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In Her Views

Char Brooks And Annie Waldrop Deconstruct Femininity In Their Own Ways

LITE BLOOMERS: Char Brooks' "Equal Torso."

By Jason Torres | Posted 10/10/2007

Women's Work: Char Brooks and Annie Waldrop

At Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery through Oct. 12

The politics around female artists is complicated and dense: For too long social stigmas have been placed upon women's bodies, their sexuality, and their "place" among their male counterparts. Since the late 1960s and '70s women artists such as Yoko Ono, Shigeko Kubota, Judy Chicago, and Carolee Schneemann--to name a few--have worked diligently to confront issues of power and gender head on. In most cases this generation of female artists used the taboos of their own bodies as a medium--menstrual cycles, their bodies and reproductive organs, for example--or, perhaps more accurately, the politics of women's bodies as the focal point of their work. In many ways they did not seek to preserve the traditions that have been associated with "women's work" but, instead, to dismantle completely those presumptions. Later artists such as Rebecca Horn, Marina Abramovic, and Cindy Sherman tackled similar issues pertaining to female sexuality and identity that in many ways contrasted the former generation by instead using domestic crafts, fashion, role-playing, and, in some ways, the objectification of women itself. This strategy by no means was a step backward, but rather an empowering one, seizing control of the very same lens through which women have often been gazed at.

Women's Work at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery builds upon this ongoing strategy that addresses political and social issues related to gender, body image, fertility, and sexuality. Artists Char Brooks and Annie Waldrop use traditions that are typically associated with domesticity and craft--such as embroidery, dressmaking, and the preservation of family heirlooms--as the core of their artistic practices. While Brooks and Waldrop embrace what has traditionally been considered "women's work," they also challenge the presumptions of what that actually means.

Brooks' practice focuses on the dualities between body image and consumer culture. As a seamstress, her work is impeccable; her ability to transform nontraditional materials into tailored outfits and articles of clothing are impressive. The best example of this lies in her sexy lingerie series, "Three Graces." Hanging individually and contained within tall, slender plexiglass cases, each set of pink lingerie arouses a sense of sexual desire and playful fantasy. Each set has its subtle differences--one with a lace-up back, another with delicate ruffles, and another with a "peek-a-boo" front--and every accompanying thong or panty is equally unique. Upon closer inspection, though, you realize that these are not made of lingerie materials--they're constructed from pink and white Carefree panty-liner packets. The choice of materials creates an interesting duality between how women are marketed as objects and marketed to as consumers.

Likewise, Brooks' pair of partial female torsos, "Equal Torso" and "Sweet'N Lo Torso," displays her perfected craft as a seamstress. While these works appear to be far less elegantly made, they are still sharp critiques of consumer marketing. "Equal Torso" is a girdlelike form for an otherwise stout woman while "Sweet'N Lo Torso" is fitted for a more slender figure, each with fine details such as lace and a bow. Of course, both substances are marketed as weight-controlling sugar substitutes and both--saccharin and aspartame--are known carcinogens.

This juxtaposition of taboos and hypocrisies is also omnipresent in Annie Waldrop's "Pro Choice," a seminal piece in this exhibition. A globe similar to those used in geography classes has been covered in a deep, rich, black pigment to the point where no geographical boundaries are present. Protruding out of the globe are dozens of miniature handmade red coat hangers. These typically domestic but now violently charged objects appear to be dispersed randomly across an unreadable yet easily identifiable sphere. This assemblage of politics, identity, and basic morals makes it painfully clear that women's rights, especially over their own bodies, is a universal concern.

The remainder of Waldrop's work is steeped with nostalgia, Mother Earth/goddess references, and familial traditions subsequently digressing from the ambitious knockout punch of "Pro Choice." The one exception is "Baggage." A small antique overnight suitcase sits atop a pedestal, lid open, with two mirrors inside. Each mirror has small Victorian-like portraits--one male and one female--inscribed onto its surface. With the suitcase open you see yourself in the mirrors, yet with the suitcase closed the two portraits face each another--mirroring one another in the dark. The title refers to the emotional, psychological, and cultural baggage handed down from generation to generation, or to the baggage you bring along with you on you own.

Together Brooks and Waldrop speak of women's issues from two opposing viewpoints. Brooks is more concerned with mainstream culture and body image; Waldrop focuses on nurturing and the nature of being feminine. The two meet in the middle by using traditional and domestic crafts as a means to critique contemporary views of what it means to be a woman.

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