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Harlots, Pin-ups and Bible Stories



For as long as there has been such a thing as feminism, there have been such things as women's fiction and women's art. What has not been evident is any completely consistent consensus on what those things should be. Sixties feminism was fairly frontal in its expression, as women went bra-less and artists such as Judy Chicago fired up ceramic, gynecologically suggestive dinner plates. By the '80s, things had turned puritanical as hard-core feminist activists such as Andrea Dworkin tried to have skin mags like Playboy banned from the newsstands. Regardless of the merits or demerits of skin mags, such rigid approaches might have provoked a backlash.

For instance, that episode coincided with the rise of Madonna, the Material Girl who liked her body enough to want to flaunt it, yet nobody would ever accuse her of being unassertive. To many she was more liberated than the repressed, and repressive, censorship crowd. At SPACE Gallery, Florida artist Marilee Mast takes matters one step further with a series of images of rather bawdy women collaged onto cloth scrolls blazoned with Greek text. The writing turns out to be passages from the Bible, which first appeared in Greek, and which allude to the passive role demanded of women in biblical times. Mast feels the harlots were the most liberated women in the Bible because they were the only ones who could live their lives more or less independently.

Harlot Letter 1 features a pink-tinged photo of a babe in a swimsuit and spiked heel shoes smoking a cig as she crosses her legs in unladylike fashion while seated on an "ultramodern" 1960s chair. Another is a photo sequence of a pregnant nude clutching her belly like a modern-day Venus of Willendorf, and in Harlot Letter 10, the form of a woman (obviously a pagan) turns tree-like above the waist. Due to the similar treatments, the series tends to be a tad repetitious, but as an installation it's fairly provocative -- especially when one reads printouts of the Bible quotes such as Matthew 21:31: "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and harlots are going ahead of you into the kingdom of God." Whoa!

Missy Graham's 21st Century Pin Ups, prints in digital and other media, also reflect the "flaunt it" approach. Actually, some of her subjects appear submissive, but apparently mainly to Graham herself. And indeed we have it on good authority that most of these images document Graham's "fetish" performances, which might help explain images such as Discipline, in which a young lady finds herself being spanked by a severe-looking woman in knee-high black boots. Or in Here Kitty, in which a young woman wearing an eye mask and cat's whiskers perambulates on the floor on all fours. Hmmm. It sounds counterintuitive, but such role-playing is considered fairly liberated in certain goth circles, it seems.

More traditional gallery fare appears in Graham's prints on the opposite wall, where the images assume more abstract forms, some appearing as manipulated photos, others resembling mono-prints, and all celebrating, if not flaunting, the female body. Again, this works better as an installation, though there are a few items that stand on their own.

A third, no less diverse, body of work appears in a corner where gallery co-director Robyn Menzel shows her stuff. In Rapunzel, a nude self-portrait as the fairy tale character in her tower, she wears mismatched socks as she surveys the drawings she's done on the wall in some dark red pigment. Asked about the reddishrag on her lap, Menzel explains that Rapunzel was in her, um, cycle, which also explains the reddish wall drawings. Oh ... .

More realized is Bed Spread, a portrait of a severely attractive Creole woman, also nude, spread out on a bed, suggesting a Lucien Freud canvas, only prettier. Another painting, titled M, is of the same woman but abstract, unrecognizable, with a pleasantly demonic Peter Dean quality about it. It's a little confounding having the two most successful paintings in the group appear in such totally different styles, but why not? Just as the pagans worshipped the triple goddess in her various forms of maiden, mother and crone, artists can be as diverse as they want.

SPACE Gallery co-director Robyn Menzel's Bed - Spread suggests a prettier version of a Lucien - Freud canvas.
  • SPACE Gallery co-director Robyn Menzel's Bed Spread suggests a prettier version of a Lucien Freud canvas.

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