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Dreams of Power

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Pamela Hobbs: Captive Beauty

at ARC, through May 30

Maria Velasco: Remember Lot's Wife...

at ARC, through May 30

Risa Sekiguchi

at Lyons Wier, through May 30

By Fred Camper

Though artists' statements are notoriously obscure, it's easy to see what Pamela Hobbs means when she writes, "'Captive Beauty' is a series of ten photographs that critique the classical-traditional concept of the ideal woman." Those sepia-toned images, each displayed under glass in a small oak cabinet at ARC, capture miniature scenes in which female forms seem to stand for unnatural perfection. But though Hobbs comments on our culture's objectification of women, she also seems fascinated by it, seeking to reclaim it in a nontoxic form. Number two shows a doll in an elaborately ruffled dress holding a bouquet on a lawn in front of an A-frame house. The scene, with oversize flowers in front of a tree and foreshortened lawn, has the curiously suspended feeling of a dream or fantasy image walled off from real time and space--especially since the impossibly perfect doll is enclosed by a bell jar.

Hobbs's "critique" proceeds by way of seduction. These enchanted scenes may be meant to depict women held captive by outmoded conventions, but the images are also captivating. Hobbs understands that these magical miniature scenes will draw us to them--as she seems to be, admiring her dolls more than condemning them. In Number one four dolls stand on what seems to be a stage, judging by the curtain at the left; behind them is a cloudy sky. (Given the strange mix, I wasn't surprised to hear Hobbs cite Magritte as an influence.) Shot from a low angle, the dolls seem heroic, even monumental, despite their miniature size: masters of the sky behind them.

The spatial contradictions and perceptual ambiguities Hobbs sets up establish her photos as dream images, liberating the viewer's imagination. Unmooring her images from real space and time, she forces each viewer to try to resolve their issues of scale. In Number two, the space between the doll and the house seems weirdly compressed; this does not feel like a scene one could walk through. The front steps of the house beckon--but can be seen only through the bell jar. In effect Hobbs's ambiguous feelings, her troubled fascination with these scenes, become our own.

Political types who see only social themes in art often think of spatial qualities as purely formal issues. But they can vitally affect the viewer's relationship to the artwork and thereby the work's meaning. Hobbs suspends her photos a few inches behind the glass of antique-looking oak cabinets, where they hover with no visible means of support, walled off from us (the cabinets even have little keyholes). In effect the presentation parallels the spatial ambiguities of the photos themselves. Seductive yet distant--both from realistic "straight" photography and from the viewer--Hobbs's photos encourage a critical attitude toward their enchantments.

Hobbs, a 36-year-old Chicagoan, remembers drawing and making papier-mache objects as a child. Her leftist parents gave her an early awareness of social issues; as an undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she studied with landscape photographer Art Sinsabaugh and feminist artist Barbara De Genevieve, who "encouraged students to explore political issues by exploring the personal," Hobbs told me. While a grad student at Columbia College, Hobbs started making and photographing miniature scenes; her series illustrating the seven deadly sins led to some commercial commissions, which in turn led back to these personal pieces.

Reproductions of Hobbs's past work in a book available in the gallery reveal a strong narrative component. Anger, for instance, shows a miniature bathroom dominated by a giant toothpaste tube squeezed in the middle, implying the stereotypical stupid quarrel between mates. Number nine of "Captive Beauty" shows an encounter between two women in a dimly lit hallway--but the fact that the women are dolls makes one wonder less about the "story" than about one's own conditioned response to such a scene. The woman peering out a window in Number five is like many similar images in popular melodrama, representing a woman's physical entrapment as symbolic of unfulfilled desire. But Hobbs's detailed yet hokey construction--there are gobs of hand-applied "mortar" between the bricks--signals both obsession and distance, encouraging both thought and emotional involvement. Her handmade settings have a decorative detail that--unlike more hierarchical (and more typically male) compositions--is provocatively ambiguous.

Maria Velasco in her installation at ARC, Remembering Lot's Wife..., makes equally effective use of ambiguity, also creating feminist art more complex than a simple protest against objectification. The title suggests that the artist is reevaluating a Bible story in feminist terms, and in a recent interview Velasco described Lot's wife as "anybody who's experienced lack of accessibility...who has felt those invisible barriers that are all around us."

The installation consists of a wall--a large wooden frame divided into four sections, one of which is occupied by a partly opened door. Each section contains part of an eerie bluish photograph of a woman, a model portraying Lot's wife; together they give us a forehead-to-breast view of her. In front of the wall is a large mound of salt, covering the bottom of the door. On the wall's other side another photograph can be seen, also in four sections--this one of the woman's back. Both photos are printed on translucent plastic; depending on the light, the front and back are sometimes superimposed. The sound of cicadas can be heard intermittently from a speaker.

Like Hobbs's work, this piece has an obvious feminist meaning that it also undercuts. Lot's wife asserted herself and was punished. But by projecting a monumental representation of her--a figure who also dwarfs the pile of salt--Velasco brings Lot's wife back to life in newly empowered form.

Velasco, who is 33 and now lives in Kansas, was born in Madrid. In the interview she says she thinks of meaning as "not fixed" and offers several interpretations of this work, as she does in her statement. Not all will occur to the viewer, however: hearing the cicadas, I thought of neither "discarded lovers" nor Kansas in the summer. But I did connect the salt with the minerals from which we have all sprung and saw Lot's wife as simultaneously growing out of and being transformed into the salt beneath her--a symbol of both growth and decay, birth and death. ("Salt becomes the landscape from which Lot's wife emerges in a moment of courage or against which she disappears in a moment of doubt," Velasco writes in her statement.)

The work's formal qualities yield more subtle, ambiguous meanings. Divided into panels and pressed against the glass, the woman in the photo seems flattened and entrapped. Yet she also seems overwhelmingly large and enveloping. One wants to walk "into" her, to enter the work, but cannot because of the salt: proud and independent, she will not yield her body to the viewer. Yet, imprisoned under glass, she seems trapped by a culture that wants to control women. Like Hobbs's images, Lot's wife hovers before us in an ambiguous space. The photograph of her back gives her a strange reality, while the panels that divide and the glass that covers her expose the image's artificiality.

In addition to influence by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Goya, Rothko, and Bacon ("This very soul-oriented art, very dark, but very honest and passionate"), Velasco cites her Catholic upbringing as formative. Critical of the church's emphasis on guilt, she nonetheless returns to church on trips back to Spain because she wants to experience "the smells, the colors, not because of the religious experience--it's almost an art event." And there is something altarlike about her installation, right down to its denial of entry: mysterious and separate, it hovers before us but never yields up its secrets.

Velasco and Hobbs offer complex alternatives to stereotypical images of women: charming but troubling small dolls or giant women's faces pressed against glass. Both seek to answer the oppression of women not with other forms of oppression but by making power relations ambiguous, encouraging a thoughtful reconsideration. But like much Catholic art, Velasco's installation does speak the language of power. Risa Sekiguchi in her 12 small panel paintings at Lyons Weir answers power in another way: by abjuring it as completely as possible.

Sekiguchi's subjects are notably ordinary: a pomegranate, a nude torso, some salmon slices, a simple landscape. Always painted from life, with neither the hard-edged precision of Renaissance panel painting nor the softness of impressionism, her subjects have a preternatural gentleness, a mix of sensuousness and distance, that creates a contemplative silence. What's more, Sekiguchi's use of paint subtly undercuts the importance of her pictures' central objects.

Three Slabs of Meat shows three juicy, red steaks on a bland tan table. The steaks are angled toward us invitingly, their streaks of fat and bright red flesh carefully displayed, yet they have none of the aggressive "eat me" quality the composition might suggest. Instead the meat is soft, fabriclike, inviting an equally gentle visual caress. The single eye peering through a round hole in what looks like a sheet in Eye by all rights should stand out against its bland surroundings. And at first it does, but soon it seems to meld mysteriously with the fabric around it. The eye and sheet don't resemble each other: the whites and grays of the fabric are rarely echoed in the eyes. But both are painted with a similar attention to the details, which are treated as important though none is allowed to dominate. The colors in the fabric and in the face display similar organic mixtures of repetition and variation, and there's a softness to the brushwork throughout.

As a result objects that "should" dominate in Sekiguchi's work instead look strangely anomalous, as if the painter found these isolated things--steaks cut from an animal, an eye separate from the rest of a human figure--to be almost funny in their assertive objectness. Feet shows us two feet in profile, clearly belonging to the same person. The foreground foot is painted with some precision, yet perhaps because it's so gently depicted, its prominence gives it no particular power. Around it are strewn a few small green leaves. Moreover the feet point in slightly different directions. Sekiguchi undercuts the common understanding of feet as representative of clear direction and purpose; the different directions here seem to echo the randomly placed leaves. Human intentionality--human power, exemplified by feet and cut fruits and meats--is a mere ripple on the vast ocean of existence.

Sekiguchi, 36, was born in Japan but moved to the United States when she was three; she's lived in Chicago most of her life. Interrupting her studies at the School of the Art Institute, she spent a year in Japan beginning in 1983; during that time she began to shift away from abstraction, influenced by Shinto and Buddhism, by the care with which Japanese farmers tended their fields, and by Buddhist sculptures she saw in Asia on the way home. She names Goya as her favorite painter, discovering "a sadness about his work" that she also finds in her own. But "Buddhism is the closest doctrine to my way of thinking," she says. Though she completes some sections quickly, painting is still a struggle for her; a few compositions have taken more than a year. That struggle shows in images that are never resolved, in perspectives that combine depth and foreshortening but never establish how important or unimportant the central objects are.

The nature of Sekiguchi's project can be seen most clearly in the show's most explicitly spiritual painting, Chayote. The fruit, already sprouting, sits on a plate, its reflection visible there and on the knife alongside the plate. Green tendrils shoot out from the stem, with smaller curls extending from them. Unrestrained growth is the pattern, as if the scene will soon become filled with green sprouts. Sekiguchi allows this organic object to fill the composition, willingly surrendering some of her own voice to nature's.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Number Two from "Captive Beauty" by Pamela Hobbs; "Three Slabs of Meat" by Risa Sekiguchi; "Remembering Lot's Wife..." by Maria Velasco.

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