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Revisionist Herstory 

Women's art gets witty and fun at ArtMetro's latest show.

"What You Can't See Won't Hurt Me" by Dott - Schneider, cosmetics and oil.
  • "What You Can't See Won't Hurt Me" by Dott Schneider, cosmetics and oil.

Feminist art has image problems, and not without reason. Its '70s incarnations often employed shock tactics to protest sexism: One artist pulled a paper scroll from her vagina, then read its text to her audience; another showed huge photos of herself in crotchless pants, wielding a machine gun. Annie Sprinkle even played doctor with a speculum, sharing her cervix with the world. In those days, feminist art earned a reputation for being lewd, crude, and brutally anti-male.

But as women gained social and economic parity, their art cooled. In the popular imagination, however, "women's art" still conjures images of vaginas and militant females. So it's not surprising that women who produce gender-related art today tend to distance themselves from such radioactive terms. That's why ArtMetro's new show of 35 works by 13 local women is called X, Y & Sometimes V. The artists use the female body, gender-specific objects, and female iconography to describe their experiences as women. But as the playful title suggests, men are welcome and wit prevails here.

In fact, funny images and witty wordplay -- not vulvar iconography -- steal the show. Claudia Lynch, Phyllis Kohring Fannin, and Kristen Cliffel use images and text to humorously confront decades-old stereotypes. While the observations are old news, the spins are clever. Each creates an artsy cartoon that's laugh-out-loud funny.

Lynch, an illustrator, prospects the dames of the 1940s. She paints detailed watercolors of stilettos fashioned out of über-feminine objects like candy boxes, then pairs them with short narratives typed on an old portable. Her text reads like an excerpt from pulp fiction or Casablanca dialogue. In "Boning Up on Her Case," a shoe made from a laced-up corset is accompanied by the passage: "I'd already spent days boning up on her case . . . The sooner I got the whole thing laced up, the better, even if it meant I had to pull a few strings to do it."

Fannin's paper lithography prints parody stereotypical advertising images of the 1950s, focusing on the image of the domestic goddess portrayed in appliance ads. The retired art teacher begins her multilayered prints by photographing 1950s tableaux of her creation, complete with period appliances and friends posing in poufy skirts. The photos are so convincing, they seem swiped from musty issues of Good Housekeeping. Fannin finishes with '50s-style graphic design elements and commentary. In "Burner With a Brain," a woman in heels is stationed at the stove; her beauty-queen wave and euphoric smile say, "I just transformed lead into gold!" Behind this, a blown-up picture of a stove burner mimics the bull's-eye graphic on a Tide box. Text is superimposed over these images, but unlike Lynch's sharp narrative, Fannin's text rambles; the distracting words pale next to her sardonic images.

Cliffel's jocular commentary on the objectification of women's bodies combines text with images of foods (pies and cherries) that are slang for women's privates. On the shiny crust of a clay pie, the ceramicist decoupaged a photo of a bare-breasted cowgirl kneeling on a saddle. The caption says, "No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best."

Dott Schneider explores women's relationships with their bodies. Using a bright mix of cosmetics and oil paints, Schneider explores cultural ideas about beauty and how physical imperfections affect women's self-images. "What You Can't See Won't Hurt Me" (pictured) hides the large scar running across her stomach, the result of an operation she had as a five-year-old; "Miss Cicatrice" reveals it. Showcasing Schneider's extensive skill in figurative drawing and her adroit sense of negative space, the self-portraits capture a woman now so comfortable in her own skin that she forces the viewer to look.

Controversial images appear last in the show -- tucked in a corner, perhaps for the same reason they're mentioned last here: Nobody, it seems, wants Judith Angelo's "Sand in the Gears" to overshadow the other works. The series consists of four versions of the same photograph: a naked little girl with wet hair, lying on her side. On each, Angelo writes messages in calligraphy with black and white ink.

"Sand" appears to document the trials of Angelo's sister, Cynthia Stewart, the Oberlin resident who faced obscenity charges in 1999 for photographing her eight-year-old daughter nude in the bathtub. (Charges against Stewart were eventually dropped; Angelo's works do not appropriate Stewart's images.)

On one photo, Angelo wrote: "Thinking of her mother being prosecuted for being unafraid and unashamed of her own body, for celebrating and chronicling the beauty of her daughter in photographs." On another, she inscribed the words "naked," "girl," "law," and "obscene" in big white letters.

Problem is, viewers can't assess Stewart's legal battle in an art gallery. The photos in question have been destroyed; we don't have enough background. What we see are nude pictures of a youngster with incendiary messages written in Angelo's beautiful (ironically so) script. Hasn't she made her niece a literal poster child for feminist causes? Why use art to revive the debate now? Why must a child participate? But don't ponder too long. Remember the other artists' lessons: Serious issues are most savory when sprinkled with wit and joie de vivre.

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