Imagine a sculpture of a naked reclining woman, her lips painted full and red, her eyes flirting playfully with the viewer. Now add a sagging belly and breasts and drooping wrinkled skin. Finally, put a sheep’s head on her shoulders and replace her hands and feet with hooves. If your mind is racing to adjust to these contrary images, you may want to check out the multimedia art exhibit Aging with Attitude, at Slusser Gallery this month.

Baltimore artist Faye A. Park’s sculpture Savory Mutton as Opposed to Lamb is one of nine works from women artists around the country who are exploring our assumptions about aging and beauty and how our culture perceives and values older people. A sensual pose from a woman with sagging breasts is challenging enough to our cultural norms, but Park adds the humor of a cartoonish sheep to challenge the derogatory evaluation of some older women as “mutton dressed up as lamb.” Park explains that mature women “face the challenge of embracing our sensuality without appearing silly.”

Other works will include Cynthia Hellyer Heinz’s painting of an older woman flying like a wise angel amid ephemeral moths (at right), and one of Helen Redman’s “crone” paintings — showing an aging woman’s face in all its detail. Judy Cooperman’s large photograph of a pair of young hands applying lipstick to an elderly woman’s lips asks us to question how long we must succumb to expectations of beauty. Sarah Pike’s watercolor of a distant figure, pants pulled down, being helped onto a commode by a younger person forces attention to our concepts of the indignities of old age.

“This exhibit is a public entry point for the community to discuss issues of aging,” says exhibit curator Renuka Uthappa, of the Blueprint for Aging, which is sponsoring the show. The Blueprint is a collaborative effort of citizens and agencies working to improve the quality of life for older adults in Washtenaw County. Participants are keenly aware that our population is aging and that we need new ways of thinking about and incorporating older people into society. “Aging is not something everybody likes to talk about,” says Uthappa. “This exhibit is a gentle way to approach the topic and start up a conversation.”

In addition to the invited artists, the show will include a juried selection of works from local artists. The call for submissions sought work that “challenges and expands perceptions of aging” without necessarily seeking to “dispel a particular stereotype.” A third element will be drawings by elementary school students responding to the prompt “Me, when I am old.” Uthappa was looking forward to seeing the students’ creations, and she joked that maybe they will draw people around age thirty.

But that would add another layer to the conversation. “We need to think of aging as everybody’s issue,” she says, “not just what you start thinking about after you turn a certain age.”

Aging with Attitude runs March 7-28 at Slusser Gallery in the U-M School of Art and Design.

[Review published March 2008]