"An iron curtain has descended across the Continent." Imagine Winston Churchill in his study. Behind him, just visible in the dim evening light, four brocade curtains stand immobilized by their own weight, blocking the windows from floor to ceiling. They hum, gently shimmering, and as Churchill contemplates the world to be, they momentarily transform into iron.
Artist Mary Brogger remembers believing as a child that there was an actual curtain made of iron. Now 25 years later, still intrigued by the image, she has constructed a transmuted curtain for a new installation. Cut from sheet metal, the traditionally woven pattern appears to be in a state of flux, slipping between fabric and metal--as ambiguous as the iron curtain dividing East and West is today.
Brogger represents social and political arrangements through decorative objects and furniture, and she knows she runs the risk that her audience will be seduced by the decorative aspects of her work and fail to respond to the subtle symbolism. But these are the forms that come naturally to her.
"Stylistically I chose the things I grew up with. My grandfather owned a wallpaper, paints, and interior-design store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was the nation's capital for furniture at the time," Brogger says. "His summer home had 81 doorways, 12 of them leading outside. Every room had a name: there was the green room, the blue room, the white room; there were sitting rooms, two pantries, and a kitchen the size of my apartment.
"Because of his business, the house had all kinds of furniture. The more formal rooms--the sitting rooms and master bedroom--had seriously carved, huge mahogany bedsteads, Louis XIV sitting-room furniture. The lower floor was more cottagelike and filled with mission style, Harvey Ellis, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stickley--the Prairie School."
When Brogger began studying at the School of the Art Institute, she remembered that house. "That's the stuff I started building. Because I was working in wood, I was remaining faithful to the rectilinear shape of the mission style. I was attaching apparatuses like air-pressure gauges to my earliest wooden chairs. I was concerned with one person and his environment. . . . Later I did A Tight Circle of Friends--four chairs hinged together and facing each other so they couldn't be used. I was referring to what happens when people get tight and are cut off from everybody else. I became interested in positioning of furniture--the authoritative stance that can be suggested by the chair at the head of the table or where a person would decide to sit in relation to another person as an indication of how they feel toward that person. I started to use the chair as the human figure itself, setting it into a situation where it was dealing with another human figure/chair."
Then Brogger began working in metal: "I was able to get the silhouette of a more complicated piece of furniture without having to build it. I was able to make chairs using curvilinear, rococo styles, which suggest social position and economic status." And she cut patterns into the metal to simulate upholstery.
As with her chairs, Brogger has used sheet metal to conjure the fabric of curtains. The damask pattern she abstracted from Churchill's period. "If you walk through any Victorian mansion, heavy, floor-to-ceiling draperies are the norm--generally made of satin, velvet, or brocade. The damask pattern is something you would ordinarily find in a European home. It's a highly ornate woven design which evolved into wallpaper, curtains, and upholstery in the well-to-do European life-style. The design suggests British opulence, something Churchill would have known."
Brogger cut out hundreds of intricate floral shapes and linked them together to form the four nine-foot panels. The abstracted pattern, suspended in open space, floats as a skeletal silhouette of something passing, poised in an atmosphere of dangerous and splendid possibilities. Like Eastern Europe's disintegrating barriers, Brogger's curtains vibrate between a familiar world and the hope for something soft and opulent.
The curtains line one wall of her installation at Rezak Gallery. Beyond them sits a group of three chairs. Also designed in sheet metal, their style and arrangement echo the status of their intended occupants--Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin--but Brogger positions the group peripherally, like the ghost of a memory.
The installation opens tomorrow from 1 to 4 PM at the Rezac Gallery, 301 W. Superior, and will remain there through March 13. Admission is free and more information is available at 751-0481.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.