Stable but Serious Condition
Five Female Artists on Pain Medication
Help Me, I'm Hurt
Kirkland Arts Center, through Nov 14.
Susan Robb is reclining after an attack. In the center of a shaft of light that falls on her are fresh gashes, their edges raised and their centers ready to bleed. The artist rests her head on her other hand, its sharp-nailed fingers curled up into her hair. She's lost in thought about something else. Only the light—and the viewer—is still considering the wound.
Robb's six-by-four-foot color photograph hangs on the first floor of the Kirkland Arts Center gallery, beneath Samantha Scherer's tiny square black watercolor paintings of Law & Order victims and Camille Slack's scarred and convalescing weather balloon upstairs. In the front room is a superimposed double portrait, by Dawn Cerny, of Mary Todd Lincoln. The younger woman, flush and decked out in pink, is buried beneath the wary old woman, sketched in ink. (In addition to her husband's assassination, Mary Todd outlived three of her four sons, and the surviving son, in response to her grief, had her admitted briefly to an insane asylum.) Next to her portrait Cerny pinned to the wall dozens of sagging ship anchors cut out of black satin.
Help Me, I'm Hurt is the title of the fresh new group show, which includes five artists, all women. Suzanne Beal, its curator, writes that it "was born of the sneaking suspicion that the concept of pain was losing currency at an alarming rate." The idea is provocative, and maybe tied to the fact that none of this work is about acute pain, pain in the present tense, a moment of injury united with its impact. This is art after pain, in a world where you don't die of pain, you live with it, and with its medication.
Scherer gives her casualties quiet, ordered memorials, numbering them by TV episode and order of death within episodes. Gretchen Bennett patches together our dilapidated planet. She makes collages of Northwestern mountains formed by candy and cough-drop wrappers, and a scraggly, melted igloo or glacier out of iceberg-shaped water bottles. The injury to Slack's weather balloon is long past—its latex scar is even stronger than its papery skin—but still it lies in a sling, hooked up to oxygen. Near it on the wall is a little, spotlit painting of a balloon flying happily, the sculpture's wishful memory oppressed.
In Robb's photographic self-portrait, the golden arm and its red wounds emerge from a background as dark as Cerny's satin silhouettes. The image is luscious, Caravaggesque, and dramatic, but the artist's nonchalance matches the fake appearance of the wound. It's as if Robb just laid back and provided both a suffering artist and beautiful female flesh offering up an exposed gash.