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Strange Denominations

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The Stamp and Coin Show

at Aron Packer Gallery, through August 16

Women's Self Image Portfolio

at Workshop Print Gallery, through August 30

Three Women

at Woman Made Gallery, through July 31

By Fred Camper

From religious icons to royal portraits to African fetish objects, art can often be authoritarian: an artwork might depict or even become an object commanding attention or worship. A century ago a school of minor American painters admiringly depicted money--perhaps a natural consequence of the young nation's growing wealth. But artists today tend to oppose any kind of hegemony; irony is the dominant tone, and the very idea of investing an object with power is open to question. The artists in all three of these shows offer alternatives to the fetishization of objects regularly found in TV commercials, malls and boutiques, and much art kitsch. "The Stamp and Coin Show" at Aron Packer includes works by 17 identifiable artists as well as anonymous folk art; mostly the works depict money or stamps, but they always maintain a certain distance, an ambiguity, in their presentation of these power objects so central to our culture.

J.S.G. Boggs comes closest to the 18th-century money painters with his life-size versions of U.S. currency. Some of his works have a performance aspect--he convinces others to accept his hand-drawn bills as payment for rent or food--but the prints on display are more playful. The back of a dollar bill is duplicated with amazing precision, except that it's orange, the word "one" is often replaced with "fun," and the currency seems to have been issued by "The United States of Florida." Michael Thompson, Joseph Fontana, and Michael Hernandez de Luna use computer printers to create stamps of their own design, which they then mail, usually to themselves; the postmarked envelope becomes an artwork. Thompson often matches his stamps to his envelopes or postcards; in The Birds, bird stamps adorn a nature card, which also has a bird collaged onto its surface. Hernandez de Luna's stamps underline the phallic roots of our power objects: one displays a silhouette of a man peeing; another set depicts variously colored penises.

These pieces are endearingly adolescent: the artists are hacking the system, trying to subvert and personalize it, by using their own stamps and currency. But the artists also explore issues of power, creating their own objects of symbolic veneration, seizing for themselves a power that our culture gives to government. Not surprisingly, both Boggs and Thompson have run into trouble with the feds (and one of Hernandez de Luna's penis stamps failed to get through; our post office, it seems, does pay attention to some things!).

Other artists critique the idea of stamps or coins as objects of veneration by denying them their traditional status as precious things. In Found Money Assemblage Davey Packer has attached coins he's picked up to scraps of paper, labeled them with the date and location, and roughly stapled them together; his uneasy collection contradicts the coins' traditional meaning by presenting them as garbage. Aaron Kramer takes a more elegant approach: he purchases shredded paper currency and reassembles the strands on the surface of a ball, alternating related strands to achieve a kaleidoscopic symmetry. While Kramer's precise arrangement of the thin slivers reflects the highly detailed design of currency, the fragmented surfaces seem almost to mock the authority of its fine lines, iconic portraits, and national symbols.

What the artists critique in much of this work, most amusingly in the phallic stamps but just as meaningfully in Packer's found coins, is the kind of seeing that parses the visual field by looking for areas of greater significance, just as "The Great Seal of the United States" on the back of a dollar bill is meant to stand out against the lines around it. In Currency Landscapes Dave Peterson replaces the central part of a bill's design with a color sketch that lacks a single focal point. Caspar David Friedrich composed his spectacular mountain views to lead the eye to a vanishing point, organizing the scene around the idea of a romantic elsewhere; Peterson may place several ridgelines at different levels of depth but still denies the viewer a single point of interest, suggesting that every part of the scene is equally worthy. Peterson's replacement of government symbols with pristine landscapes constitutes a critique of the way mercantile thinking, with its goal of converting land into consumable commodities, has nearly destroyed our natural landscape, a landscape that the artist here seeks to restore.

Such critiques have been implicit in much women's art for years, and the two women in the show both defuse the power of currency by making money decorative. Kelly Blais's "Coin Rubbings" repeat horses or architectural fragments found on coins, discarding the printed text; money becomes pure imagery. Holly Stein's Penny Cube is covered on all sides with a double layer of pennies, so that the interior is visible only at the edges. The cube hangs with its edges diagonal to the room, reminding the viewer of all six faces. The theatrical strength of this large hanging object is undercut by its angle of display, its allover design, and the fact that the pennies are the same color as the cube on which they're mounted. Like other works in "The Stamp and Coin Show," it forces us to reorient our seeing and thinking toward a kind of democracy in which everything is equally worthy.

If women's art has often turned away from power issues, one might wonder if that shift has its roots in women's changing conceptions of themselves. The 27 works on view at Workshop Print were selected from "Woman's Self Image Portfolio," a project coordinated by printmaker Jauneth Skinner. Skinner sent participants a thematic statement that reflected on the paradoxes of self-portraiture and the way "women in our society are constantly...turned into objects on display." The results are startling: only a few women have chosen to depict their own figures, and even those portraits are qualified, subverted, troubled. More often the artists present themselves as other women, as animals, as objects, as abstract designs. Some feminists have argued that, because men have so objectified women's bodies, women artists can't really reclaim the female nude, but these printmakers seem less interested in themselves as physical objects than in their pasts and their inner lives; they use irony and humor to deflect any simple self-description.

The closest thing to a straight self-portrait is Skinner's I Cannot Even Be Myself, whose very title undercuts her direct, head-on gaze at the viewer. Her expression is curiously affectless, and the richly textured lines of her face echo those of her hair, suggesting a tapestry and further denying the viewer any entree into her character. In Lifeboat (Self-Portrait 1959-1995), Robin McCloskey presents herself as a child (in a boat) and as a woman (standing alongside). The beach is empty except for a similar boat in the background; the two figures stare in different directions. Apparently made by combining several photos, the print establishes an almost surreal mental space in which present and past uneasily coexist, diminishing any power or certainty one might otherwise ascribe to McCloskey's adult image.

Other artists use humor as gentle self-mockery. Anne Karsten depicts her pregnant self as a water tower about to burst in Maternity. In Holly Greenberg's Tart the epithet for a loose woman is printed below an outline of a baked tart, the top of which is being pressed by a woman's finger. "Call me a tart," Greenberg seems to be saying. "I can take it--I make and puncture tarts myself."

By presenting themselves indirectly, the artists argue that they are too complex to be reduced to images of their bodies. Cheryl Graham's Substratum does present her face, but much of it is shrouded in darkness; it seems less a physical face than a path inward. In Mary Farrell's untitled print, a strand similar to the flexible wood used in basket making spirals inward, forming a skeinlike nest shape whose darkened center suggests a zone of privacy amid a woman's homemaking. Debi Whistler's Flayed appears to be an interior with abstract shapes strewn about the floor or propped against the wall, shapes that evoke bandaged body parts or objects covered with drapery. The scene could be the aftermath of some mayhem, the dismembered remains of a catastrophe. It reminds us that while many women's refusal to reduce themselves to their figures dignifies human complexity, the absence of figures can also represent the lack of a coherent self, a frequent result of the traumas that so many women have suffered.

The artists in "Three Women" at Woman Made all lend their work an uneasy edge with an explicitly social dimension. S. Gayle Stevens has constructed four untitled works from safety pins, looping the pins together in quadrilaterals and hexagons. The pattern repeats throughout, giving the pins a decorative quality. Though the constructions are hung like paintings, the pin arrays are three-dimensional, which emphasizes their physicality. These safety pins feel more dangerous than safe, as if the tension the pins are under could suddenly snap all of them open, as if the bland domesticity implied by decorative patterns and everyday objects could erupt at any moment. Sarah Gjertson's Ingredients presents us with a glass tabletop supported by two white pillars. Atop it lie facial brushes, two mirrors, and jars of chemical powders; a text identifies each powder, explains its use in cosmetics, and in some cases indicates the damage it can do to skin. The importance of this makeup table is both reinforced and mocked by the overly ornate columns, while the texts undermine the magic of cosmetics.

Though they gave me less immediate visual pleasure than the works of Stevens and Gjertson, I particularly liked Ann Tyler's prints. Chair of visual communication at the School of the Art Institute, Tyler makes posterlike prints whose composition seems influenced by the principles of graphic design. While visually elegant, they are not particularly strong as stand-alone compositions, yet their texts often describe violence against women, in several cases specific murders that Tyler is careful not to depict. Stands is a large triptych; two of its sections list morally compromising situations--the exposing of a lesbian friend in the military, for example. The arrangement of words creates a symmetrical neatness that might be irritating on its own but makes a powerful statement against too much order when combined with the stories. Above one of the texts we see two eyes from different heads; below, a horse's hoof next to a goat's. The words thus become the body of a mythical figure, divided against itself, uncertain of its nature, just as social compromises alienate us from ourselves. Each of the eight prints in Eight Bullets stands for one of the bullets used to murder two women on a trail; in most of them the artist superimposes the colored shadow of a bird over a pebbly ground. The bird is neither object nor shadow: its colors vary and the pebbles poke through. But it is also the victim on the ground and the predator swooping down from above. The dislocated feel of this series stems from Tyler's refusal to depict the victim or the source of the violence as an object. The viewer cannot isolate any single thing or cause. Perhaps this is the best thing about antiobject art: it refocuses our attention from the physical world to the ways we think about it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "The Birds" by Michael Thompson; Detail ofa work by S. Gayle Stevens.

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