Are we influenced by life as portrayed through imagery? How does artwork move us from an older/historical perspective into a contemporary/newer perspective? I explored these questions while wandering through three exhibitions at PMA, those of Harriete Estel Berman, M. Louise Stanley, and John McNamara.
American culture of the 1950s revolved around a concept of “woman” that was vastly influenced by the commercial media of that era. Men coming home from WWII and the Korean War didn’t want Rosie the Riveter waiting for them at home. They wanted an idealized woman who was talented in comfort, sexuality, and homemaking. The media world took hold of this need and saturated the market with images of happy, hour-glass figured, homemaker wives. Everywhere a woman looked -- including TV shows, magazines, books and tin containers -- she saw an exciting and beautiful ideal of how to become the perfectly generous home companion.
Harriete Estel Berman (Arabella’s Gallery), takes a wry look back on this era. Berman collected many tin objects that had the 50’s perfect female-oriented images printed on their surfaces. As a conceptual artist, she meticulously cut apart tin cans to create collages that push/play with the observer’s programmed concepts of femininity.
Harriete Estel Berman: Nice and Easy, Even If Your Marriage Doesn't Last, Your Color Will (Clairol Ad)
Looking at these collages today I think back about how the 50’s era imagery affected my own life. My parents fell for the 50’s Male-as-wage-earning-Female-as-housemaker relationship hook, line, and sinker. It was a successful arrangement for their personalities and they did a valiant job of trying to instill the same values in their three daughters. As I grew up I began to sense that this “ideal” behavior did not feel right to me.
Berman's Identity Complex Mirror (Note: blue center is reflection of the room)
In my early 20’s I began to break free. Looking at Berman’s work today I now wonder: why was I able to escape? Have I, truthfully? Can a person honestly separate him/herself from the media-charged past and fully realize the free-thinking female experience of today? Walking next door to the show in Decker A Gallery, I got a hint of an answer.
I had first viewed M. Louise Stanley’s humorous paintings in the early 1980’s, when I was freshly graduated from a male-dominated art department at UC Davis. Back then East Coast abstraction had pushed representational painting out of fashion. Disgruntled California figurative artists were looking under Berkeley boulders and down country farmways for an alternative that could breath energetic life back into the art world. Enter the humor of California Funk (Robert Arneson, Joan Brown, Roy de Forest), and M. Louise Stanley with her personal twist on art history and mythology.
I still remember my first sightings of Stanley’s redheaded firecracker version of “woman,” with her iconic red and white striped shirt and green snug pants. Yes, she was sexy, but she stood up and defied convention. She got into trouble. She fell apart in the most endearingly instructive ways. If you must die from a dozen shards of flying glass, you might as well do it face up and draped elegantly over a pile of debris.
M. Louise Stanley: Self Portrait in the Year 2072 (after Ensor)
In fact, it bodes well for soulful transitions to always keep one’s bedroom in ship shape, with creativity tools at the ready within arm’s reach. One never knows when the winds of Father Time will come blowing through the door, as seen above.
I was lucky enough to buy a small hand-painted intaglio print from the artist. “The Mystic Muse” shows a nude (naked?) redhead dancing up a hot storm while balanced on a toy top that is twirling around what might be a roulette wheel in the middle of a cemetery, surrounded by five theatrical dudes looking on in mesmerized interest. The boobs on that girl are flying high as she blisses out within her own marvelously creative spirit. And why not, I thought as I looked on. This is what it truly feels like to be a free woman, society be damned! Within the blink of an eye this wild woman on twirling top was adopted as my role model. Forget the established rules put up by a male dominated world. Do not hold back when it comes to your own version of femininity and creative spirit. If this feisty artist could speak her truth, so could I.
Referring back to Berman and the question of how I’d escaped the 50’s, I now had a part of an answer: Louise Stanley’s early artwork had definitely influenced my concept of the female self. I was not a duplicate of my mother and father’s era, and I didn’t assume my female peers would be, either.
Stanley’s collection of art at PMA (Decker A Gallery), “Consulting the Oracle,” feels as pointed now as her shows were in the earliest years when I first saw her work. If there’s a dark truth to be told it can be outed by Stanley with aplomb. One painting in the show admits that yes, flapping around in an art museum in lady sandals may cause blisters and hurt, but seriously, aren’t these wounds a badge of courage? Another explores the ritual of religiously changing a baby’s diaper. “Just-Us Served” 2008, pokes a dark finger at our judicial system while ten years later in 2018 the “just-us served” phrase is directed towards the financial system in “Bad Bankers.”
M. Louise Stanley: Comeuppance
Next door, in his exhibition “Time Machines,” John McNamara (Decker B Gallery) jumps right into this question as it relates to both genders and civilization at large. By using collage as his base, he is able to juxtapose painted images next to and on top of others in a mutating, structurally abstract fashion that feels curiously like the craziness of today’s rapidly shifting world.
John McNamara: Cycle
Gone is the sense of static, photo-realistic, ritualistic life that plays out sequentially in any expected fashion. Time appears to be fragmented and fractured, falling apart and then tied together again in ever shifting patterns of creative process. Is this the past? Is this the future? What used to be considered established truth appears to be morphing even as we view the canvases. Might McNamara be saying that we have no choice but to change our established sense of self because if we don’t, the world around us will force us to anyway?
One of McNamara’s paintings shows Mohammed Ali fighting in the ring. Ali was one of my childhood heroes. I am wondering now, what would I have thought in the 70’s if I’d seen then the time warped image of the punch, seen here as a green mass with a face in the middle of it, detached from its full-bodied figure (with a duplicate head in the right spot on his shoulders) of the fighter on the right. Two heads for one figure. Before the punch, or after? Both at once? McNamara recently retired from teaching at UC Berkeley. I can imagine that many a student has been influenced by his creative, and surprisingly resonating, view of today’s reality.
With McNamara's Deep, above, I look at the intense play of light and dark as well as the flying shard aspect to the fragmented forms. I wonder if the painter is merging the past and the present together with a tunneling affect. Are we the future?
Actually, all three of these artists have teaching personalities, both on canvas and in verbal communication. The number of artists and lay persons who have been educated or influenced in some way by their unique perspectives must be astounding in numbers, with the trickledown effect shifting the courses of many young lives. Art has always been about leading community forward in a creative fashion. It is true that Big Media chooses to manipulate perceptions of reality to fit certain social/political needs, but the equally mighty philosophical artist comes along as soulful counterbalance. Speaking for the people through creative imagery is powerful food. We need this nourishment and every gallery or art museum that presents work of this type is a gift for society.
Many thanks go out to Belinda Chlouber for curating the Harriete Estel Berman exhibition, and DeWitt Cheng for curating both the M. Louise Stanley and John McNamara shows.
"PMA Heartbeat" contains the personal observations of the artist in Studio 26, and not necessarily those of PMA as a whole.