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Women on the Web

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Stephanie Cunningham:

at ARC Gallery, through November 30

Scott Jacobson

at Feigen Incorporated, through November 30

By Fred Camper

Part of her goal, Stephanie Cunningham says, is to counter the pornographic images of women on the Net with more positive images--the way women have chosen to represent themselves: most of her pieces at ARC are screen captures of the personal home pages of a variety of women. Each image is mounted on a small piece of white plastic, a rectangle of perhaps four or five inches with an identical hinged piece attached at the left so it can be opened and closed like a compact or a book; the hinged cover also provides a hint of drama to the presentation.

Like many artists these days, Cunningham doesn't set pencil to paper but starts with an object and does something and then something else to it, to paraphrase Jasper Johns. Yet recycling images is nothing new: even handmade works of earlier eras were often copies of earlier art. And artists today who start with found materials and modify them are able to engage the social and technological mechanisms by which images are produced and reproduced: Cunningham makes a number of comments on Web pages through the choices she's made in presenting them.

The small size and elegant shape of these little books or compacts turn Web images into something more like diary entries--which is what home pages frequently are, but which an impersonal-looking full-screen display often seems to belie. The screen captures replicate some of the fuzziness of the video image, that intangible element that makes video so different from film; mounting them on plastic underlines the discrepancy between the traditional solidity of gallery images and the insubstantial, fleeting nature of video, and of the Net itself. The hinged cover may add a bit of theater, but it also creates a hint of privacy: these are the details of people's lives, which perhaps not everyone should see or wishes to see.

Cunningham's choice of mounting gives form to the contradictions inherent in personal home pages. They are both public and private, theater and diary, full of images yet impermanent. Her presentation also makes one want to visit these pages: often the bottom part of her image ends before the end of the page, in the middle of a text or the middle of a list of links. And the links themselves--colored text, boxes to click on--emphasize the dynamic multiple worlds of hypertext and Web links, which are very much in contrast with the static picture on the wall: the final paradox of gallery presentation. The incompleteness of Cunningham's images calls to mind the massive system of interaction and information they only partially reproduce: the viewer of these works inevitably wants to scroll down to see the rest of the page--or click on the links.

This is part of her intent. Cunningham, a 29-year-old Chicagoan, gathered these pages to "paint a realistic portrait of women on the Net. Part of that is how the women chose to represent themselves. I wanted the gallery audience to know who's out there and what a diverse group they are." So I did the obvious: I copied down the URLs, which Cunningham includes on the inside of the hinged cover, went home, and went surfing.

Of course, many of the home pages are no longer there, and many of the ones that remain have changed. But visiting those I could find got me thinking about what is and isn't art. I try not to ask this question very often, accepting almost anything an artist has done as art whether I like it or not. And Cunningham's "booklets," with their precise form and calculated relation to the images they contain, meet at least the minimum standard for art: Cunningham has exercised a degree of formal control, using her materials to make a statement. But visiting these personal home pages--clicking on links and observing the computer-screen stutter followed by the slow loading of a new image, wandering around to other links, reading about and viewing the children, boyfriends, husbands, and dogs of these women of the Net--reminded me that, unless we would render the word meaningless by applying it to any human artifact, some things in fact are not art. On a home page the creator cannot completely control what path the viewer takes, what the screen looks like as a new image loads, or much at all. Which is not to say a home page could never be art; it just doesn't seem very likely.

Instead these pages have a mainly anthropological interest. Felicity, a physician, shows us her kids and the hospital where she works and offers loads of links to AIDS information and the town where she lives. Her page is rich in information; what it lacks, in Roger Frye's phrase, is "significant form." The same might be said of the home page of the woman who announces her hatred of beer, then does the contrary thing and provides a link to "Frank's Beer Page." Among several artists represented is Diane Fenster, who has a genuinely intriguing site visually. But while her digitally created images may be art, the site is mostly just an inventory of her work; in the same way that most museum retrospectives of an artist are not themselves works of art, her site is not art.

Indeed, to one without a lot of free time, personal home pages can be irritating, even idiotic. Once you've visited a few and learned about the pets and lovers and careers and favorite games of people you don't know, the novelty wears off; only the most patient of anthropologists, or voyeurs, could keep up interest for long. By valorizing each person's site, and by implication her life, Cunningham suggests that each is somehow special.

But there are now oodles of women's home pages; is each one worth a visit? If Cunningham's point is to counter the images of women as sex objects on the Net, one has to wonder whether she's preaching to the converted. Are the visitors to exhibits at ARC, a cooperative gallery run by women, likely to think of women only as sex objects? Will they be truly surprised to discover that a woman physician has created a home page full of useful information? I like the way Cunningham's mountings helped me think about the nature of the Net and Net imagery, but when I followed up by visiting the sites, I didn't learn anything fundamentally new.

What I did see was the kind of visual chaos that most Net sites present or can lead to. Click on a word in many home pages and you're suddenly at a completely different site. Return to a page with links to diverse sites, and the words you followed there (now a paler color, at least with some Web browsers) remind you of the multiple paths each site contains. And the Net is really only a more extreme example of the profusion of images and sounds that bombard us from all directions. To a degree perhaps unprecedented in history we have available to us, at least in terms of imagery, many, many alternative universes.

One consequence may be that artists no longer feel the need to produce works unified in any traditional sense. Painters from Giotto to Lichtenstein have created works whose parts are ultimately meant to bear a clear relation to one another that's key to the work's expression, but younger artists in a variety of media have rejected that model. While Scott Jacobson's five new mixed-media works at Feigen look somewhat alike, he hasn't sought compositional unity. Instead he's created in these huge image-filled boards a vast visual field like a playground where the viewer is encouraged to wander.

These works are done in oil and acrylic on wooden boards; there are big swaths of abstract line and color, fragments of imagery (often of children), and drawn and painted fragments of plants and animals. Jacobson also applies glass resin and paints over it to obscure parts of images. And set over the surface are plastic and glass bubbles, which he makes himself; these typically contain one or more images, often magnified by the bubble's curvature. These tend to wall off the images inside from the rest of the picture, almost as if they were separate worlds.

Jacobson, 27, had an unstable childhood: his parents divorced when he was three, and he lived with various relatives for a while; he acknowledges feeling that he was denied a big chunk of his childhood. He relates his imagery of children to his own reluctance to "accept the responsibility of growing up and the things that come with that, and instead to live in the past." He's an artist who rarely looks at other art: "We moved to the city two and a half years ago, and I've gone to galleries a few times and the Art Institute once." Another, stronger influence on him, he says, is that while he works he's usually playing a TV and a radio simultaneously: "I can hear both at the same time--I have to have noise going."

Jacobson says his pictures have narratives but that they're "open-ended." This is work best savored at first in parts. An area of resin painted white at the lower left of It's the Blues, Rub Her has circular holes in it through which the young girls beneath are visible. At the center of Beer Bottle Brown is a clear bubble within which can be seen a dark drawing of a circular bar with empty bar stools around it, and at the upper right of the work is a wide-eyed girl like those in the infamous Keane paintings. Visually and intellectually the viewer can't easily reconcile these diverse parts, but Jacobson's use of motifs within paintings, the rhythms of his abstract lines, and devices like clear half spheres and the resin painted white to partially cover images suggest that each picture depicts parallel worlds existing on separate planes. Web sites as a rule may be mediocre, but Jacobson demonstrates that it's possible to create an art based on disunity, in which diverse elements can never be fully reconciled.

It's OK Blair is one of his more unified works. A combination of abstract motifs, bright, plastic, vaguely 50s-ish colors, and suggestions of speed, it's a kind of paean to fast cars and tail fins in which neither image appears. The white hair of a woman on the left streaks backward as if blown by the wind; other horizontals also evoke movement. We see a boy setting fire to a turtle's shell; there are images of burning turtles throughout this painting (Jacobson says that a burning turtle has no way of putting out a fire on its shell).

While most of the parts in It's OK Blair make a peculiar kind of nonverbal sense, this is not a composition whose elements reinforce one another visually. One's eyes drift between drawings of figures done in different styles, many walled off from the rest by framing devices like the bubbles, and Jacobson's picture comes to resemble a Web site: its parts are like different windows, each leading in a different direction, each a little world in which one can get lost. In this sense his works mirror the chaos of our media-saturated world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "The Domestication of a Maybe Situation" by Scott Jacobson.

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