Mama Don't Preach

Melissa Stang's installation art makes a sly statement about latter-day womanhood

This is not always a good thing. Consider for example, a local artist who claimed recently of her work: "I transpose and transform text and context, form and content, exploring the presentation of the cultural artifact as signified sculptural object." Such a statement makes little sense, and as a sales pitch it is a disaster--a golden rule of marketing being "Never alienate your audience or make them feel stupid."

Fortunately, the words in Stang's show--there are many of them--run counter to the trend. Stang is the rare artist who, though she feels the need to write a lot, does not pretend to be able to solve the world's ills in her work, and who seems willing to let the art alone do its thing. In fact, most of Stang's wall statements are simple and somewhat self-deprecating explanations of her process. For example, Stang writes of the living-room installation, which is called A Period Room for a Moist Temperate Environment (Or a Natural History Guide for Interior Decorators):

 

Why plates? Originally it was simply a formal decision. Artists spend so much time working with squares and rectangles that I wanted to experiment with circles as a new format. Plates however got me thinking in different directions--we eat on them and women make them and collect them. They are firmly located in the realm of what we might consider the "feminine decorative arts." In much the same way that early feminist artists started examining and re-examining so-called "low-art" forms like quilts and fiber, I started thinking about objects like plates, wreaths, floral arrangements.

 

"I'm kind of verbose," says Stang, back in the gallery. "I like to write. But I always figured that in any specialized field that anybody knows about, whether it be quantum physics or whatever, people should be able to explain it so that anybody can get it."

Stang's Period Room takes up a large part of the gallery space. The aforementioned plates--in all manner of sizes, shapes, and colors--and the several floral arrangements and Franklin Mint-style wreaths fill two whole walls from waist level to ceiling. This is much like grandma's parlor: At least superficially there is a sense of middle-class refinement that we all recognize. It is only on closer examination that we may come across the traps the artist has set for us. On each plate, Stang has drawn a black-pen and white-paint rendering of a turtle, snake, or frog (in place of grandma's butterflies or floral patterns). They are jewel-like icons made seemingly as an act of worship or reverence.

Predictably, Stang takes a dual view of the animals she depicts. They are, on one hand, nostalgic ("I studied them as a child," she says); on the other hand, they suggest the political. Environmental degradation has stressed the populations of many of these creatures, and so on a table Stang has placed a dozen or so frosty plates with images of deformed frogs, carefully rendered in all their hideousness. And the installation gets creepier still if you look behind its genteel façade. The china cabinet contains jars of partly dissected specimens bobbing in formaldehyde--a lobotomized frog, disemboweled mice, and the like. Stang does not flinch at the imagery, despite the fact that only nine months have passed since an animal-rights protest effectively closed down a previous show in this same gallery (though that protest concerned the use of live chickens in a show, not dead specimens taken from a laboratory).

Oddly, not many people even seem to take notice of these details. Laughter and mirth dominated the living-room area on the show's opening night as people gesticulated and schmoozed with cocktail-hour eagerness. Only the occasional viewer peered closely enough to see the ugly truth behind the surface of the scene, and these people most often left the gallery with pensive or dismayed looks on their faces. But this makes sense: Most of us would rather leave such concerns for artists to worry about.

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