Claiming Our Space and Place, at ArtiCle
As you walk around Article (Art in Cleveland) gallery on Waterloo Road looking at its latest show Claiming Our Space and Place, curated by Gallery at Lakeland director Mary Urbas, you find your perceptions shifting. Sometimes you’ll hear the individual voices of the three artists clearly, and at other times they’ll blend, as if they are one voice, a hive mind.
In fact, the trio — Jill Milenski, Gail Crum and Gayle Pritchard — work collectively. One taught art; the others took her classes. I don’t remember which was which and it doesn’t matter. All three are technically skillful and convey their ideas with panache, vigor and visual allure.
Certainly, each has a particular thing. Milenski transforms quotidian scenes of bridges, roads and signs in the Flats with her oil pastels. Pritchard spins magic with fiber, chopped and stitched and decorated. Crum’s disarmingly sweet collages have a subtle edge.
The show features a mélange of media, primarily collage and assemblages. With that work, if you think you can tell who’s who, well, it’s more challenging than that. Themes and images recur, as if the artists were conversing through their work.
And it’s a noisy, lively conversation. The show includes more than 60 pieces, from the handful that greet you in the entrance, through the main gallery, the kitchen area and the central area of the back studios. It’s a real visual feast.
That conversation is also an overwhelmingly female one — as the title of the show suggests — using feminine imagery as a tool for sharp and often bitingly humorous critiques of women’s roles and how women have been regarded at different times and places.
Pritchard’s fabric constructions, with their references to that traditionally womanly art of sewing, are among the most obvious. Her “Nervous Girls” is a mixed-media work, where lace and a rough muslin-type fabric are juxtaposed, and small buttons, a doll jacket and a mitten outline with the words “How to read the line of the hand” incorporated into the delicately pale work.
Pritchard’s piece de resistance hangs across the main gallery from that one, near the front window. Titled “What You Can Do For Your Country,” it features red-and-white striped and blue-and-white starred fabric rags joined with stitches or zippers, hanging from a curtain rod tipped with gold eagles. It’s adorned with fabric pockets that bear the words “free to speak,” “free to vote,” “free to worship or not,” “free to assemble,” “free press,” “free to bear arms or not.” It’s sprinkled with smaller fabric tags saying things like “vote against bigots,” “wake up,” “use your voice,” and “resist.”
In fact, Pritchard is probably the most overtly political of the three (although all get their digs in about the current state of affairs). Her assemblage “She Was Warned” plays on a well-known incident in which Senator Elizabeth Warren was condescendingly silenced by Senator majority leader Mitch McConnell. Its most prominent feature is a box of eggs held back by wires; photos of suffragettes adorn its door, and sitting on top of it is a small box containing tacks and a key, suggesting both the obstacles women face and their determination to escape them. her use of symbolism is deft.
Milenski’s work exudes an obsession with dislocation and belonging. One of her strongest pieces is titled “Unwanted” and appears to be a statement about family dysfunction, possibly adoption. It features two boxes chained together. In the first there’s a blurred photo of a girl labeled “sick and nervous.” In the second, above a small lace doily with a key on it — again, that key!— is a family photo taken, like the one of the girl, outdoors in a woods. A little girl stands between a couple, eying the woman dubiously. Under the photo is the quote “And every fairytale comes true/we’ll fly away/I think, don’t you?” The photo reeks of the same sense of doubt as the quote, the sense that something that should be warm and loving isn’t. And it’s all layered on top of a page of newspaper stock market listings.
Milenski also has a series of works titled Immigrant Series — “Civil War Bride,” “Ireland” — that suggest the dislocations of war and the loneliness living in a strange land. Her “Endangered Landscape” addresses a different sort of dislocation.
Gail Crum’s assemblages and collages are the ones most drenched in stereotypically female imagery. Her collage “Grow” is upbeat and domestic with flowers and birds and herb drawings and a stamp that says “Plant for more beautiful streets.”
But she gets in her little digs. “We Were Seeds,” a collage dominated by a sunflower, carries the words “They tried to bury us … they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Crum’s series of small collages with titles like “Glamour Girl,” “Sewing Susan” and “Fashion & Fat” layer paper dolls, fashions photos from magazines, bits of fabric and clippings from articles — like many of the pieces of cultural detritus used by all the artists taken from eras when women’s lives were much more limited than now, and their domestic role exalted and glorified. Her well-chosen juxtapositions make you feel the constrictions and frustrations of that role.
The back room is dominated by two large dollhouse-like constructions. Pritchard’s “Pink House” is another look at the myth of idyllic white post-WWII suburban life, with a ranch house on stilts nestled inside the larger house and a stand holding a photo of another ranch house. It’s lined with a riot of clippings painting a picture o imagined domestic bliss: “The Greatest Hoover of them all,” “Goody — mom says we can have all the Log Cabin and pancakes we want,” menus, music, a Chatty Cathy doll, a Kate Greenaway poem.
Next to it is the most personal piece in the show, Crum’s “A Significant Loss.” The rooms of the battered white dollhouse are empty and white, except for a nursery with a blue rocker, white & blue crib, and flowered wallpaper. It’s littered with handwritten notes saying things like “It wasn’t meant to be,” “It was probably for the best,” and “You can always have another baby.” As Crum explains, she’s commenting on her own miscarriage. It brings home the complexity of what it means to be a woman, and suggests — as does all the work — that women’s lives have as much gravity and significance as those of men and deserve to be taken as seriously.