at Gallery 2

If walls could speak, it’s sometimes asked, what would they say? In two of the installations in “Territorial Imperative: A Dialogue With Fear,” a group exhibition of women who are School of the Art Institute alumni or current graduate students, the walls do speak: urgently whispering, disembodied voices invite us into private realms, giving voice to experiences of fear and pain. Unpleasant, often ignored realities are addressed by the photographs, sculptures, and installations in this show, and it’s impossible to walk away from it without having confronted unacknowledged or suppressed fears, especially those regarding the body, illness, and death, loss of control, and physical and emotional violence.

Though it’s an ambitious show, the degree to which its artworks succeed varies greatly–some are convincing, fully developed statements, while others need fleshing out or suffer from a lack of focus. Shanna Linn’s installation, There’s No Telling, is certainly one of the most complex. Using gauzy purple gray curtains hung on wires, she creates a space redolent of a hospital room, complete with a steam vaporizer that emits the faint odor of menthol or camphor. At its center is an old white cabinet on wheels filled with rubber hoses, glass tubes containing unidentified liquids, and a jumble of domestic detritus: dried garlic bulbs in a rusty tin, a faded pink pincushion, a hand mirror, a teacup, a baby’s shoe. Behind the cabinet–set into the wall–are speakers, from which soft voices emanate.

“He loves me, he loves me not,” says a woman’s voice, “She loves me, she loves me not,” says a man’s, over and over in an alternating singsong. From another speaker a woman tells of hearing a crying baby she cannot assist, ending with the question: “Where are you now, burnt baby boy in the blackened room, and why do you live on so fiercely in my memory?” Each time she finishes her story a high-pitched bell rings twice.

The speakers are only a small part of this wall. Small shelves bear bottles, a coffeepot, colanders filled with flower petals, saucers of powder, an old photo of a smiling baby. Painted diagrams of an arm, a leg, a torso, and a head are surrounded not by scientific terms but by emotionally charged verbs–wallop, whimper, wobble, whip, wonder. Interspersed among light fixtures are the words “What the anguished mind abandons, the faithful flesh records.” Nearly everything in this ghostly curtained room is old, nicked, dented, and worn: in it one feels surrounded by ghosts, by long past but never healed physical and psychic wounds. Water becomes steam, dried petals are ground into dust, present actions fade into memory: There’s No Telling reminds us of our mortality and our inability to halt ceaseless change.

Giorgia Wolfson’s nearby sculptures are far simpler in form than Linn’s multifaceted installation, yet they too quietly summon up troubling associations. Woven of steel wool and wire, her looming larger-than-life Hammock has all the weighty, disturbing presence of an image encountered in a nightmare. But it’s also unexpectedly beautiful. The gray steel wool glitters invitingly, looking for all the world like soft, newly carded wool, but this dark, scratchy hammock would hardly be a place to rest. It embodies the anxieties inherent in discovering–often to our great disappointment–that things are not always what they seem.

Wolfson’s tall spearlike sculptures, Coat of Arms: Parts I, II, & III, are emblems of intimidation, evoking our dread of physical harm. Like Hammock, these are handsome objects, graceful combinations of roughly carved wood, cast bronze, and steel. Yet each sports a different kind of sharp point–a fishhook on one, two prongs on another, a spiked semicircle for the third–that calls up associations with danger: actual spears or lances, rakes, pitchforks, bayonets, even medical or dental instruments. Unfortunately, Wolfson’s mounted them close to the wall with sturdy brass supports, thereby rendering them virtually harmless–how much more provocative they’d be if mounted perpendicular to the wall, literally invading the viewer’s space.

Far more emphatic are Andi Pihl’s color photographs, which pointedly examine the emotional bullying that takes place within families. One features an unappetizing plate of burnt meat, canned corn, and mashed potatoes; spelled out over the food with pepper, kernels of corn, and gravy are the words “I’ll give you something to cry about.” In another, canned peas spell out the words “shut up,” while in a third the word “swallow” has been burnt into pink hot dogs, which gives the imperative a truly horri- ble connotation. Pihl’s compositional choices heighten the effect of the ugly words: the elevated point of view puts the viewer in the place of a child held captive at the dinner table, while the close cropping of each food-laden place setting increases the sense of entrapment. The intense, almost garish colors of the food and patterned tablecloths add a note of false, hysterical cheerfulness to Pihl’s pictures, underscoring all the more forcefully the unseen child’s desperation.

Relief from these troubling images can be found in Laura Saaf’s To Teach Girls Proper Conduct, a group of five humorous, inventive dolls crafted out of fabric and household objects. One, made of brown, gold, and orange kitchen-curtain fabric imprinted with hearts and roosters, sports cooking utensils in the place of head and limbs. Another, fashioned from brightly colored fabric bearing images of cherries and strawberries, has a clear goblet for a head and plastic grapes for legs. With their perfect hourglass figures and perfect posture–clamped firmly to the wall with metal brackets, they stand up straight–Saaf’s dolls remind us of the restrictions traditionally imposed on women, of their consignment to the safe or at least condoned territories of nurturance and domesticity. But these are limitations more characteristic of the 50s than of the 90s, and nothing about these dolls suggests a connection to contemporary issues.

In Valerie A. Brodar’s installation, Anxiety Unbound, women explicitly voice specific, contemporary fears. Using metal studs and large sheets of tracing paper, Brodar has constructed a spiral-shaped enclosure against a gallery wall that beckons the viewer toward its interior, where two small speakers are mounted. Different women name what they’re afraid of (or not afraid of): rape, hospitals, diseases, “my father,” “my mother,” running water, “things I can’t control.” The most intriguing aspect of Anxiety Unbound is its ambiguity: the delicate white paper walls have a calming, peaceful effect at odds with the eerie blue lighting, the narrowness of the enclosure (once inside, you can’t see who might be entering), and the continuous taped litany of fears. I wish Brodar had attempted to do more with the tapes, however: the fears seem to be voiced only by fairly young and relatively affluent women, and for the most part are merely stated, not elaborated on.

Nearby, Cynthia Tecler’s sculptures scream for attention. Bright reds, whites, and blues are her chosen colors; dolls, frilly little dresses, and stuffed animals are her materials. I was puzzled by the inclusion of some of Tecler’s pieces in this exhibition, for many seem more about American consumer culture–the frenzied, loud environments of stores, the gaudy designs of toys and packaging–than about women or fear. The Big Sale, for example, consists of a row of red and white girls’ dresses, lit on the inside by white neon lights, on which are painted pictures of running rabbits and words such as “buy,” “beauty,” “hurry,” “now.”

More evocative of fears well-known to both girls and women–fears of being transformed into objects and of having no control over their bodies or circumstances–is Tecler’s To Complete the Circle, a sculpture made of two resin-coated girls’ dresses on hangers joined at their hems and placed on the floor. There’s something sad and vulnerable about the resulting ball: it can’t really roll anywhere, and the wet-looking resin renders the dresses slightly repulsive.

Robin Starbuck’s installation, I Look Like Someone’s Wife, combines videos, large hand-colored photographs, and bottles made of wax. Her concerns seem to revolve around fears and taboos surrounding women’s bodies–one of the videos focuses on a woman’s hand obsessively handling globs of glistening yellow fat–but no clear theme ties the disparate elements together. Maria Troy’s work makes somewhat better use of unappealing organic materials: her neat rows of moldy Cheez Curls set into plaster panels and marshmallows stapled over pieces of overlapping masking tape speak of physical fragility and the slow progress toward death and disintegration, though visually they’re rather slight, more like gestures than fully realized sculptures. Troy has also smeared one gallery window with chocolate pudding and layered another with chewed-on wax candies, effectively replacing what’s usually a symbol of knowledge and clarity with surreal indications of the insanity and chaos lurking just beneath the surface of our seemingly ordered, rational lives.