There is a strain of contemporary art that has to do with investigations of the artistic imagination as applied to social history and natural history. Perhaps the best known example of the former is Matthew Barney, who creates his own hallucinatory world out of bits and pieces of social fabric. The best known of the latter ilk might be Damien Hirst, he of sharks and cows in formaldehyde fame. As it happens, Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, currently has an odd couple of shows (both through January 11, 2009) that bring feminine sensibilities nicely to bear on this bizarre streak in visual art.
Fantastical Fables: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by Amy Cutler brings together 18 works on paper by an artist who has made an international name for herself with deftly rendered figurative images that read like children’s book illustrations from the theater of the absurd. Cutler’s warped fables are approachable on many levels, from “Oh, I get it” visual jokes to very detailed deconstructions of women’s place in history using surreal situations and careful attention to costumes and fabrics.
“Castoroide Colony, 2003,” for example, is a gouache tableau of bucktoothed women as beavers, felling trees with their teeth and building a lodge. I wouldn’t touch the possible meaning of that one with a ten-foot pole. “Trial, 2004” depicts 13 colonial clad ladies flying unseen kites and building brick walls in which the hems of their log black dresses have become mortared. “Four Snowmen, 2002” is a simple gouache of four bundled up women walking snowmen who sit in washtubs on sleds. The first of the four snowmen has melted clean away and the remaining three don’t look long for this world either.
What can these strange images mean? I’m tempted to read a feminist critique of patriarchal society into them, but Alison Ferris, the former Bowdoin curator who put together the show, writes in the little Cutler catalogue that “there are no answers.” “Instead, Cutler’s work investigates the interplay between the women, girls (and sometimes, men), the spaces they are in, the textiles they use, the clothes they wear, and the acts of labor or ritual they perform.”
Alison Ferris also curated Parterre: An Installation by Lauren Fensterstock, a fabulous little exhibition by an outstanding Portland, Maine, artist just waiting to be discovered by a wider art world. If I were a betting man (or a serious art collector), I’d put my money on Lauren Fensterstock to make it big one of these days. I see her as a novice in the order of art of which Louise Bourgeois is the mother superior. Of course, it would be hard to know what to acquire of Fensterstock given the eclectic nature of her art.
Parterre, which means “flower bed” in French, is a multi-faceted installation created in response to burrowing into the vaults of the Bowdoin Museum collection in search of objects and images that spoke to Fensterstock of landscape and gardening. What she came out with were a series of chromolithographic prints of “Victoria Regia, or the Great Water Lily of America” by William Sharp (1830-1875), a set of six etchings of “Views of the Chateau and Gardens of Rueil” by Israel Silvestre the Younger (1621-1691), and a handful of antique watches.
In response to these disparate objects, Lauren Fensterstock filled a gallery floor of the Bowdoin Museum with a lavish, painstakingly cut and curled “Lily Pond” of quilled black paper, Plexiglas, and charcoal dust. One wall of the gallery, painted green for the occasion, features a diagram of the hedge maze at Versailles set out in cubic zirconia, easily overlooked until they sparkle minutely. There is also a pair of ink and gouache images of flowers and fountains. And displayed in a case with the antique watches are three of Fensterstock’s trademark decadent jewelry pieces – diamonds, rubies, and sapphires set into wizened seed potatoes and a rotten black banana.
I’ll give the last word to Alison Ferris, who is already sorely missed at Bowdoin. “As a complete installation,” writes Ferris, “Parterre suggests not only that nature’s time is precious, but that, now more than ever, it is in crisis.”
(Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, 207-725-3275.)