Art: The Ties That Hinder

Featherstone's experience in Ghana offers a Western critique

Jan 31, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Scott Beseler

Tracey Featherstone's "Fall Out" comments on Western culture's focus on comfort.

How many of us want to believe that Western culture, so ravaged with politics and money, is a corrupted version of the way life is "meant to be?" Which of us looks to the handmade products of so-called Third World countries and finds a prelapsarian Eden?

Among them must be Tracey Featherstone, the Oxford, Ohio-based artist and art teacher whose works are now on view in the beautifully titled exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery, Please Tie Me Down.

As explanation for her show, Featherstone recalls a trip she took to Ghana. Being there made her realize "the fragile nature of permanence and reality," she says, meaning, I think, the fragile nature of our Western perceptions of permanence and reality.

Americans might think that excess — hulking SUVs, giant grocery stores, houses with unoccupied rooms, too many clothes to wear — is a sign of success, a sign of stability. And yet we know about waste and we know about poverty. We know having shoes doesn't mean a thing; it's not having shoes that matters.

Featherstone's interpretation of this absurdity comes in the form of seven sculptures, each with a tenuous relationship to American living spaces. She uses wood, papier-mché, sleeping bags, TV sets and welcome mats, and the spaces are "fort-like," unstable, childish.

Perhaps the best work in the exhibition is "Fall Out," a mixed media sculpture that includes a mundane, comfy chair and matching ottoman, both raised about 4 feet off the ground and set up on a wooden bier of sorts. The chair is pulled away from the ottoman, and two strips of metal connect the pair.

Looking at the work, it's obvious what to do with it: You lie down. The seat of the chair is the place for your head, your legs stretch along the metal planks and your feet rest on the ottoman. You lie like a body in a morgue, face and toes to the ceiling.

It might not be obvious where the "American living space" comes in, until noticing the TV, tuned to some random channel, whirling on unnoticed underneath the body — and, indeed, Featherstone marks the chair's seat cushion with the silhouette of a head.

Her message seems apt: Our comforts cause our deaths (metaphorical deaths, I presume, the death of the mind more than the body).

Another work, "One Kiss," shares this message. Another ordinary, comfortable chair, walls decorated with two sloppy hearts and a piece of an old stained headboard. A place to sit and put up your feet, but a dangerous place as well. Firewood under the chair looks ready to be lit and burn the tired, seated body above.

After that, though, everything becomes muddled. Featherstone wants to talk about excess, but nothing in Please Tie Me Down speaks of it. The work seems rather opposite — the living room of a lonely old woman or the treehouse sanctuary of little boy. Neither contain excess like American living spaces, but neither have the "human relationships" so important, according to Featherstone, to the people of Ghana.

Featherstone has stepped into dodgy territory, positing the American worldview against that of Ghana, an erroneously perceived pre-fall Eden. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Inspiring or just different as it might be, no place on Earth is untrammeled by the ties of culture. To declare such a notion is as regressive as calling non-Western communities backward.

Working with the notion just of American or Western misperceptions of stability would be enough, but Featherstone hasn't done that. Without meaning to, she's plopped her artwork into a wasteland where nothing is connected to her theories. Her spaces are lonely ones, not people-oriented as she would like them to be. Her spaces are handmade "huts" like those she witnessed in Ghana. Nothing excessive, large or wealthy resides in them, as in American homes.

It's clear what Featherstone is trying to say, but her work, as thoughtful and clever as it might be, unfortunately does not succeed in saying it. Grade B-

PLEASE TIE ME DOWN is on display at the Aronoff Center's Weston Art Gallery downtown through March 17.