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Moving Beyond Words

Christina Mccleary’s Works Try To Examine The Feminine Mystique Of The Thirtysomething Woman

OUR BODIES, OUR SHELLS: A detail of McCleary's "Shell Shadow"

By J. Bowers | Posted 11/16/2005

Sculptor Christina McCleary’s process is the most intriguing aspect of her work. Beginning with confessional snippets of free verse, McCleary relies on her writing to suggest the materials necessary to create sculptures that she refers to as “visual narratives”—physical explorations of the very personal psychological themes that she uncovers while writing. Not limited by her background in ceramics, McCleary willingly combines raku and pit-fired stoneware with chicken wire, rabbit fur, paper, eggshells, and other media to create the 12 pieces on display in Cracked, a one-woman show of new work intended to address womanhood.

Inspired by McCleary’s frustration at society’s need to ask why she, a thirtysomething woman, isn’t married with children, Cracked revolves around two basic, intrinsically feminine sculptural ideas—eggs and dressmaker’s forms. Every work in the collection begins as one or the other, and surprisingly, given McCleary’s poetry-based process, very few of the works feature textual elements. This is for the best: McCleary’s poetry—available upon request—reads like a work in progress, the furtive, private scribblings of someone trying to figure out their own psyche, not the polished, carefully weighed lines of a professional word slinger. A sample: “all that seduces me, eludes me/ I am surrounded by empty shells and sacrifice, in a dream world of pieces and complacency.” Translated into sculpture, her meditations on womanhood and femininity are a similarly uneven affair—strong thematically in shape and color (almost every piece is white), but never tackling oppression head-on.

Slightly feminine, but not overtly sexual pieces—such as the stoneware torso “Life Line” and its raku-fired counterpart, “Four Panels”—breastlessly explore the curves of the female form, much like the asexual-looking dress forms that inspired them. “Halved” is an exquisitely delicate series of stoneware eggshells with menstrual red and mint green innards, perched atop doll-sized pillows. “Cracked Skin” is a misshapen, Woman of Willendorf-esque blob of a female form—all nothing we haven’t seen before. A few pieces find McCleary stuffing wire dress forms to the gills with rabbit pelts and white chicken feathers. The shock value of these natural materials is notable but ultimately unaffecting—the caged animal/oppressed woman imagery inherent in these pieces feels trite.

McCleary’s technique is competent, but her artistic thesis feels too abstract without adequate explanation—without the artist’s statement on the gallery wall, it’s hard to know what, exactly, she wants these sculptures to signify, apart from basic variations on the female form.

It’s no surprise, then, that McCleary is at her best when she succumbs fully to her impulse to merge text and sculpture. You get the feeling that, for her, these two art forms are utterly symbiotic—neither her poetry nor her sculpture can stand alone, but when her two disciplines come together she can create objects that are greater than the sum of their parts. The “Little Maiden” series of hollow pit-fired porcelain dress forms has an earthy, burnt color palette. One figurine wears one of McCleary’s best lines like a sash: “Donned in a sheath that marks me woman/ Wanted, sexy, second.” The piece is a veritable eureka moment in terms of getting McCleary’s main idea across—it’s a shame that more of her works don’t carry the same impact.

The sculptor’s mission statement is made equally clear with “Tower of Lies,” a cone of chicken wire covered in layers of paper and crowned with a small stoneware dress form. A barely legible verse is scrawled onto the paper, but the essential touch is a long line of menstrual red paint, trailing from the base of the dress form to the floor. Subtle? Hardly. But somehow the piece articulates the psychological struggle that its companions fail to convey.

Only tenuously connected to her mission statement, “Shell Shadow” is one of the most visually compelling pieces McCleary has to offer—perhaps because it needs no political statement or feminist theory to buttress its outright weirdness. Comprised of hundreds of unwashed eggshells that are strung floor-to-ceiling on fishing line, the sculpture dances in passing breezes and casts hypnotic, leaflike shadows on the wall behind it. Fuzzy tufts of white rabbit fur stick to the embryonic residue in some of the eggshells, suggesting interspecies reproduction, or some colossal henhouse accident. Where the other works feel forced and somewhat preachy, “Shell Shadow” is a primal, innocent experimentation with materials, and a refreshing break from the Big Important Point that all the other pieces are eager to make.

As a whole, Cracked is more like an artistic exercise than a cohesive body of work. True, McCleary is using the same forms and materials over and over again, striving to recombine them in different ways. But you never get the sense that she’s pushing the envelope, taking risks, or stretching past the boundaries of what she already knows she can create. McCleary is right to point out that thirtysomething women in American society must deal with unreasonable domestic expectations—but it’s a challenging issue that must be met with equally challenging work, and she’s not quite there yet.

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