Art: An Accidental Ghetto

'A Woman's View' is almost as obvious as its title

Jan 17, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Natalie Hager

A test-tube view: Diane Kruer's intricate sculpture/found object work is an exhibition highlight.

In case the fact that The Carnegie has put together an exhibition featuring work by only female artists should strike you as a bright idea, let me pose a question: Is there really such a thing as a "woman's view"? When did feminism become so reductive?

The show currently on view at the Carnegie, A Woman's View, is almost as obvious as its title tells. In the main gallery, you'll find a group show, Journals, featuring the work of some great local women artists — Rhonda Gushee and Diane Kruer — and some OK ones.

Gushee's ceramic and dressed-up dolls are the first things you'll notice when you walk into the gallery. I've seen her work in at least three exhibitions this month, and I'm not surprised that the Carnegie chose to spotlight her here. The dolls, each surprisingly unique, are delicate, weird and exciting. They bring you back to childhood, or almost: They bring you back to a childhood that cannot really be recounted, a foggy, fragmented place of memories and nostalgia, none of it real, all of it uncanny.

Yet the organization is off. Gushee's dolls can woo you into memory, but, as they are, there isn't anything journalistic about them.

You could stretch and say that journals are memories, but I don't buy it. The issue I have isn't with the dolls; it's with the exhibition title — Journals? And without a hint of irony? Haven't we women moved beyond our teenage crushes on Sylvia Plath by now?

Across the room from Gushee's dolls hang the beautiful, intricate sculpture/found object work of Diane Kruer. Kruer's sculptures, unlike Gushee's, actually work with the concept of "journals."

Each hanging sculpture represents a year. Each looks like an oversized spice rack fitted with test tubes. There is a row for every month, a tube for every day. Inside the tubes, there is some tiny found and altered item — a daily specimen. These specimens range from bits of exhibition announcement cards to nails to tinsel. Each day has a distinct mood and quality.

I have a feeling the curators found this work, and built the exhibition around it.

Also downstairs, Lisa Merida-Payles shows her raku fish. In her artist's statement, she points out that her father was a taxidermist/slaughterhouse keeper. The hanging carcasses haunted Merida-Payles as a child, and that is why she makes fish — fish that swirl around, fish that hang by copper chains, fish that lie dead, fish that look like bones.

Her reasoning is not as simplistic as it might sound. Merida-Payles is an environmentalist of sorts. She wants her viewers to understand and have empathy for all living things. To enable this, she wants us to identify with her fish — the essential, "skeletal or embryonic core" of all life.

Again, the concept of her work is more of a fierce memory of childhood and a singular viewpoint. Again, I fail to see the relation to journaling or the need to connect them. Marida-Payles' work is, of course, the work of a woman, but there is nothing about it that separates it — ghettoizes it — into "a woman's view."

Upstairs, in the smaller galleries off the rotunda, there are four small solo shows. Sally Ann Murry works with textiles, which could be an interesting concept — quilt making is traditionally women's work and has lately become a new playing field for edgy contemporary art, but something is lacking in Murry's pieces: It hasn't really moved beyond traditional quilting.

One work, "The Ties That Bind," stands out as a reaction to consumerism. The piece is quilted with labels of familiar clothing brands and retailers. Murry shows a kind of transformation here. The retail chain garment has replaced the handmade garment. In other words, so-called women's work has relegated to the typically "male" public sphere.

It's strange to walk into the room designated to Pam Korte's delicate pottery and to see her quote one of the most famous of female journal writers, Anaís Nin, in her artist's statement. How strange that her work deals with growth and blooming and journaling, and yet she is alone and not part of the downstairs group with its titular relationship to journals.

The Carnegie doubtlessly had good intentions, but as long as we continue to designate spaces for "other" artwork, we will run into the problem of accidental art ghettos. Grade: C

A Women's View continues at The Carnegie in Covington through Feb. 2.