The Mattress Factory: Feminist and…

It may be that the ellipsis within the title of the Mattress Factory’s newest exhibition, Feminist and…, are its most effective descriptor. The show features the work of six female artists across the spectrum of age and culture engaging in issues not necessarily considered unique to women.   As the statements of guest curator Dr. Hilary Robinson make clear, Feminist and… is meant to highlight the fact that feminism is an influence on one’s worldview rather than a historical, self-contained art movement. In this sense, the show looks beyond the confines of “feminism” as an isolated descriptor.

The installations resulting from this mindset are stunning in the diversity of their subject matter. Particularly notable is Carrie Mae Weems’ Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, an installation wherein a video is projected between the red curtains of a false stage using the Pepper’s ghost technique. Ethereal characters are pulled out of the past to remind viewers that they will never be gone, and that the stories of race, class, and gender struggles still need to be told. Another highlight is Written Room by Parastou Forouhar, which consists of nonsense Farsi script splayed across every plane of the room, while inscribed ping-pong balls litter the floor. Western viewers are forced to regard the text as ornamental, and the balls encourage what might already be problematically instinctive – to play with this imagery without considering it seriously. Both installations utilize wonderfully the engaging, physical immediacy of the installation as a medium.

Unfortunately, a fair portion of the artists in residence fail to make strong choices in their work. Julia Cahill’s Breasts in the Press, the most overtly feminist work of the show, consists of a tiny two channel video projection onto the breasts of a ridiculously endowed copy of the Venus de Milo. One channel is Cahill singing a parody of the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps”. The lyrics’ attempt at camp falters in its heavy-handedness. The other channel shows Cahill creating prints of her breasts. The connection is not elaborated upon. Cahill creates an arresting spectacle, but fails to capitalize on it.

Another example is Loraine Leeson’s Active Energy: Pittsburgh. The installation centers on six screens, each displaying facts and interviews concerning dementia. Multiple videos run simultaneously, fostering a disorienting hall-of-mirrors effect that makes it difficult to parse what is being said.  The literature in the hall outside of Active Energy make understanding it no easier – pamphlets concerning Alzheimer’s disease sit right next to brochures on green energy for no apparent reason. It is telling that some viewers were not even aware Active Energy was part of the exhibition.

Feminist and… has an interesting premise, but the effectiveness of the exhibition as a whole is only mixed. Since there are so few installations, the fact that two of them suffer from questionable execution prevents the show from reaching its full potential. The ellipsis in the title, meant to represent an unrecognized potential, could also represent an unfortunate uncertainty.

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