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by Ann M. Fox

Associate Professor of English,
Davidson College
Co-curator of RE/FORMATIONS

Professor Fox specializes in twentieth-century dramatic literature and disability studies. Her teaching interests include modern drama, disability in literature, feminist theater, contemporary American multicultural drama, performance theory, and women writers. Her scholarship has traced the rise of feminist sensibilities in American commercial theater; her articles on playwrights Rachel Crothers and Sophie Treadwell have been published in Text and Presentation, while her study of Dorothy Parker’s playwriting appears in the volume The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker. More recently, her work on disability and performance has been published in Contemporary Theatre Review, the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, and the book Gendering Disability. She has served on the executive board of the Society for Disability Studies, and was an American Association of University Women American Postdoctoral Fellow for 2003-2004. Her current book project traces the representation of disability on the twentieth-century commercial stage. Dr. Fox is also the coordinator for the Gender Studies Concentration at Davidson College.

Other works try to engage our fear, turning it back on itself.  Rebecca Horn’s Finger Gloves, depicted in the short films that are being screened as part of this exhibition,disrupt the implicit boundary between Horn’s own body and the space beyond it, suggesting that no body is set, impervious, containable, or able to be preserved indefinitely. The prosthetics themselves are curiously conflicted: they are at once elegant and inefficient, freakish and whimsical, digit-like and clearly constructed.  Indeed, one wonders to what extent these can  be seen as an ironic commentary on how the so-called “abnormal” body is perceived by others, exemplified by the fact that villains in literature and popular culture are often equipped with false limbs.  Are they a commentary on the fact that some prosthetics are meant to comfort the viewer, rather than the wearer, and actually hinder movement?  Horn at once references and recasts the fundamental meanings and materials of prosthetics; unlike the wooden leg of Ahab or the gleaming metallic blades of the Wolverine, these are made of softer stuff.  Nancy Fried’s Black Torso seems initially neutral, almost expectant; unlike Hands on Hips or The Flirt, there seems no specific manner in which the work engages us.  Instead, we’re invited to become contemplative, to engage honestly with a torso where we are prepared to meet it; in its neutrality, it creates blackness as the norm and the center, rather than the secondary identity with a negative connotation.

Still other reformations await us as viewers, particularly through this exhibit’s emphasis on sculpture as a medium.  Sculpture is traditionally male-dominated, demands physical strength, and significant financial means.  What happens when women, doubly “othered” in terms of gender and perhaps economics, as well as their own physicality, choose to explore this medium?  When an artist is disabled, what does it mean for the explosion of artistic possibility when sculpture-making processes accommodate other ranges of movement, other ways of working?  What does it mean when materials reflect the material reality of life lived with a disability? We reform our understanding of the materials with which it is possible to make sculpture—from Judith Scott’s fiber art to Harriet Sanderson’s whimsical and pointed use, as a woman with post-polio syndrome, of fragmented canes; suddenly the permanent, enduring, and hard materials of sculpture like stone and metal yield the floor to the materials of this exhibition, from wood to ceramics, from fiber art to chemical peels, that are easily fragmented, fragile, or relatively impermanent.  To be sure, this evokes the familiar questioning of the divide between art and craft explored by feminist artists. Like the disabled body, these materials remind us of our own fragility; now, we must contemplate that fragility. 

Disability has long been a presence in literature and art, and the new disability artists working in painting, photography, and drawing are taking up the challenge to recast that presence.  This exhibit enters into a third dimension, and its use of sculpture offers particular opportunities for making meaning to both artist and viewer.  Historically both women and disabled people have been rendered invisible by society, relegated to private spaces: either the domestic, or the medical/institutional.   Sculpture reverses that invisibility, enters into the world of the spectator, and insists on its own visibility and viability.  Judith Scott’s wrapped sculptures establish a presence that was denied her during decades of institutionalization.  Laura Splan’s Trousseau series (created specially for this exhibition), a collection of gloves, lingerie, and other intimate objects created from the residue of  cosmetic facial peel, emerge in their fragile state from within a heavy black trunk.   Like Harriet Sanderson’s untitled installation featuring a chair and mattress pads, they reference the world of the private and the hidden.  In Splan’s case, what the Trousseau series renders visible are the underpinnings of the performance of gender, a performance that, as the installation’s title suggests, is meant for a male gaze, perhaps within that ultimate female “prize,” a marriage.  Splan creates gloves, a negligee, a purse, and other “heirloom objects,” inspired by other objects of the same kind inherited from her grandmother, aunts, and mother with which she used to play.  She likens the objects in her series to the “’skin’ of a feminine ideal as it [is] prescribed by cultural and social conventions of grace, beauty, and class.” Splan’s work, embroideries on the leavings of a cosmetic facial peel, literally engages ideals of beauty as superficial layerings. By making delicate, feminine objects, Splan at once references and satirizes this enforced femininity as fragile, illusory, and “skin deep.”   In Sanderson’s installation, she creates what she describes as “a private bedroom type space, a retreat for the person with chronic health problems, from which emerges, finally, an individual presenting herself to the ‘normal’ world. . . the daily ritual of resurrection begins and ends in the private space of the bedroom-dressing room.”  Sanderson’s mattress pads are both resting place and medium, a duality seen elsewhere in her work’s use of canes and wheelchairs.  That medium enfolds and cascades out of the seatless chair, and upon it, Sanderson has delineated different patterns in ink, all of which are present as potential within the seemingly generic , seemingly blank white quilting.  There is a contemplative quality to the drawings, a sense they were created in the same kind of meditative rhythm as a sand mandala.  They evoke the world of the person who experiences pain and must remain in bed, suggesting a bodily experience and imaginative life that might otherwise remain unacknowledged.  

In Re/Formations, we are, quite literally, invited to inhabit the skins and shoes of others, as the metaphors become the materials through which exhibition artists make work.  This suggests another powerful element of this exhibit: it suggests embodied experience—of being disabled, of being a disabled woman, of being a nondisabled woman—happens in many ways, ways too numerous to be fully represented here.   Fried’s torsos, for example, delineate her changing relationship to her post-mastectomy body over time, in all its vagaries and complexity.  One corner of Molt, with Scurs is made up of multiple pairs of high-heeled shoes, lined up against a wall, their heels fashioned from the tips of canes.  There’s both kinship and whimsy in this installation.  Sanderson’s use of a curved cane tip for the heel of a woman’s dress shoe makes the point that such dress footwear can limit the mobility of even the most ambulatory user in the name of beauty, rendering them fully stopped, as if against a wall. And the high-heeled shoe is, of course, unstable and impractical for the body with limited mobility.  But the installation also creates the hybridized cane/shoe as an object of whimsy and playfulness, reminding us that canes and shoes are, after all, paired to create mobility in their actual lives as objects. The normal heels of the shoes have been amputated from the bodies of the footwear and lay scattered about the gallery with other cane tips that seem to have exploded free from the “cane chair.”    As the viewer looks at the new shoe/cane creations,  there’s something sexy and dangerous about the sinuous hooks of the highest heels, a rendering of disability as vehicle for haute couture.  Ultimately, these shoes are not a simplistic reinforcement of ableist metaphors to critique beauty norms; they become a kind of expression of alternate movement and “disability cool.”  

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