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Picturing Ecstasy



Phyllis Bramson: Cosmic Disorder

at Carl Hammer, through April 22

Margaret Wharton

at Jean Albano, through April 29

By Fred Camper

Just around the corner from each other are two strong exhibits that don't seem to be getting the attention they deserve. Both artists are midcareer Chicago women who've earned significant reputations. Both love excess. Both use found materials, often from junk shops, and make use of imagery traditionally identified with women (flowers, household furnishings, doilies). When a man is present, he's often a kind of clown--a sideshow, a joke. These artists turn the tables on centuries of male representation, and misrepresentation, of women. Both exhibits are funny, provocative, sexy, and full of intentional paradoxes. And the artists, as I learned only after noting these similarities, have been close friends for decades.

Each also has a unique style. Margaret Wharton is a sculptor who's been cutting up old chairs for more than 20 years; her 17 works at Jean Albano include some new "chairs" sawed apart, rearranged, and collaged with other objects. Phyllis Bramson, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a painter and collagist; she assembled the ten works at Carl Hammer from fragments of thrift-shop paintings and added such materials as feathers and kitschy ceramic statues as well as her own painting.

At first Bramson's works seem truly a vision of "cosmic disorder," to quote her title for the show. Yet most have discernible themes and sly hints of narrative. Backward Looking Thoughts includes images of six women or girls, mostly looking away from us into the picture's ambiguous blue background. Bramson suggests that these women have inner lives and seem to see things we can't, even as she denies the voyeur's wish to see much of the women themselves, since their backs are to us. But we are permitted a vicarious "viewing experience": in the painting's top center is a lamb in a field of flowers apparently looking at a painting of a colorful landscape hovering just above the field. Multiple interpretations are possible, but perhaps the most obvious is something like "These women have a right to privacy, so I'm not going to show you what they're seeing. But here's what this lamb sees." These women are definitely not objects of the viewer's gaze, and Bramson refuses to reveal the complexity of their own gazes.

In Wind Disorders little girls are being licked and kissed by animals. In one vignette, what I took to be a giant mouse (Bramson calls it "lamblike") licks a girl's nose. In another, a bird hanging upside down from a branch is tongue kissing a disembodied animal head. Indeed, part of the point seems to be to restore our sensuality, a principal way we connect with animals. But other elements clash with this touchy-feely interpretation. At the top center is a row of disembodied objects suggesting glyphs, even words; read left to right, a blue lamb becomes a red rose becomes a rose made of beads becomes a rose outlined in white paint. This shift in representational modes is important, denying the viewer any simple way of reading the images, which in the work as a whole sometimes suggest painterly illusion, at other times solid, autonomous objects, and most often--as in the images cut out of other paintings and pasted on the canvas--a little of both.

James Elkins in his helpful catalog essay gives a detailed reading of the ironically titled Decorum, suggesting that "a sentence-like arrangement of pictures" across the middle of the canvas might be interpreted as "an open-ended love story." In Bramson's reply in the catalog she says that her paintings "[hover] between the nonsensical and the profoundly meaningful." Certainly the relationships among the elements of her pictures are ambiguous; often placed against solid colors, her vignettes hang in space like miniature theater scenes adrift in a void. Indeed she counts theater as a major influence, and each object seems to have its own "stage" and be ready to take a bow. As a result, each also competes with the others, as if trying to tear the viewer's attention away from them.

In her statement Bramson describes her paintings as "burlesque-like and erotically hypersensitive" (her vignettes do have the same teasing quality as exotic dancers) and suggests that there's a difficulty in seeing her work, perhaps because of its profuse detail. But by refusing easy unities she throws the viewer's attention back on her materials, the images within the image, suggesting that the only overarching meaning to the cosmos is its disorder. If meaning is to be found, it's in the details--a point of view consistent with feminism's emphasis on the particular.

Also contributing to the difficulty of seeing are Bramson's shifts in representational mode. A round-bodied man near the bottom of Decorum who's kissing a woman's knee wears a long robe split at the bottom that suggests human legs, bird wings or tails, a fish tail, and an oversize penis. Within the robe is a thrift-shop version of a traditional Chinese landscape painting. This particular object also functions as a window.

The spiderwebs painted on the surface of Decorum suggest an interesting metaphor: that Bramson's seductive network of objects is also a trap. That's certainly one effect of Asleep in the Garden (Expecting Adam), whose surface is covered by vertical gray and tan bands like prison bars. There's lots of Asian erotica here, as there is in other pieces (Bramson told me that she's interested in the tantric idea of withholding fulfillment in order to maintain tension and desire), as well as Garden of Eden fruits, mostly grapes. The stripes are painted in a spatially ambiguous manner: sometimes they're apparently behind the figures, sometimes in front, and sometimes a figure is faintly visible behind a stripe. One mess of fruit seems to curl around a band. A painted fountain spurts up sexually, and there are two ceramic figures attached to the work's surface.

Four years ago Bramson told me that she was "really invested in romance and longing and desire," and it seems she still is. Her work is hardly a neutral exploration of postmodern fractured meanings or an academic feminist denial of master narratives--though it might sustain either reading. Her interest in a tantric "longing and desire" may help explain why her women are kissing animals rather than copulating. But I have to say that Bramson's jumbled, overheated surfaces made me think of the intense, meaning-destroying, out-of-control experience of orgasm. Perhaps that's the real key to Bramson's art--one that permits contradictions to go unresolved and weird juxtapositions to go unexplained.

Margaret Wharton's work has many subjects, but orgasm doesn't seem to be one of them. Getting crazy sometimes is. In Life of the Party a pair of elongated wooden legs supports a lamp-shade head. The "figure" has a certain insouciance, but as in much of her work here, Wharton adds complicating elements. Hanging from the lamp shade is a fringe of tiny lead sinkers, the wooden legs end in buckets that appear to be filled with concrete, and the "light" inside the shade is actually a bug zapper. This dancing drunken guy (well, I think of him as a guy) is weighed down with objects signifying "masculine" aggression against nature--bug zapper, fishing sinkers--though in the case of the fringe the form is "feminine."

A similar conflict between sensuality and confinement can be found in Understudy--a collaboration with her daughter, Darby Harper, that consists of a bra in a birdcage. Filling most of the cage, the bra seems ready to burst out and soar, but it's trapped. The inside of the bra is covered with dried moss, which evoked for me the furry mystery of feminine sexuality. In Bell, one of several miniature pieces, a tiny chair sits under a glass bell; a beer label with the initials "MD" sits on the seat--one of the show's several references to Marcel Duchamp.

More than one observer has suggested that in both Bramson's and Wharton's work the viewer is left to construct the narrative. I don't think that's quite right, because often there doesn't seem to be a single narrative that could explain the entire piece. Even in Wharton's less dense works, the elements raise as many questions as they answer. Gallery owner Jean Albano suggested another approach, after making clear that she wasn't speaking for the artist, saying that Wharton's "thinking about 20 things at once, and often all 20 wind up in the piece."

If there's a single narrative that can account for a work as dizzyingly complex as Tempo, I'd love to hear it. Made in part from a dismantled kitchen chair whose seat is mounted flat against the wall, with two legs mounted below it, Tempo centers on a handless kitchen clock that would fit neatly into a circular hole sawed in the seat but remains outside it, a little to the left. The clock also forms the round portion of a banjo. Above it is the sheet music for "Home on the Range," mounted in an oval-topped frame as if it were a sacred text; wooden wings on the frame's sides add to the "sacred" joke. A wooden "halo" above the sheet music holds a collection of clock hands. One of the two chair legs kicks up at the "knee," obviously ready to dance. Like most of Wharton's other pieces, this one has a winning lyricism; its gentle rhymes help the viewer unify its parts. (In her statement Wharton says that she'd like to "extend a visual harmony" to "discordant ideas.") Both legs have eggcups for feet, and in the middle of the clock, where the hands would converge, is an egg slicer. In a gesture that recalls Bramson's playfulness, she replaces the notes of "Home on the Range" with tiny photographs of eggs.

Now just what narrative is the viewer supposed to come up with here? Eggs that can't be cooked properly because the clock is broken and that don't occupy the eggcups have turned into musical notes? Women work hard in the kitchen while the cowboy, deified by our culture, is out strumming his banjo? Either of these and others are plausible, but none comes close to explaining all of Tempo's key elements. The viewer's mind goes into overdrive, coming up with new possibilities and quickly rejecting them, until it starts to feel like a bug zapper and the viewer is just about ready to put a lamp shade on his head, kick up, and start dancing.

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