Some philosophy holds that the fundamental role of human beings is to be “world disclosers.” Medusa’s Mirror: Fears, Spells, and Other Transfixed Positions, a small yet conceptually powerful show at Oakland’s Pro Arts Gallery, demonstrates this principle via the visual arts. The exhibit, curated by Amanda Cachia, is expansive in at least two important ways. First, the objects on view include both traditional and new media. Even fashion, often omitted, is interestingly addressed. The second inclusion is the more significant one: the makers of the work are all disabled people who have made disability their subject.
Some of you, I know, have just gone on to read another review. Haven’t we had thirty years of identity politics? Yes, indeed we have. And some of it, as the critic Robert Hughes loved to point out, was narrow and preachy. But hold on a minute. The voices of “Medusa” are not “victimized voices.” You’ll find enough canon-stretching and humor here to make a trip (or this article) worth your time.
True, this work is not heavy on visual appeal. During my two-plus hours in the gallery, several visitors came and went rapidly, neglecting even the wall text. But unlike the norm over the past three decades, there are sufficient enough making skills and aesthetic value present to capture the interest of a beholder longer than the standard, three-second gallery goer’s glance. Slow and patient viewing is rewarded by encounters that permit seeing disabled people, our shared social world, and even ourselves differently.
Some favorites include the inkjet prints of Laura Swanson. Swanson has four punchy self-portraits exhibited that, at the very least, challenge the widespread narcissism rampant in contemporary Western society. In them, the subject teases and frustrates our gaze. Pillow depicts the artist, a little person, seated on a king-sized bed virtually hidden behind a red-and-beige checkered pillow with only her child-sized feet and hands visible. Shower also nearly eliminates the portrait subject, who is engaged in the private act of washing behind a bunched-up veil of a translucent shower curtain. Here the disabled body is blurred and hard to grasp. Point made–in a teasing and sophisticated way–and well taken.
One of the images I would purchase, if not for my part-time teacher’s salary, is Swanson’s Peggy Lee. At the center of the image, set in an interior, Swanson stands dwarfed by the stereo speakers of her own sound system; her entire wee form revealed in a blazing red t-shirt reading “West Coast” and hippy-flowered, dark pants. Her face, traditionally the most revealing portion of a portrait, is substituted by an album cover featuring that of the comely 40s starlet, Peggy Lee. While us able-bodied folks might try to avert our gaze from the sight of a little person out of politeness (“It’s not nice to stare at others”) or disgust at difference, or a complex mixture, Swanson beats us to the punch, reminding us that somebody at the other end of the viewing transaction also has mixed feelings, which we able-bodied can only imagine.
A similar point about empathic imagination is made in Songs without Words, a pigment print by a deaf artist, Joseph Grigely, who employs the image of a yet another recording diva to convey his ideas. Grigely has used an image appropriated from the New York Times obituary of Eartha Kitt, the Cherokee-African American actress and singer known for her distinctive sound. This memorializing image, meant initially to do the work of evoking collective memories of the talents of the performer, is used here to evoke the private memories of the artist, and, subsequently, to pry open his audience’s minds. When Grigely was ten he lost his hearing. One wonders if he ever actually heard Kitt, but whether he did or not is moot. His appropriation of the legend as the epitome of unique and individual sound is a telling metaphor of the death of his ability to enjoy the sensuous pleasure that many of us take for granted. The ability to hear the ordinary rumblings of daily life is not the issue here; rather hearing is proposed as art.
Sunaura Taylor pulls off a similar coup in at least one work, as well. Taylor deploys a compelling, intermedia blend of oil paint on printed paper (or canvas). Her No Arms! (Self Portrait), a Photoshopped reworking of an old-timey photograph of a sideshow “freak,” communicates a sincere sense of just how a physical deformity (in this case, a congenital disability) might distort the self-image of the owner of that body. If we can be coaxed to reflect on the effects of social judgements–such as calling someone “freak”– we then open to the possibility of altering our received notions of others. And not just of the disabled, but of all other sorts of categorical name-calling. At their most powerful, the works in “Medusa” engage viewers in a consideration of complex psycho-social interrelations and projections that are often denied.
A word must be added about the step this show takes toward disability fashion: a step which I hope combines with sustain-ability fashion. Sandie Yi contributes photo-chromogenic prints of her wearable art, as well as some of the artifacts themselves. The wall text explains that for generations, Yi’s family members have been born unpredictably variable numbers of toes and fingers. Yi uses what some might view as a handicap to dream up self-defined standards of attractiveness, and–perhaps even more essential in wearables–of physical comfort. Yi’s most alluring objects are delicate cuffs, constructed of translucent white fabric and white plastic molded into the shape of wrists, hand-embroidered with an inventive design of pink and beige floss that evokes the beauty of health and aliveness. Arguing effectively against the look of conventional prosthetics and orthotics, Yi encourages a kind of innovation that links her work with DIY-art, theory, and aesthetics. If this mode of thinking/making doesn’t sufficiently challenge our smug definitions of who is capable and who is not, what could?
I continue to be intrigued by Carmen Papalia’s Blind Field Shuttle, which stretches the definition of art furthest here. Unfortunately, like most other viewers of this exhibit, I was unable to experience the work firsthand. What is on offer at Pro Arts is documentation of Papalia’s participatory performances, in which the artist, who is not fully blind but has impaired vision, leads a shut-eyed human train over urban and rural terrain in acts of compassionate trust. Three digital prints and repeating slideshow images portray able-bodied folks lined up behind Papalia, linked to one another by an extended right arm to the right shoulder of the person just ahead: a fleshy corpus of coordinated cooperation.
Although unrepresented in the show, a rendition of Shuttle was conducted in downtown Oakland on Wednesday, September 21, 2011, when to my chagrin I was already booked to lecture in a classroom. Since I was not able to have this experience firsthand, I can only speculate. But I am willing to wager that participants in this experience came away with an expanded sense of what it means to be impaired; and that, on reflection, they discovered something about their habitual way of being in the world by having “tried on the mode” of another. If identity-politics in the visual arts have brought us anything lasting, it is the accumulation of just such significant moments of what Heidegger and his contemporary followers call “world disclosure.”
For an earlier American educator and critic of the arts, John Dewey (who wrote during a period of economic Depression like that of our contemporary one), to produce, to trigger or to memorialize an experience that was distingushable from the habitrail of our everyday lives was the fundamental characteristic of an art work. At its best this kind of art can enable us all to imagine and articulate alternatives to current social and even political conditions. It can disclose possibilities previously untried or suppressed, or refocus our attention in ways that clarifies things previously unclear. This kind of art could begin to regenerate the sense of hope that has been strip-mined from all but the most fortunate few in our society and thrust into the light of public discussion new ways to go forward, but differently.
“Medusa’s Mirror: Fears, Spells, and Other Transfixed Positions,” is on view at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland through October 20, 2011.