The Portland Phoenix
September 7 - September 14, 2000 Art Reviews Election figures
Politics at Davidson and Daughters
by Jenna Russell "Tin Ears and Feet of Clay," shows through September 30 at Davidson and Daughters, 148 High Street, Portland, open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Just in time for the serious start of election season, Davidson & Daughters has assembled a two-woman show with lots of substantial and specific political content. Sculptor Kim Wintje names names, and favors major domestic players: George and Al, Monica, Janet, and both Bills -- Gates and Clinton. The work, in washed-out shades of tin and aluminum, hangs on the walls and from the ceiling.
Ceramic storyteller Jane Kaufmann makes softly colored raku figures that sit on clay skyscraper bases, each inscribed with the ironic retelling of a lesson of history. Kaufmann questions popular notions of greatness and success, and manages sophisticated social criticism through visual means that are childlike in their simplicity. It's fitting that both women live in political-minded New Hampshire. Both artists use the human figure, reduced to doll-like proportions, and as a result the viewer relates with relative ease to larger-than-life characters like Van Gogh and Joan of Arc. In Kaufmann's clay pieces, the little people sit like toy brides-and-grooms on their wedding-cake bases. Wintje's medium, "sewn metal," sounds like an oxymoron, but it's an effective, unexpected, junk-yard method of assemblage, scraps, and squares of metal punched with holes and stitched with twists of wire. Each sculpture approximates a simple body or a miniature robot, with utensil limbs and a box-shaped frame for a head. Like an an all-purpose, fill-in-the-blank voodoo doll, the frame becomes a face when Wintje inserts a small,photocopied picture of her chosen candidate. When she pairs up Gore and Bush in a single sculpture, it's to document their "Self Inflicted Wounds." The metal figure crosses its arms out front in self-protection, and attached metal labels are printed with the politicians' avoidable errors. "I Did Bad on Reporter's Pop Quiz," reads one, referencing an early Bush gaffe. "I Invented the Internet," another label says, recalling Gore's self-important misstep. Some of Wintje's match-ups are funny and unexpected, suggesting links between the most unlikely couples, like a weird, intellectual version of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." "Joan and Satan Discuss Hot Seat" is one such work. The idea of a discussion (such a civil interaction!) between the devil and the martyr pushes hard at the limits of our imagining. "The Cutting Edge with Bobbitt and Van Gogh" disregards boundaries of time and place to partner Lorena and Vincent, two quirky characters with a shared penchant for chopping off appendages. The title seems to poke fun at the vernacular of the American media -- it sounds vaguely like a late-night, celebrity-driven, current-events TV chat show. Kaufmann's couples are famous ones typically thought of in pairs. She forces us to reconsider their legends, exposing an alternative reality under the polished glaze of conventional understanding. In "The Story of Ferdinand and Isabella," the crowned king and queen wear gorgeous gowns and hold their oversized hands in their laps. The text on their pedestal notes the Inquisition, the expulsion of Jews from Spain. "It's hard to decide now if these people were good or bad," Kaufmann writes. "We never discriminate against minorities today or take over their lands." Of course we know better. "The Story of Georgia O'Keefe" concludes with a bitterly practical moral: "If you want to have a career in the arts, marry someone who can make you famous." There's a jarring contrast between the eyes-open, sometimes angry realism of the artist's message and the sweet, folksy appeal of the objects themselves. Left unread, the pieces are empty vessels, props abandoned on a darkened stage. Like a political puppet show, the art uses unthreatening images to make its meaning accessible. In a few cases, as if to prove herself capable of contentment, Kaufmann celebrates the simple and domestic. One sculpture thanks her mother for setting a good example, and another describes pushing a baby in a carriage. The child points at "dis" and "dat," passers-by smile indulgently, and the text concludes "I am happy." Wintje makes no similar statement, though her sense of humor never fails her. Her "Women with Balls" salutes fearless grrrl prototypes Frida Kahlo, Josephine, and Juliet; its partner piece, "Lovers of Women with Balls," provides a similar flip-chart of heads of their counterparts, Diego Rivera, Napoleon, and Romeo. One imagines the artist respects and maybe identifies with these women. It's less clear what she makes of Monica Lewinsky, whose giddy face is topped with a tin-man funnel hat in one sculpture, while a spiral of pencil words on her chest spells out her crime, "inappropriate sexual relations." The hat bears a second phrase in metal, "becomes weight loss spokesperson." The intern looks young and foolish, like a dunce or a clown, and the words would make no sense at all in any time but our own. Possibly the piece is simply about the astonishing spectacle of it all, the strange ways of American culture and its inexplicable icons. Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2000 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.