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Elizabeth D'Agostino: Journals From the Silk Current

at ARC, through October 30

Michele Stutts: The Birds & the Fleas

at ARC, through October 30

By Fred Camper

Many artists today have abandoned the purism of modernists, who sought to discover their materials' true natures (and sometimes their spiritual possibilities), for approaches that are more anecdotal, autobiographical, or theatrical, content to tell one truth--their own: the art object becomes less a window than a stage. And instead of looking for new forms, they use already existing vocabularies in new combinations. Such an approach is compatible with the feminist emphasis on individual narratives over universal aspirations, though it's common among both men and women.

Of Elizabeth D'Agostino's four works at ARC, the two large installations are the strongest--and most theatrical, with large silk cloths hung as backdrops. In her statement D'Agostino says that her work is about "memory...remnants from the past regenerated into the present." But I saw these often humorous pieces as more about excess, the love of decor, and the very process of their making.

The backdrop for From the Scarlet Curio Series is a large piece of silk dyed red and gold with roses stamped or drawn on it in black, stretching from the floor almost to the ceiling. Before it on the left hangs a line of curious objects, odd dark red bell shapes D'Agostino made by dipping Styrofoam pyramids in wax; around their bottoms are roses in relief. Too eccentric to have been purchased, they nevertheless suggest decorative baubles. To the right a huge column of red fabric hangs from the ceiling, sprawling in folds on the floor like a dress that's too long. But the key element seems to be a grid of small cast-wax red roses on the floor that extends into the viewer's space. The use of both floor and wall creates a kind of theater: the floor becomes a stage, the hanging silk a backdrop, and the objects in front of it are like actors in a wordless drama.

In Luminous Clusters From the Southern Tip, the backdrop of hanging silk--this one mostly blue with a red rectangle--actually sprawls onto the floor. At the fold there's a line of blue fabric cubes that cluster into a mound on the right almost like a little traffic jam--excess again. Fabric can't maintain a perfect cube shape, of course, so these soft sculptures become wry jokes on a purist shape glorified by minimalists--these are feminist versions of geometric perfection that introduce the vagaries of the artist's hand and the materials traditionally used by women. In front, red wax balls with relief roses on their surfaces hang from almost invisible lines; thin cylinders of red cotton are hung alternately with them. The contrast between the foreground red and the predominantly blue background is mirrored by red threads D'Agostino has stitched into the silk.

Now living in Florida, D'Agostino was born in 1972 in Oakville, Ontario, to Italian immigrant parents. She felt a bit of an outsider as a child: her parents spoke mostly English at home, but "mixed up with Italian words," and she says she brought "these huge sandwiches with crusty bread" to school when all the other kids had peanut butter and jelly. But perhaps most significant, her parents' home was different, with "museum rooms, rooms that you don't enter." A sitting room upstairs with "white upholstery, scroll-like chairs, was used only on special occasions like the engagement of one of the children." There were two kitchens, a downstairs one for cooking and an upstairs one that was never used, "where all was spotless and beautiful--it had silverware and china, all the things that were handed down."

D'Agostino acknowledges that her two large installations can be seen as abstracted versions of these display rooms. They also reveal a divided attitude toward home decor. The absence of purchased objects, the fact that even the roses are handmade, suggests a loving attention to detail. And the way each element sets off the others with contrasts of color and form encourages a kind of affectionate attention: the cast roses, red and blue cloth, and fabric column--like actors or decorative baubles--ask to be admired. At the same time, however, the objects' lack of functionality and their odd redundancies and repetitions suggest the pointlessness and absurdity of decoration for decoration's sake.

Michele Stutts had a more direct experience of displacement than D'Agostino. Born to an American father and English mother in Liverpool in 1959, Stutts moved with them to the south side of Chicago in 1970, going from one kind of outsider status to another. In England she was one of only a few black children in her school. In Chicago she was suddenly surrounded by African-Americans ("I hadn't known so many black people existed") but told me that at first she found America "vulgar--the people seemed to be rude." The black pride movement had a positive effect on her, but she was also teased by the other kids because of her British accent, which she says she forced herself to lose within a year. In Chicago an unstable family situation forced Stutts to become the homemaker and caregiver to her younger sister. She studied art at Chicago State University and the American Academy of Art and has taught at the latter for many years, disproving her father's claim that she was "stupid" to pursue art.

The 18 sculptures and mixed-media drawings in her present show at ARC, "The Birds & the Fleas," stem from a very personal source: the abrupt end of a 16-year "dysfunctional relationship," after which she says she had a nervous breakdown. In her statement, Stutts points out that "birds" also means "girls" in England and that fleas are parasites; she dedicates her exhibit to "all women world wide who have been abused physically or mentally in the name of love."

If D'Agostino's work is almost cheery despite its ironic undercurrent, Stutts's pieces are striking for their aching desolation. The one exception is Climax, a mixed-media work that combines drawing and collaged bits of doilies and other materials: a joyous-looking woman at the center has her legs spread and has apparently brought herself to orgasm, an impression heightened by the rhythmic energy of her curved arms and legs. But a similar mixed-media work, Rusted, Hang Her!, has an utterly different tone. Mounted on a rusted hanger, it shows a drawing of a woman, head drooping, enmeshed in fabric patterns, including white doilies, as if she were trapped by the materials--perhaps a reflection of Stutts's feeling that she was enmeshed in others' lives.

Like D'Agostino, Stutts creates works that have some of the qualities of narrative. The sculptures in this show had their beginning when she was living in a new neighborhood after the breakup and began collecting junk from the street. She connects her choice of materials to an interest in "the down-and-out": the process of watching them and collecting is inscribed in these pieces. Even a relatively abstract untitled work made up of a box with three compartments can be seen as the diary of a collector: arranged like frames in a film, the three compartments contain wood or rusted metal (and two include wool), as if to say "These are the items I found and organized."

Out the Box suggests imprisonment. Here the rear side of a box open at the front is covered with cheaply printed tickets, some for a $1 event. The lower half of the front is densely strung with old twine; a piece of rusted metal enmeshed in it not only denies entry but prevents access to the tickets--and the nightlife they represent. This is the story of someone forced to stay home. A paintbrush at the center of Death of My Painterly World has metal rods instead of bristles--and in fact Stutts found it was very difficult to paint after the breakup. This sculpture tells that story as well as a more general tale of loss and emptiness: the missing bristles evoke absence, as do the open rectangles of a metal grid behind the paintbrush. Yet the emptiness has produced a kind of raw beauty that makes loss seem less tragic.

The bicycle seat in On the Other Side makes a joke about the phallus it suggests: the seat is upside-down, so the post stretches up at an angle; a rusted triangular frame that was clearly never part of a bicycle surrounds the seat, walling it off and calling attention to the empty space around the post. Stutts further undermines phallic power by topping the post with a tiny dried squash, a "tip" that's both representative of nature's "bounty" and a bit silly. Her joke seems a sign of returning vigor--indeed, both artists give their unique theaters of the mind, the abstracted narratives of their lives, a singular energy and power.

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