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An Artist Beginning


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Susan Abelson

at Randolph Street Gallery, March 26 and 27

Susan Abelson, a young performance artist who was last seen in Robert Metrick's O'klahoma! and has been collaborating with others for the past few years, recently presented her first one-person show, Alone of Your Sex. According to a press release, her intention was to demystify and deconstruct pregnancy, power, and sexuality--issues that bear analysis, to be sure. But her approach to these issues was in some ways too thorough. It reminded me of Mel Brooks's films: an exacting attention to detail and art direction combined with broad jokes, elaborate song-and-dance numbers, silly dialogue, and bits of business that border on bad taste and go on and on. I can imagine a viewer looking at work like this and deciding that Abelson's thesis is sloppy, her acting is off, and the whole thing doesn't quite hold together.

But informality is a time-honored tradition in performance art, and Abelson is young. I saw Karen Finley perform here in 1982, and the work was interesting but sloppy, wholly lacking the polish it has now that she performs at Lincoln Center. Was Finley's work bad art? No, it was merely not as developed as it is now. One must start somewhere. And so it is with Abelson: she might not always be on target, but she is always interesting--there's that seed of something worth watching and cultivating.

Abelson has one of the most wonderful faces I've seen, a little like Jackie Coogan in Chaplin's The Kid: soft, with a generous mouth and large brown eyes, framed by a halo of honey brown hair. She moves gracefully, and seemed to grow more at ease with her material as the evening progressed. A loony, twisted sense of humor permeated almost every aspect of this work, from her film of the first male giving birth to her song-and-dance number.

Alone of Your Sex was not seamless by any means. The slides shown were uneven and dirty (did the baby grab them?), and Abelson did not seem exactly sure how to use them. She has not yet met the challenge of using electronic media in performance. She is a painter, and she approaches performance as though she were creating an oil painting--layer upon layer. But unlike a painting, in which the layers provide depth and sheen, in a finished performance the conceptual layers should become invisible. Only time and actually performing a work for an audience can create this sort of seamlessness, which painters don't usually experience. But Abelson is on the right track, developing and honing a solo voice.

A few characterizations were quite wonderful, as when Abelson demystified a very regal, very pompous, very holy pope--perhaps the ultimate authority figure. This pope blessed the throngs, suddenly went into labor, and finally launched into a song and dance. Wearing a very ornate cassock and platform shoes about a foot high, Abelson towered over the audience as she began her long, lumbering blessing (complete with frankincense) in the gallery space, which serves as a lobby. One heard a recording of a pope or priest saying mass in Latin while Abelson mouthed the words over the text but purposely a bit out of sync. Two Secret Service men guarded her, and a pushy photographer got shoved away. Some of the elements in this otherwise nice scene--for example, her monk-in-waiting, Matthew Girson, and the song "Let Me Be the Pope of Art"--though charming seemed a little rococo, reminiscent of what Mel Brooks might have added if he were creating performance art.

When the "Pope Joan" segment was complete, Abelson led us into the performance space. Her ability to alter this space through lighting and props was exciting, free-ranging, and a little wild. For each segment of her performance she created quite literally a new scene by raising or lowering a curtain or using a part of the gallery not yet considered or a prop or some new medium. For example, she projected stars on a piece of canvas painted to look like a breast hanging above the audience and accompanied the image with a monologue about the birth of the Milky Way. In another very effective segment she was a chatty gynecologist giving the audience an examination, shining a bright light into our eyes. She and her "nurse" (Girson) wheeled out a little cart, and she donned latex gloves, put K-Y jelly on the fingers of one hand, and pretended all of us were in our sixth month of pregnancy: "Oh, you're a little swollen, but that's normal. Don't you wish winter would end? I sure do . . . " At another point she became the Holy Mother in a Piero della Francesca painting: standing before an oil reproduction of the painting, she had a slide projected over her that transformed her face to the one in the original. She also adopted the persona of a prim anthropologist and showed and narrated a film "documentary" about the first male to give birth--to something better left floating in a toilet. Her German-accented narration was interspersed with macho asides like "That a boy, pal--you can do it, buddy," which were oddly juxtaposed to her proper German veneer.

A great deal of research, thought, writing, and construction went into Alone of Your Sex. There is much here to think about--the mythology, the quasi-anthropology, and the autobiographical material surrounding women and pregnancy. Like Mel Brooks, Karen Finley, and much vaudeville and early performance art, it will not be to everyone's taste. This is not the work of a mature artist, but neither is it the work of an amateur: it's the work of an artist at the beginning of her career. Cleverly designed and imaginative, it has humor and honesty. So if you're looking for profound statements--art with a capital "A"--look elsewhere. But if you're looking for something sincere and real, small, humble, and a little camp, here it is.

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