Friday, July 30, 2010

Closing in on a theme

The halls of American University’s Katzen Center were nearly empty the summer day I visited Claire Feng in her studio there. The last time I’d been there was during open studios for the graduate class, and with all the hustle and bustle, I didn’t get to spend much time with Claire. This time, though, it was refreshingly cool inside and quiet.

Claire and I sat down to discuss the upcoming exhibition, featuring her work along side Laura Elkins, Yvette Kraft and Joyce Zipperer. As is my process, I’ve been rereading a few books that I wanted to use for inspiration for the installation, and I mentioned them to Claire, inadvertently giving her the wrong title and author for one of the novels. The books in consideration are Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras.

As with my first exhibition in April, novels often inform my choices about the exhibition atmosphere I am trying to create. For Only what you can carry with you, for instance, I riffed off of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin. At the same time, I try to find the balance between the desired emotional and intellectual response to the works. The works in this exhibition will create an interesting dialogue, so I know I have both bases covered.

As we talked, Claire raised the question that the other artists in the show have raised in previous visits. What is the show about and why exhibit these somewhat disparate works together? To answer her, I told her a story.

When I was in my earliest teen years, I became somewhat of a confidant to the women in my neighborhood. These impoverished, sometimes abused, often single, working women must have recognized my sensitivity and openness and confided in me as we talked on the trunks of their cars or their front steps. What amazed me then, as it still does now, is that women are not necessarily the open books that society seems to prescribe them as. 

I don’t know if it’s a particularly Western idea, but the notion that women are necessarily much more outwardly emotional and process-oriented isn’t always true. Women harbor dark, complex, rational and practical thoughts about their lives and the lives of their families and friends. And despite the stereotype, women are not always dying to emote to their loved ones about the minutiae of their daily lives.

When I finished, Claire’s eyes lit up and she became excited. In almost hushed tones, she described to me a bit of her life in China. Secrecy, she said, was a big part of it. She was very careful to not fully describe her wishes to anyone for fear of standing apart from others. In that environment, it was best that she just blend in. She went on to describe how she incorporates subtle imagery in her work that references that life and oppression.

When she was finished, I knew that the inclusion of Claire in this exhibition was right. While I greatly admire her painterly technique and skills, it is her content, both mysterious and subtle, that draws me to her work. And now I know that her work has an additional layer of complexity that I was, perhaps, only subconsciously aware.

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