled body and bitter resentment.

Much of this bitterness is reserved for a mother for whom she refuses to double, but the single allusion to a father figure is venomous. For Fathers was the least effective piece in the show. A small, framed photograph of pig-tailed Gerber (white) being mounted from behind by a black man, the picture is scrawled with the message “To Daddy, Love and Kisses, Your Ava.” Gerber seems, with little success, to be trying to provide an easy focal point for the vitriol that is otherwise more effectively veiled and distorted by strange materials.

As young women we learn that we can hardly move without disturbing a world of preconceptions. The disgusting materials Gerber uses in her work point to what Julia Kristeva describes as abjection: the dissolution of boundaries between the self and filth and contamination that calls identity into question. In Gerber’s world the creative gesture is distorted. She seems to want to make art that is complex and multivalent, but at times she deliberately stifles the urge to depart from flat illustration of trauma. This internal tug-of-war mars the effectiveness of powerful, disquieting work, but it also lends legitimacy to what might otherwise be too easily dismissed as not deeply felt.

K. Marriott Jones