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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.

Our necessary role in looking at and studying sculpture from many sides serves as a not-so-subtle reminder of the very specific manner in which the disabled and women have had a highly specific embodied role as the object of either the gaze or the stare. Women, of course, have long been the presumed object of the male gaze, the purpose of the kind of private preparations documented in the Trousseau series. Splan’s sculpture Fan (Anatomy of the Gaze) more directly addresses this spectatorial relationship; the embroidery motif on the fan is patterned after the human retina. Through merging the physiology of the eye and this fashion accessory/flirtation device, Splan’s sculpture literally casts a wary eye on those means through which women’s bodies are marked. The fan itself becomes an ironic prosthetic through which a woman who has no other agency to do so must make manifest her desire. Fried’s sculpture The Flirt, by contrast, seizes agency; the torso might be coyly about to curtsey, or it might be able to throw its skirt up over its nonexistent head. The taut fabric further suggests a reveal; the torso might have just flung down fabric covering itself. In every case, there is a playful eroticism present; the breast is pillowy and desirable, and the edges of the mastectomy scar form a soft and voluptuous cleft. Fried’s torsos, confronting us without shame or tentativeness, literally refuse our stare, resisting the traditional way in which power is typically asserted by the nondisabled over the disabled. Cast from Fried’s own body, they are certainly, on one level, her body. But because they are headless, we cannot individuate them with our look, or isolate them with our stare; they form an implicit community. The present absence of the head further disconcerts, but in a playful manner;  we are literally forced to confront our own fear of the imperfect and fragmented. But how might we be looked at, could this torso see us? How would we be captured in its stare? It is an unnerving and amusing thought.

There are larger, philosophical questions about the creation and understanding of disability art with which this exhibit asks us to engage. Disability studies scholar Sharon L. Snyder notes that it is common to do to art history what we do to Venus de Milo: not just to overlook disability’s presence, but to see the work as successful in spite of it:

What has happened to the interpretation of disability in art created by those who lived their lives as artists and as disabled people?  Frequently, corporeal otherness is viewed as an impediment to art.  As a result, disabled artists have been often (mis)understood as succeeding despite rather than as a result of disability experiences. 

What might it mean to understand the work of Rebecca Horn in light of how her disability shaped her artistic creation (she became seriously ill as a young artist after working, unmasked, with noxious materials which she breathed in), rather than only defining it as imperiled, then redirected? Does understanding Judith Scott’s early institutionalization and eventual liberation invite us to see her work anew, as we see the richness and vitality in her wrappings that still subtly reference entrapment?   By taking an approach Garland-Thomson calls thinking about how an artist’s work is changed and evolves “because of, not in spite of” disability, we can orient ourselves to works in vastly different ways,   Indeed, the presence of disability invigorates our understanding of the artist’s role, leading us to question set norms:  what do we presume an artist must have by way of movement and cognition to “be” an artist?  Moreover, what makes a disability artist? Laura Splan is not disabled, and this fact compels us to ask: who makes disability art? Is it anyone who critiques the enforcing of normalcy?  Who references disability directly? Is it only disabled people?   Disability activists?  Disability allies?  Given the history of disabled people being silenced, what is the place of the nondisabled artist in raising issues intimately connected to disability? Splan’s presence importantly complicates the illusory boundary line between disabled/nondisabled.  This exhibit also invites us to ask, what are the ways in which artists can place disability in dialogue with the ways it has been traditionally depicted?  Garland-Thomson has pointed out, for example, the ways in which contemporary disability artists, using the conventions of classical portraiture in creating images of disabled people, create a recognition that inserts disabled people into the public sphere and larger representations of humanity.  We might make Garland-Thomson’s arguments about some of the artists in this exhibit:  Fried’s work, for example, cites the Venus de Milo and the Venus of Willendorf, while still creating these torsos with their own distinct disabled female identity, clearly also extant outside the conventions of classical sculpture.  

Laura Splan is not disabled, and this fact compels us to ask: who makes disability art? Is it anyone who critiques the enforcing of normalcy? Is it only disabled people? Disability activists?  Given the history of disabled people being silenced, what is the place of the nondisabled artist in raising issues intimately connected to disability?  Disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson has pointed out the ways in which contemporary disability artists, using the conventions of classical portraiture in creating images of disabled people, create a recognition that inserts disabled people into the public sphere and larger representations of humanity.  We might make Thomson’s arguments about some of the artists in this exhibit:  Fried’s work, for example, cites the Venus de Milo and the Venus of Willendorf, while still creating these torsos with their own distinct identity,  clearly also extant outside the conventions of classical sculpture. 

Because standards of normalcy circumscribe all our bodies, to one degree or another, what are the opportunities for re/forming our own thinking about disability and femaleness, and therefore, by extension, our own embodied experience (whatever that is), that the exhibit affords us? Ultimately, the key power of this exhibit is to reform us, to shift us away from the tyranny of normalcy. Nancy Fried delineates a transformation she experienced relative to her use of disability in her work:

In 1986, when I first made torsos with one breast and a mastectomy scar, I had just had a mastectomy.  My work dealt with having breast cancer, the loss of a breast, the emotions that were part of the process of healing.  Now, the fact that these torsos have only one breast is incidental to the content of the work.  I use myself as the model.  My sculptures will have only one breast, unless I wake up one morning having sprouted a second one.

Fried’s response is not one of evolving denial, or the gradual erasure of the disabled body.  Nor is it resigned acceptance, or an affirmation that clichéd pseudo-compliment that disabled people often hear from others: “I don’t even think of you as disabled!”  Hers is a view of her body that is accepting and evolving, matter-of-fact and aspiring to no other form, old or new.  And her response suggests the power disability offers us, particularly through the imaginations of these women artists.  Disability studies scholar Susan Wendell points out that “Idealizing the body prevents everyone, able-bodied and disabled, from identifying with and loving her/his real body.”   If the re/formations initiated by the women of this exhibit compel us to begin embracing disability, female identity, fragmentation, difference, and imperfection; to begin questioning bodily ideals; and to begin reforming the illusions those ideals have created through deploying our own powerful imaginations, then that will have been the most enabling, invigorating thing of all.

Works Cited

Davis, Lennard.  Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body.  London: Verso, 1995.

Johnson, Harriet McBryde.  Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life.  New York: Picador, 2005.

Lloyd, Ann Wilson.  “Nancy Fried: Beyond the Mend.”  American Ceramics 13:1 (1998): 26-9.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland.  “Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure.”  The Disability

Studies Reader.  Ed. Lennard J. Davis.  New York: Routledge, 1997.  279-92.

Wendell, Susan. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability.”  The Disability Studies Reader.  Ed. Lennard J.

Davis.  New York: Routledge, 1997.  260-278.

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