at Woman Made Gallery

It never ceases to amaze me how group shows around a common theme turn out to be so diverse. Woman Made Gallery/Studio/Cafe, a lively new north-side spot, invited 15 artists to exhibit works on their ideas of family–and like families themselves, their interpretations vary incredibly. In fact the common thread here–apart from the fact that all the artists are women–is that very diversity. The works in “Define: Family” rarely incorporate the artists’ own family units; instead they illustrate what the artist thinks is important about families in general. Some deal with the theme whimsically, some more seriously and painfully, but all treatments are heartfelt.

The most humorous is Maryanne McDonald’s Peter & Astro at Home–her cats anthropomorphized, sitting on a couch. Their zany character clothes may be entertaining to the viewer, but to the artist these feline companions are family. Home is where your cats are. And no doubt family to them is the artist who feeds them. To McDonald family is clearly a familiar face.

Sally Risser’s untitled installation pays tribute to a grandmother’s companionship. This site-specific work, set up next to the gallery’s only window, is as crowded with busywork as your grandmother’s attic and workroom combined. Nestled comfortably in a corner is a huge armchair in front of a folding screen angled so that if you sit in the chair you get a pleasant view out the window–and an easy vantage of the gallery’s two rooms. Grandmothers are surveyors, checking on things. In a written statement next to the piece the artist invites the viewer to cuddle into the chair, and the day I was there many people did. Tied around the chair is a large green apron, slightly askew, which people tried to readjust once they’d risen. For Risser, family is a grandmotherly bringing of comfort and order to chaos. This hands-on work is a Warholian dream of kitschy, cozy clutter.

Beatrice Faye Gaines’s Joyful Anticipation (Dedicated to My Son, Alex) is a lightweight sculpture suspended from the ceiling–a pelvic bone painted black. Painted on one side is a brightly colored planet; a snaking shoelacelike thin cloth is glued to the other side. This bone floats flat, like an airplane, with a globe inside it. Despite the obvious womb symbolism, positioned this way it becomes a free-form shape symbolizing the new worlds Gaines could explore, despite motherhood, when her own mother took on the care of the son Gaines gave birth to at 14. In a written statement she informs us about this early pregnancy, saying “I used to believe that life was what was left after you scraped away the residue of family. I now know that family is what you keep after you scrape away the residue of life.” Family, to Gaines, is the bond between mother and child, the root of the family–whether it’s between Gaines and her mother or Gaines and her son.

Also suspended from the ceiling is Elizabeth Britton’s Get Off Your Ass and Get Me a Beer, a green and white housedress on a hanger with a spiraling red label like a tape measure that repeats the message of the title over and over again. Hanging on strings, the whole structure is like a dangling puppet, as flimsy as the absent personality it represents–the abused wife or child we can almost see cringing into nothingness to avoid the blows that no doubt follow the command. The empty dress is more powerful than a “real” 3-D figure, more moving, because it becomes everywoman abused. Whether Get Off Your Ass comes from Britton’s own family life or not, here less is more.

Another untitled installation is Olga Gonzales’s freestanding sculptural grouping of three opened suitcases in the middle of the gallery’s second room. Cement has been poured into all three, symbolizing the weightiness of departure or separation, of memory. But what separates also binds. Embedded in holes in the cement are photo transparencies–negatives. Shadows of lives, definitely photos of family members. At first glance the suitcases look the same, but a closer inspection reveals slight differences–as in a family. The patterns of holes look alike at first, but one quickly notices that one “hole” is a footprint; another contains bricks. Some of the photos are suspended in water–perhaps another evocation of memory. Certainly distance plays a role in Gonzales’s definition of family–but no matter where you travel, physically or emotionally, your family is always a part of you, memories cut into rock, chiseled in stone.

The most poignant work emotionally is also the strongest. Janet Bloch and Joanna Morrison both address the issue of loss, often identifying with the losses of others. Both exhibit strong work, but Bloch’s is by leaps and bounds the fresher talent. Yet Morrison’s work definitely reaches the viewer on a gut level–especially Crazy Quilt, painted after she’d seen the Names Project quilt. Her statement explains: “I was struck by the irony of how this tragedy had formed alliances and new “families’ of heretofore isolated gay men. Brought together by mutual grief and need, they became connected in a loving and politically powerful way.” For Morrison family is a feeling of support–whether within her own family unit or the whole world’s. And she embraces the whole world of gay men dying of AIDS.

Crazy Quilt is painted in a loose gridlike manner: divided into four panels that are in turn divided in two, framed by a thick, funereal border. But the flimsy look of this border, painted to look like a paper cutout, emphasizes the fragility of these scenes of melancholy young men caught inside. The slim young men in the top frames are engaged in clearly intimate but otherwise ambiguous activities. The bedroom scene, a close-up of heads and shoulders, could as easily reveal a sickbed as an erotic encounter. In the panel next to it two men have their backs to us and one man’s hand rests on the other–whether supportively or caressingly is left to the viewer. These men could be reflections of the two large figures in the bottom scenes, part of a storybook progression, or unrelated images.

In Retablo, Bloch portrays someone else’s family, a family she’s heard about on the news. “Retablo” is the term for a Mexican votive offering painted on tin to commemorate an event–a miracle or healing–as testimony to divine intervention. Here the story is of four-year-old twins who died in a fire while locked in a closet–their grandmother always locked them in whenever she left the house. As if to expiate not only her guilt but the viewer’s and Bloch’s, an angel holds a banner reading Their Souls Rose to God. “All of my paintings,” Bloch’s statement reads, “try to affirm the inner spirit, which I believe is triumphant over even the most grim reality.” In Bloch’s interpretation the twins–depicted here in the closet playing with matches as well as rising in a cloud of smoke and fire toward heaven–have been “rescued” to a better life, not consumed by death.

Retablo is both painting and decorative assemblage in the style of real retablos–jewel encrusted and incredibly detailed, with a text that records the names of the subjects and the day of the accident. From the minuscule metallic lock on the closet door to the small plastic skeleton to the gray gravel headstones on the two painted bedlike graves, Retablo is simultaneously narrative and symbol, foreshadowing and result. Scenes at the bottom of the canvas depict life-as-usual: Bloch gives us all sentiments, all viewpoints at once. The viewer takes them all in simultaneously, but the details draw us into more extended contemplation. The day I was at the exhibit, people crowded around Bloch’s work, marveling at its compression of detail into so small a space.

Bloch’s I Will Protect You is in the same cryptically surreal folk-art vein, done in the same melange of gouache and mixed-media three-dimensional decoration. But here she defines family more personally. She paints herself as a little girl in a party dress, standing below a black guardian angel in a print dress. On either side are her parents: stiff, straight, animistic totem poles. They’re a supportive structure, but so different from her that her look of isolation seems inevitable. Different as it is from her, the angel is a much warmer and more human image–family is whoever is like you, whoever you can turn to for support.

Like Bloch’s I Will Protect You, Morrison’s other two paintings also define family in a more personal way. In Farewell to 20th she paints her own family’s home and she herself and her lover on either side of the house, saluting it with food and drink. They’re so small they seem almost incidental, but the house itself is celebrated, painted in bold, bright colors and a swirl of floral patterns. Her attachment to it is so strong that in Loss/Chaos she again depicts the experience of leaving. The artist’s confusion is seen as an event of a mammoth scale: her tumbling figure is the largest element, suspended upside down and falling away from the tiny, upended house and uprooted tree in the top left-hand corner. For Morrison, shod in one slipper and one shoe, if you can’t go home, you can’t go anywhere.