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V I S I O N S  O F  L I F E

"Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?"

"Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear."

excerpts from The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong Kingston

To forge an identity is to work through the din of cacophony of public and private voices - the calls of cultural tradition and familial expectation, the insistent chatter of personal demons, the stern demands of gender and class roles.What does it mean to be a woman? an artist? a mother, daughter or sister? an Asian American, Caucasian, or African American?

The artists in VISIONS OF LIFE have been chosen for their interest in exploring questions of identity through art. Representing a wide spectrum of backgrounds, ethnic origins, and stylistic approaches, they are united by the struggle to know themselves.

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For many of the artists here, questions of identity are complicated by dual cultural allegiances. Yong Soon Min, for instance, was born in Korea in 1953 and emigrated to the U.S. with her family in the wake of the Korean War. Her work - and her life - have been shaped by the forces of history, by the Cold War conflict, by her Asian American heritage, by postwar culture. In "Back of the Bus", a drawing based on an old photograph of her mother and aunt in Korea sitting in the back of a bus full of American GIs, she meditates on her origins. Her own image, turning slowly toward the viewer, appears below, suggesting both the contrasts between her mother's life and her own.

For Japanese American artist Tomie Arai, personal history is inextricably entwined with the history of the Second World War. Her small, memento like works feature snapshots from her family album, news photos of the bombing of Hiroshima, and representations of traditional Japanese religious rituals. Set within elaborate frames, these images assume the status of relics, souvenirs from a past which is gone forever.

Diosa Summers is a Native American artist whose works have often borrowed from the ritual objects and historical events of her people. In her hands, the traditional war shield or mask are living forms which can be transformed to speak to contemporary experience. Similarly, in her painting "Ghost Dance I", she layers images from archival photographs, an American flag, and feathers over a background which recalls a traditional tapestry. Cutting across past and present, this work at once serves as a memorial to the losses of the Wounded Knee Massacre and comments on the continued marginalization of Native Americans in American culture today.

The demons of history also haunt Grace Graupe-Pillard, who is the child of Holocaust survivors and whose work focuses on the outcasts of society. Her realistically painted portraits and full figures of marginal characters are cut from the canvas and placed directly on the wall, giving them an immediacy which is absent from more conventional representation. Recently, Graupe-Pillard has been experimenting with dual images - as in her contribution to this show which represents a painted portrait of her parents cut into the silhouette of a street person slumped on a park bench. The dissonance between these images, each incomplete in its own way, gives rise to meditations on the isolation and adjustments of old age.

The work of Marina Gutierrez revels in the vivid colors and shapes of the Latin festival, but her work is ultimately more searching than celebrational. In her paintings and sculptures, such as "Woman with Star Frame", traditional and modern symbols, personal and cultural references mix. In another work, autobiographical images are overlaid with such contradictory icons of contemporary life as smoking factories, babies, chickens and office buildings. In a rotating mache box construction, religious shrines are inhabited both by old fashioned saints and modern businessmen. Charting the clash between the forces of development and tradition, she describes the unsettling quality of life in a rapidly changing world.

The family is a recurring theme among the artists here, a source of both strife and sustenance. Stephanie Brody Lederman, for example, brings back both the intensity and the hidden pain of a child's eye view of the world. Her paintings have a childlike simplicity - offering scatterings of rudimentary drawings and graffiti texts which begin to read like rebus puzzles. They suggest fragmentary narratives of love, passion, heartbreak or disillusion in the relationships between men and women, fathers and daughters.

Marcia G. Yerman's work is based on personal experiences with family, friends, and lovers. A recurring theme is the disparity between the picture perfect facade with which participants present these relationships to the world and the real pain and anguish within. Her contribution to this show is a portrait of her own family; subtle details of dress, pose and accessory reveal the underlying family dynamics that the formal portrait mode is designed to mask.

Art becomes a form of catharsis for some artists here, as they exorcise the demons of the past by confronting them. Aviva Rahmani offers a pair of cibachromes which are part of a burial ritual she has undertaken in order to lay to rest the burdens of her own personal history. The two photographs explore the death of her father and her own efforts to come to terms with her difficult relationship with him in life. "Time changes us all" an accompanying text notes, suggesting that even the most difficult ghosts may eventually be appeased.

Clarissa T. Sligh describes her work as an effort to "restructure" herself by reworking her family history. Her composite works are amalgams of old family photos, marks, and words which comment on the past. Uncomfortable memories resurface and are reworked into forms which are bearable today. Like Yerman, she delves beneath the orderly facade of family life to reveal its dark, hidden underside.

While many of the artists in this show use the specifics of family history and childhood photographs as a springboard for their voyages of self-discovery, several employ allegory to discover the deeper patterns of life. Michele Godwin adopts a simple, almost folk art style to present stories of search and discovery. In her work, two small figures sit in a row boat, tossed upon a stormy sea: a woman cuts through the jungle underbrush, revealing a world to which we are not privy; a grandmother steps for the first time into the ocean. Such images serve as metaphors for life's important turning points.

The drawings of Helene Brandt are similarly archetypal. In her work, nude women are literally entangled in Freudian dilemmas, as they sprout claws, tangle with monkeys, nurture pregnant men or lose themselves in swirling vortexes. Her contribution to this show represents a young girl sitting at her father's feet as he adjusts the mask on her face - referring perhaps to the barriers imposed on children by familial expectations.

If Brandt deals with self-discovery at the dawn of maturity, Louise Z. Francke is concerned, in her painting "Crossover", with the end of life. A carnivalesque tableau which recalls the work of Ensor, this painting portrays Death and his retinue as gaily costumed revelers who have come to accompany the donkey-riding woman on the remainder of her journey.

To the components of self-knowledge explored in this show - ethnicity, family, personal history and world events - must be added the consciousness of gender. While most of the artists here deal with this issue on one level or another, several make it an explicit focus of their work. Janet Goldner's wire mesh vases become metaphors both for the female body and for rigid cultural expectations about femininity. Placing photographs of herself within the vases, she chronicles her efforts to break through the vase wall or climb out of its mouth, creating a metaphor for women's struggle to break free of externally imposed definitions.

Maria Epes creates fetishistic objects of female spirits and goddesses to explore the concept of matriarchy. Small and intricate, employing feathers, driftwood, twine, and modeled figures and forms, her sculptures have the look of ritual objects, harking back to a time when art was inseparable from religion, science and magic.

Finally, Claudia DeMonte takes a more contemporary look at the woman's world, creating playful, folk art like constructions that refer to home, kitchen, domestic life and the traditions of art history in which woman is featured as object and muse but never as creator. Often based on personal experiences, her colorful tableaux both celebrate and subtly undermine conventional expectations about the woman's sphere.

Together, the artists in VISIONS OF LIFE demonstrate the complexity of the problem of identity. Composed of many threads, their works weave a tapestry in which pain and joy, desire and disillusion, and anger and resignation are as inextricably intermingled in art as they are in life.

Eleanor Heartney     


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