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Masking the Pain

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Patty Carroll: Photographs and Messages

at Artemisia Gallery, through November 29

By Fred Camper

The iconography of Patty Carroll's photographs of women, 15 of which are on view at Artemisia, is familiar. Showing a woman's head and torso, her face hidden behind cabbage or sausages or a kitchen implement, is easy to read today as a protest against the way social roles can obliterate a woman's identity, forcing her into a mold she neither requested nor desired. And indeed, the artist writes of these works: "As women of a certain time...we have been brought up to be polite...cook lovely meals... send thank you notes....Sometimes domestic ritual becomes our total identity, especially to those around us....Real, inner identity becomes modified or hidden behind these behavioral necessities."

Carroll's work gains its power not from its conception, then, but from its execution. These large Ektacolor prints, 23 inches square, place the figure against a totally black background. The woman, a model Carroll uses as a stand-in for herself, has light skin whose smoothness is accentuated by diffuse lighting. A variety of objects have been placed in front of her face in different positions: strips of bacon come down like hair; sausages are arrayed in rows across her forehead and down her face; pink patterned trim is draped over most of her face like a kitchen valance. The almost grand scale of the prints, their black wooden frames, the inky backgrounds, and the obsessive repetition of the same pose with different objects obscuring the face have a cumulative effect: I found them both starkly beautiful and rather frightening.

The woman has no context other than the objects that obliterate her and the darkness that surrounds her. Yet the introduction of new objects makes it seem as if various stories were being told: you may be able to get the bacon off your face and into the frying pan, but by then it will be time to serve the doughnuts. The stark contrast between the model's light, smooth skin and the undifferentiated black background makes them seem opposite sides of the same coin: voids in which the individual is isolated and identity is lost. The objects that cover the face and create the figure's identity are not identities at all but temporary masks against the darkness.

At the same time the series expresses a dark, almost acidic humor. The green leaves in Cabbage Head flop down over the forehead, covering the eyes; the cloth in Pink Fringe is like a bonnet that's gone too far; and in Tea Time a tea bag is placed over each eye while others adorn the sides of the head like fashion accessories. Another narrative that suggests itself here is the children's story of the kitchen that comes to life, taking over the woman who works within it, dictating to her at each moment what she will become.

The photographs are one component of Carroll's show, occupying three walls, but on the fourth wall she's mounted 247 small note cards in a grid. Each has a preprinted "I'm Sorry," "I Forgive You," or "Thank You" in pink script on the front flap, while inside are messages Carroll has composed, computer printed in a script font. Most are addressed to unnamed persons--"Dear D," "Dear M"--and are signed "Love P." But just as the kitchen portraits hardly reveal a happy housewife, these notes are not always very polite. One reads: "Thank you for being my brother....It seems like you and I still don't have much in common except the pain of our upbringing." Some apologies are not entirely apologetic: "I'm sorry that I thought you were a bitch the first time I met you. Now I find you quite charming yet somewhat insecure." Notes of forgiveness can be rather unforgiving: "I forgive you for never taking me shopping. That is what mothers and daughters are supposed to do together. I guess you never got it."

Carroll, 49, a Chicagoan who's lived here most of her life, says this show represents the personal side of her work--photographs of "the body, some sort of expression of whatever I'm going through." (She's also created a large number of photographs, she says, "based outside of me, based on American culture--motels, restaurants. There's a series of Chicago hot dog stands, and I'm working on a series of photographs of Elvis impersonators.") The messages on the note cards are thoughts she's had over the years about people but never set down or sent; the texts were composed recently. Though in many ways the thoughts represent her own story, she didn't expect that visitors would read all of them. Rather she hoped that, for each viewer, the texts "would bring up things in yourself, so that we think about how we treat each other. Everyone has people in the past who caused them pain."

Her hope for the messages, then, is that they come across as universal, but I saw them only as her story, not mine. The photographs spoke to me much more directly. As she states, they deal with the position of women, but the theme of the obliteration of identity is less gendered than it first appears. I could find myself in various versions of the model against a stark black background--not behind kitchen objects but wondering, when feeling isolated and alone, what my place is in the world in the face of the identities I've assumed or had imposed on me over the years.

Carroll argues that the two halves of her exhibit are parallel: the cards are about "what you're supposed to do," and the photographs reveal "what you can become by doing what you're supposed to do." Attempting to subvert the conventions of politeness implied by such message cards, she speaks of the way "black humor can relieve the pain" when "there's someone close to you who's really in bad shape." But while I see black humor in Cabbage Head, I have trouble locating it in "I'm sorry that you have not learned to appreciate my work properly. What can I do to show you what a brilliant photographer I am?" While many of the cards sound affectionate, sincere, or self-effacing, more often Carroll undermines the tradition of politeness not only by being self-assertive but by casting blame: blaming others, blaming the past. She's less sorry for her own misdeeds than for the deficiencies of others.

Yet I'm reluctant to simply pronounce pairing the messages with the photos an artistic mistake. What one thinks of the combination will doubtless be affected by one's attitude toward the trend in our culture to blame others--dysfunctional families, patriarchy, capitalism--for our "low self-esteem," an attitude Carroll skillfully presents. But as I moved back and forth between the two components, the notes always seemed to bring the photographs down to a less interesting level. Carroll's photos make obliteration visible; the notes read like someone's diary. By implicitly equating them, Carroll makes the particulars of her own life more of an explanation than she perhaps intended. One way of reading the show is: "Because my parents treated me thus and so, I sometimes feel like a cabbage head."

Carroll articulates a current ethos but one that seems to me an aesthetic and practical dead end. Heaven knows I've fouled up my life plenty and have done my share of blaming; the harder thing is to see that blame leads nowhere, and to try to live in the present, forging ahead, creating a future.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tea Time/Cabbage Head.

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