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Victims' Voices

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OUT OF SILENCE

at Beacon Street Gallery, through April 11

"Then there was the pain," wrote Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, describing her rape by her mother's boyfriend. "A breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart. The act of rape on an eight-year-old body is a matter of the needle giving because the camel can't. The child gives, because the body can, and the mind of the violator cannot."

Week after week the daily papers and television news tell of children shifted from one abusive foster home to another, of the uselessness of protection orders, of children and women found shot or strangled, lying facedown in cornfields or wrapped in cellophane and stuffed into trunks. But facts about violence don't necessarily lead to empathy or relieve a victim's sense of isolation--for this we need the voices of survivors, of artists like Angelou.

The current show at Beacon Street Gallery presents several local artists who are breaking silence about their experiences of violence and incest. Some choose to remain relatively self-contained and divulge little personal information; instead they create potent images of entrapment, impending violence, and old wounds submerged but continually felt. Others take a less subtle approach, opening up the wounds, venting rage, and making visible the "mess" of a damaged life.

In her installation Walls, Mary Holmquist takes the first approach. Traversing the length of a small room she's built within the gallery is a long sheet-metal duct, from which six additional ducts hang--these, along with the stark white walls and concrete floor, give the room the appearance of an exceptionally well scrubbed basement. But the domestic sounds emerging from small speakers placed in the end of each duct, near the floor, have their origin in a kitchen. They are incessant, repetitious: teakettles boil; water runs down drains; dishes are clanked together, scrubbed, and rinsed. A sound that might be a metal drawer sliding open and closed or a knife being sharpened also resembles breathing. Every now and then a woman's voice says "Yeah?" and shortly thereafter, "You better be good," rising and falling in a slightly threatening manner, stretching out "good" into two syllables.

Bright shop lights hanging from the metal ducts illuminate garments placed on the floor: a disposable diaper made of gray steel wool, a toddler's dress of kitchen sponges, a girl's nightgown of paper towels, a G-string and pasties of copper scrubbing pads. Combined with the never-ending sounds of cooking and cleaning and the small size of the room they create an unpleasant sense of entrapment, of a closed circuit: the activity of cleaning house, the materials used in the process, and the unseen woman and child all become interchangeable. Tension builds as the teakettle whistles away--the effect is of a hothouse that suffocates rather than nurtures.

Holmquist's Walls leaves much to the viewer--its sights and sounds are familiar but not overly specific, allowing viewers to use them as a springboard into their own experiences and memories. Mirtes Zwierzynski takes a somewhat similar approach, juxtaposing paintings that speak generally of childhood with photographs that refer to a specific family's story.

Zwierzynski's Interruption/Innocence is made up of numerous components--six large acrylic-on-wood paintings, several ink-on-paper abstractions, and 14 two-foot-square platforms bearing photographs--neatly arranged in rows on and around two walls. This orderly arrangement, along with a limited palette of black and white, initially creates an impression of stability and balance.

But this impression is contradicted by the torrent of images layered within Zwierzynski's rectangles and squares. The six paintings of Interruption/Innocence have rough surfaces of black paint that have been incised with childlike linear drawings and sometimes painted over--stick figures, flowers, a house, a sun, and what looks like a bed with two figures on it, one of which has been scratched out. Drifting through one of these dark fields of paint is a girl's white dress made of gauze; elsewhere, scratched into the paint, are a few barely legible references to innocence, including Blake's famous opening line to "The Lamb." They reminded me of blackboards on which equations or tidy outlines have been replaced by partially buried, only half-realized memories.

Equally mysterious and unnerving are the xeroxed photographs mounted on platforms lined up along the walls. Some of these fairly dark photos are close-ups of a little girl who poses for the camera alone or with siblings. Others are more troubling: one shows a man in the midst of removing his shirt, another a man or boy getting into a bed, still another a child kneeling with legs crossed, leaning forward. Darkened and cropped so as to eliminate a sense of place, these snapshots, like the more subjective paintings, yield only hints of transgression, but they are more than enough to create a palpable sense of danger. A brown substance like dirt or coffee has been formed into vaguely biomorphic shapes and smeared over and around the photos, but its presence seems tentative and unnecessary--much greater quantities would be needed to allude to the burying or uncovering of experience.

The third component of Interruption/Innocence is four vertical rows of narrow strips of paper sewn together with black thread. They contain no discernible images, just broad strokes, drips, and splatters of black ink, and are inscribed here and there with lines of scribbly cursive writing. Like pages from a diary or sketchbook they seem to contain direct responses to personal experience. But since they've been recorded in an inscrutable language, these messages are an exercise in futility, indicating that traumatic experiences can't always be readily articulated. Taken together, the various parts of Interruption/Innocence express an urgent desire to communicate, but the messages come out in whispers we have to strain to hear.

Ginny Sykes's extremely visceral paintings and installations have none of the measured restraint employed by Holmquist and Zwierzynski. Fragmented figures in Slam #I and Slam #II, two large paintings on aluminum, portray aggression (an arm about to strike, a clenched fist) or fear and powerlessness (a crouching woman, arms protecting her head, a child lying in a fetal position). Rendered with the angular forms, jagged, rough brush strokes, and ambiguous spaces reminiscent of German Expressionism, Sykes's paintings strive for a sense of urgency and feverish turmoil. But her subjects might be better served by the more deliberate, studied approach to the figure taken by Kathe Kollwitz than by the bluster of Kirchner: in Slam #I, for example, the hurried rendering of an upraised fist with a few weak slashes of paint drains the power from what might have been a truly threatening gesture. And though the unexpected choice of a cold metallic surface for Sykes's crashing forms seems relevant, the glare of track lights on the shiny aluminum tends to aggravate problems of readability. In the end, these two paintings left me unconvinced that a violent, emotional style necessarily conveys best the physical, psychological, and spiritual consequences of violent behavior.

More ambitious and compelling is an installation by Sykes, Quartered. Tumbling across a long gallery wall and onto the floor, this combination of drawn, painted, and collage elements produces the sort of queasiness one might feel when, having opened the door to an old, forgotten closet, a jumble of repressed traumatic events and unexpressed rage comes spilling out into the light.

The most prominent image in Quartered is a set of concentric circles drawn in chalk on the wall, the largest of which extends from ceiling to floor. These circles, like the rings of a tree trunk or the layers of an onion, can be viewed as symbols of wholeness and growth. But Sykes shatters them with diagonal lines cutting across all the circles to converge at their center. In and around the circles, looking like they've broken off and spun away, are black wedges of plywood bearing a jumble of objects, painted images, and words. There are lengths of hair, barrettes, curtains, a pink sock, paper-cutout dolls, a broken china bowl, glass lenses, and numerous Polaroids showing a grasping hand, children kicking a soccer ball, bare trees against dark blue skies, and a glaring, nude young woman with close-cropped hair who assumes tense poses, fists clenched at her sides in one photo, arms raised overhead, as though prepared to strike, in another. Over and around the objects on each wedge, obliterating some of the photos, are swaths of paint--mostly dark colors, though an image of vibrant red lilies stands out as a hopeful bright spot.

At first I felt that Quartered was too chaotic, that its profusion of images and scattered words and phrases (among them "thrust," "fuck," "swell," "home," "my bed is a safe place") was without focus. And then I realized I wanted it to be something other than it was intended to be: I wanted it to be organized and logical, but it stubbornly insisted on being complicated and messy--a sad yet truthful representation of the fragmentation, fear, anger, and insecurity experienced by victims of abuse.

Katherine Riegel's weaving, Family Flag, hung perpendicular to the wall from a nearby ceiling beam, is meant to be viewed along with Quartered. Unfinished or unraveled, its few inches of colorful patterns end abruptly, transforming the long, bare warp threads dangling overhead into potent symbols of fragmentation and loss.

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