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
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
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
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.