Art: Wednesday, August 1, 2002
Thru Aug 24 at Arlington Museum of Art, 201 W Main St, Arlington.817-275-4600.
Over Ovaries

If you need to categorize the female artists at AMA, file them under ‘excellent.’


Let’s get this out of the way first: “Art” intentionally wrapped up in identity politics isn’t art as much as it is therapy. It has no place in a gallery, much less a museum. A rehab hospital? Maybe. But not any place where canvases open themselves — to paraphrase Susan Sontag — to being interpreted lovingly. Still, some people insist on seeing art through a filter based on (ho hum) an artist’s gender, skin color, or sexual preference. (How this last signifier becomes known among viewers baffles me — it’s not like you can see someone’s surname tacked next to a work of art and say, “‘John Smith.’ Oh, he’s so gay.”) You might not know a piece of art is politically subversive if you just stood in front of it and opened your eyes. You’d know only because you had read the museum literature or watched the 60 Minutes profile. My two cents: All I want to do is look at some good artwork. If I had wanted to read artwork, I’d have gone to the library.

Frankly, you shouldn’t be scared by the extraneous text surrounding “F.I.M.” at the Arlington Museum of Art. Featuring Mary Foster, Simeen Ishaque, and Adriana Martinez, and curated by Rachel Bounds, this show will likely stir up myriad thoughts about feminism, ethnicity, and multi-culturalism — but only after you’ve read the names on the marquee or glanced at AMA’s promotional fliers. Go into the exhibit “blind,” and you’ll simply be floored by the deft, workmanlike, transcendental forms.

“Grace under pressure” was how Ernest Hemingway once described courage, but if you twist this phrase to mean something like “contents under pressure,” you’ll get an idea of Foster’s math-artish contraptions. Her strongest pieces here involve machine imagery. “Decrease” — like two other pieces, “Increase” and “Blow Up” — is made up of a medium-sized canvas over which hangs a similarly sized piece of clear glass; etchings of machines on the glass complement what’s painted on the canvases. The etching in “Decrease” made me think of some sort of steam-powered thermometer. It stretches vertically up one side of the glass, with calibrations carefully noted alongside. Tension is the overriding sensation here — the brain struggles to reconcile the strong imagery with the delicate medium. This pristine piece of draftsmanship suggests an un-looked-for spirituality behind technology. On the hazy blue canvas behind the thermometer is a quiet corner where a square of smaller, simpler devices provides a kind of comfort, in comparison to the larger machine.

Foster also has a lyrical approach to etching on glass which is just as striking as her representational style. “Kanchenjuga (K2)” is a sheet of clear glass covered in neat, horizontal lines of nearly indecipherable cursive handwriting; behind the writing, on the pale green-ish canvas, is what appears to be a silhouette of a man sitting on a donkey. There could be a story here, in the text, maybe about the obviously quixotic character on the ass, but it doesn’t matter, really. The mesmeric work casts a spell. The words literally sparkle, suggesting the temporal. Married to the soul on the canvas, they call to mind the security that came with childhood storybooks. Allowing yourself to be drawn into this piece may be the easiest thing you’ve done in months.

If Foster’s work suggests a cold, analytical hand, Adriana Martinez’s piquant sculptures and Simeen Ishaque’s melodic silhouettes reveal a softer, more sexual muse at play. Ishaque’s “Living under the shadows” occupies a full room in the part of the mezzanine gallery closest to the space’s entrance, and this piece still — like a princess, possibly — seems to want even more space. Life-size, nude female silhouettes made of cloth and of various colors — from salmons to browns to greens — dance along the outer walls while Urdu inscriptions swirl like the wind around their bodies. Claustrophobic would be a good way to describe what you’ll feel on entering into this realm. But if good installation work is supposed to transport you, then this piece can move worlds.

Martinez, on the other hand, will draw you, laughing, down into the gutter. Maybe it’s just my dirty mind, but I couldn’t help but feel I was looking at a lot of navels and anuses when taking in Martinez’s work. Little knobs with half-slits down the center? I mean, c’mon. That’s a butt!

I normally want my art to be sexless or at least able to speak to both genders. But I don’t mind its being personal (read: political) every now and then. Are Martinez and Ishaque making overt political statements? No, they’re just creating quality art from their personal experiences. How they’re promoted or categorized is immaterial.

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