There's nothing so blatantly vaginal as Judy Chicago's work in the current exhibition at the Ann Arbor Art Center, although it obviously refers to her controversial feminist masterpiece, The Dinner Party. Sponsored by the Michigan Women's Caucus for Art and the Feminist Art Project, the juried show includes works in various media by Michigan artists and is self-consciously by and about women. The pieces particularly address women's places at the table, but which table? Judy Chicago's table? The political table? The dinner table?
Take Poprah, a high-backed bejeweled chair plastered with small pictures of previous popes and Oprah Winfrey's smiling face front and center. It's tempting to read this as yet another (clichéd) critique of Oprah's sickening fame and ungodly influence. On the other hand, in light of the exhibition's theme, it might refer to the censure women endure when they achieve successes traditionally reserved for men. The chair's glittery, tacky aesthetic lends itself to either interpretation.
In addition to Poprah, there are several other literal chairs: a rocking chair hangs from the ceiling, suspended by strips of what looks like a garish chartreuse T-shirt. Another chair, entirely decoupaged in photos and magazine clippings with injunctions like "Express yourself" and "Feminist," reminds me of projects I did as a teenager.
Generations is a row of three attached seats. The chair on the right, a child's seat attached at the hip of the center chair, dangles off the ground, while the chair on the left is simply a frame with no seat at all. Three photographs on the center seat portray generations of mothers and daughters. Bookended by a ghostly frame (a dead grandmother? an absent partner?) and a too-close kiddie seat, the middle one is the only viable spot for a grown woman: an apt commentary on the burden of motherhood.
I didn't know what to make of some of the less literal works. One giant print, Untitled #1 from Life Size and Other Lies Series, depicts a young blond girl sitting in a fifties kitchen. She wears a sly inscrutable smile and holds up a large spoon, ready to dig into a box of Frosted Flakes on the table. Visually, with the sea-foam-green and carnation-pink kitchen colors and her face as big as Tony the Tiger's, it's grrrrreat. But I can't figure out what the hell it means.
I also couldn't understand a piece called Brainstorm (Iraq War Memorial). The bloody mangled head of a doll sits atop a wooden stump inside a broken glass box with shards of glass and thick twisty wires protruding from it as if her thoughts had exploded. It's certainly violent, but I'm not sure how it relates to the Iraq War specifically.
Some more subtle but often more powerful works hide in little nooks around the exhibit. I fell in love with All Tied Up, a simple contour line drawing of two nude women bandaged to chairs. The use of bandages instead of ropes or chains suggests broken bones, with the chairs acting as splints; perhaps it's a sad image of the figures' symbiotic relationship to oppression. Like the rest of the exhibition, this piece is up for interpretation through Sunday, August 10.
[Review published August 2008]