Maggie Carson Romano's face was torn from lip to jaw in September. We know it was September because there is a painful photograph at the center of her exhibition Well, and the photograph is titled September 26. What's pictured is the stretch of her body between her pink lips and her honey-colored collarbones, rudely interrupted by ragged Frankenstein stitches. We know that this was an injury to a woman considered beautiful. The artist was at the opening, standing in the middle of the room with her fresh scar.
I didn't know what had happened. Later I found out that one part of the show is a (beautiful) prose poem that explains it all, but all 40 copies had already been taken that night, so I didn't read it until later. As I walked through the show, instead, my body instinctively formed its own association, of how I tore during childbirth.
When I saw the artist, I didn't ask her what happened, and she assumed I knew. I told her my association, and she told me that for her, this body of work, and the wound itself, felt related to her injuries when she was raped in college.
At first, she'd thought the cut to her face was just an injury. But as she continued to rip open her stitches with any slight gesture of emoting, and as she learned she'd need to cope with not being able to hide the injury (while also not being able to see it with her own eyes), she realized the trauma went further. Her title, Well, refers sarcastically to the trendy concept of wellness, yes, but also to a dark, deep well containing present and past pain, fear, and anger.
A cut to the face runs to the essence of a woman's social capital in this culture. So in Well, I saw a metaphor for the real and symbolic violence experienced by all women, from rape all the way to the everyday erasure of aging.
I experienced one caveat in the work's ability to be a universalizing metaphor: the artist's status and privilege as a slender, young, beautiful white woman. Her injury might steal some of that status, but she also had more of it to spare than any other woman in this culture. I asked her about this. She was considering it herself.
The prose poem that explains the accident is a work in the show just like all the others, to be read alongside the self-portraits, photographs of forlorn trees and fragments of memories since the day of the accident, and fragile sculptures of coral, wax, and shattered white plaster. What I learned from reading it was that the accident happened when a longboard fin cut the artist's face while she was surfing on her honeymoon in Fiji.
With that context, I felt something shift in the way I saw the other works. Were all of those earlier resonances invalid? There is a real way that a vacationing white woman's surfing accident is not a metaphor for violence against women.
Or is it the other way around—that violence against women is so pervasive that even a surfing accident becomes more than what it seems? How does an image live within a complex context that's also included as part of the artist's work? How do images invite us to play fast and loose with what we'd like to see rather than just what is there?
I often hear from people that they don't want art to be interrupted by context, that they want art to "speak for itself." It seems to me, on the contrary, that artists and viewers include and exclude context as it suits them. The complexity in the context Carson Romano provided gave me a chance to think twice, and twice again.
Freeman's work demonstrates her immense research. Quiet Alter is a portrait of how the free-market drug industry manipulates those most vulnerable, carrying out colonialist, capitalist violence without any need for malicious intent. It's just the system. In Freeman's board game Pharmakon, made with Steven Miller, the playing cards are multiple-choice questions about drug history, politics, and economics; "Chance" cards typically reward the CEO player with billions. "Chance" cards are based on horrifying actual events. I googled, did a little self-education that I won't soon forget.
Another of Freeman's works is a gold-framed photocopy of a bill for a single chemotherapy treatment on December 1, 2015: $41,054.40. The bill is her mother-in-law's. Freeman could have photographed her instead, and exhibited images as viscerally compelling as Carson Romano's scar close-up. But Freeman is an archivist of systems, not a portraitist of subjective experience. Her works are almost all context and no image.
Quiet Alter includes an essay, coincidentally, just like Well. This one's not poetic, it's a polemic against the evils of the drug industry, written by Seattle therapist Cristien Storm. It references data, and in data, there is no scar, no photo opportunity. Which is how tragedy hides—in numbers, unrelatable masses so big they seem normal, and also so big they fail to inspire empathy or connection.
How can concerned artists best represent pain—so that we intimately feel its effects, or that we come to comprehend the shape and dimension of its causes? At Glass Box I found myself drawn to the works of art that embody both approaches even when they seem to conflict. The beautiful, scarred artist's self-portraits and candid prose poem, more than her sculptural symbols of fragility. Collages of drug-company CEOs based on their corporate headshots that are meant to be monstrous and multiplying—but are painted with searching, innocent eyes under the masks of their faces. It's almost as if Freeman painted the CEO eyes that way in spite of herself. "You see those as innocent?" she asked me. But they are. You'll see. She told me those collages were the work she almost left out of the show, and I'm so glad she didn't.