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Art

Defining Women

Group show one element in a broader cultural discussion about gender

Milana Braslavsky's "Small Dress"
Noelle Mason's "LAN Take Your Daughter to Work Day".

By Alex Ebstein | Posted 3/17/2010

Losing Yourself in the 21st Century

Through March 27 at Maryland Art Place

Maryland Art Place's current exhibition, Losing Yourself in the 21st Century, features the work of 12 emerging female artists, but it is much more than a gallery show. Originating with an online-project forum, losingyourself.com, the exhibition is a presentation of a larger dialogue and compendium of contemporary female artists addressing their role within their gender group, immediate and virtual communities, and the greater art world through performance and new media. Fostering a sense of solidarity and communication that would make Judy Chicago proud, the online network is a platform through which the artists presented and peer critiqued one another's work. Maryland Art Place and the Georgia State University Welch School of Art and Design Gallery each showcased this selection of works, curated by participants in the forum, that examine female artist identity in a tech-savvy, socially networked society.

In MAP's first room, the multitalented Saya Woolfalk presents "No Place," a mixed-media installation, and "Ethnography of No Place," a video piece made collaboratively with Rachel Lears, a filmmaker and anthropologist. "No Place" is a conceptual futuristic, earth-friendly civilization of human-plant hybrids. One of the sculptures depicts two figures, inhabitants of No Place, hand in hand. The figures are clothed in earth-tone calicos and elaborate capes, while their featureless heads bloom with bulbous felt growths of varying skin colors. One figure wears pink accents, the other blue, but their builds are even, simultaneously addressing and negating gender differentiation. The 30-minute video uses a Discovery Channel format to document the lives and traditions of the anti-consumerist, technology-free fantastical inhabitants of No Place, unblemished by media saturation, class structure, or other social distinctions.

Similarly fantastical, Baltimore-based Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum includes a stop-motion animation called "A Short History: Starring Asme as Herself." In her video, Sunstrum's art alter ego, Asme, appears as three separate figures. The Asmes glide into the frame, each in a different outfit, and exchange clouds of smoke, sharing unexplained information and energy. The video illustrates a meditation and gathering of one's selves: the woman, the artist, the traveler, etc. Their identities overlap, but they also exist in unique categories, traversing the physical and imagined world separately.

Shana Moulton and Milana Bravlavsky each address an anxiety for contemporary domestic spaces and the roles they play in constructing identity. Moulton's "Whispering Pines" video, like Sunstrum's, uses an alter ego to explore an absurd, almost manic relationship with home décor and new-age objects. Her protagonist, Cynthia, has isolated herself among obsessively collected kitsch in the fictitious community of Whispering Pines. Her mundane rituals lead her into mental raves, daydreams, hallucinations, and, ultimately, small moments of self-realization. Her world is at once claustrophobically small and endless in its whimsical possibilities. Crystal Light, plug-in waterfalls, flower arrangement, and pore strips play an uncomfortably large role in the chapters of Cynthia's life.

Bravlavsky's photographs, on the other hand, depict anonymous, distorted figures in empty domestic spaces. Faces are hidden from view, in some cases replaced with photographs at larger scale or alternate angle. The bodies in her photographs are awkwardly forced into their outfits and settings; the detail of bed sheets and dress patterns becomes more alienating than comforting. Identity is displaced between figure and environment, and the tension is simultaneously provocative and sad.

Throughout the exhibition, women examine their role in modern society, dissecting their identities through specific personal, cultural, and fantastical lenses. Text messages and screensavers are transformed into unique, poignant narratives. Cross-stitched television characters offer imitable, scripted emotion. Culture is observed, ingested, and altered; identity is lost and reclaimed. Amber Hawk Swanson documents others as they interact with a sex doll created in the artist's likeness, taking it to a variety of events--including an adult entertainment industry convention. The artist and viewer are both spectators in the bizarre scenes. Navigating the exhibition encourages you to consider how identity is created in relation to--and sometimes constricted by--the mundane material and intellectual ephemera that surrounds and permeates daily life. While the exhibition is slightly on the sparse side, the ideas it sparks can be carried into daily life.

Artist Susan Lee-Chun leads her art-qua-exercise program "Everybody Suz-ercise!" March 18 at 6 p.m. and March 19 at 10 a.m. at the Inner Harbor. Visit mdartplace.org for more details.

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