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Her Stories

Group Show Presents and Examines Women's Voice and Identity

A still from Debra Edgerton's "Retelling Tales."

By Alex Ebstein | Posted 2/18/2009

If I Didn't Care: Multigenerational Artists Discuss Cultural Histories

Through March. 30 at the Park School of Baltimore

In what is the largest project to date undertaken by the Park School's current curator, Rick Delaney, If I Didn't Care: Multigenerational Artists Discuss Cultural Histories is an exhibition that adds up to more than the sum of its numerous and diverse parts. The show explores multicultural and multigenerational themes among female artists, and mindful of the Park School gallery's primarily young, academic audience, Delaney has assembled a challenging and extensive show that simultaneously celebrates art, women, heritage, and history. "I was looking for work with a narrative," Delaney explained at the opening, "even if that narrative is abstract."

If I Didn't Care showcases 29 U.S.-based female artists of different ages and backgrounds seeking to communicate their individual narratives through art. Ranging in age from 30 to more than 90, the artists' works illustrates a chronological struggle to give voice to artistic and cultural individuality, calling attention to stereotypes, ritual, and particular cultural phenomena of the past century. The included artists are at varying points in their careers--relative unknowns hang alongside established artists such as Laylah Ali, Siona Benjamin, and Joyce Scott--and within the broad theme, each artist is able to explore her own story, while becoming a part of the larger dialog.

Familiar esthetics meet fresh, new takes on alternate issues of stigma and empowerment. Laylah Ali, typically ambiguous and brutal in her imagery, includes an unobjectionable series of three small portraits here. Without specific race or identification, they help to set the tone of the exhibition, while remaining comparatively impersonal to the rest of the work. Saya Woolfalk, on the verge of art-world celebrity, investigates the exoticized impression of other cultures in her two gouache paintings. Frightening, Crayola-color figures offer "girls for sale" out of a street-vendor's cart in "The Cleaners," while a woman, dressed in tropical fruits, is pursued by a ravenous crowd of spiral-eyed white men in "Looking In." Inviting a twisted tourist's view into the foreign, Woolfalk's exaggerated use of color and tropical imagery is both appealing and repulsive, rousing unavoidable guilt and curiosity.

Negar Ahkami materially embraces femininity in her work, creating large, psychological landscapes using acrylic, glitter, and nail polish. Her work reflects Persian patterns and Western architecture; elaborate waterfalls cascade from the left side of the composition, meeting the edge of a modern cityscape to the right. A small female figure stands on a bridge that joins the two worlds, suggesting that Ahkami places herself, proudly and literally, between the two.

Migiwa Orimo's "Obi-Palimpsest," a ritually unraveled kimono, is arguably the most intimate and cathartic piece in the exhibition, dealing with death and private ceremony. The cloth, displayed scroll-like vertically, has been dissected, one thread at a time, leaving a ghost of the former material. The gathered, removed threads sit precariously on the ends of wires and flow outward, perpendicular to the side of the fabric. Even without knowing the work's personal significance, paying homage to her Japanese heritage and the death of her mother, the piece has an almost metaphysical presence.

Hanging next to the kimono, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum's similarly introspective landscape, "If I Could I Would Go Down," shares a deeply personal elusiveness. Collaged magazine images, drawings, and beading are combined to create a fantastical setting for Sunstrum's recurrent geese-women. Addressing migration and the maintenance of self through geographic change, Sunstrum's piece is a unique view into the artist's mind.

In her black and white video piece, "Beef," Elizabeth Axtman speaks for the kids and draws somewhat petulant comparisons between rap and jazz. Cropped closely around her glossed lips, Axtman flashes a gold tooth as she mouths the words to Three 6 Mafia's "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" over a John Coltrane version of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Three 6 Mafia's 2006 Oscar victory was met with backlash, but Axtman lightheartedly points out that older, generational contributions to music were at one point considered risqué and invalid forms of art, asking that due consideration be given to current musical trends. The piece is oddly inane while remaining sincere, and meeting the generational and cultural protocol.

Hitting harder on stereotypes and misconceptions, Tamasha Williamson and Deborah Roberts present some of the more serious work within the group. Williamson's iconic drawings of a comb and a pick, each labeled "Nappy," and unbalanced scale reading "-ism" confront racial inequalities and marginalization. Matter-of-fact and aggressive in their starkness, Williamson illustrates personal, blunt questions about beauty and social inequalities.

Roberts' reclamation of various pickaninny depictions satirically recounts racial misassumptions, and at times, reference specific, historical events. In "Easy Pickings," Roberts depicts young, black girls--with aforementioned exaggeration of lips and hair--growing from plants that are being plucked and beheaded by white policemen. Somewhat less friendly than Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With," Roberts' imagery is still rooted in and reminiscent of 1960s social unrest.

Throughout the exhibition, pieces that would ordinarily stand alone begin to address other pieces, finding commonality in the artists' desire to communicate through their work. Impressive in its breadth, If I Didn't Care offers a unique collection of voices that reveals a consistent search for the individual, female voice. Through a variety of media and technology, each artist contributes their piece of the story from their generational and cultural standpoint. Organized without reference to this chronology or geography, the exhibition reveals connections on a more personal level, exploring new dialogues in the work and examining the way we communicate personal narratives.

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