Every picture tells a story, but not every artist sees themselves as a storyteller. Two women artists who fully embrace their role of teller of tales are on view in Pioneer Square this month, and for KUOW art reviewer Gary Faigin, the vast difference between their two approaches is a story in itself.
Refined vs. grotesque, cerebral vs. visceral, subtle vs. in-your-face; the contrasts between the spare needlework portraits of Diem Chau and the rude lowlife dioramas of Jessica Geiger couldn’t be more striking. In fact, it’s a bit of stretch to say that the two exhibitions have anything in common other than the fact that both artists are local women doing pictures of people. But they do share at least one other common link, and it’s an important one. Both artists choose to exclusively portray the members of the specialized community with whom they identify, and both choose to heighten – or exaggerate - the traits that in their eyes make those communities unique.
Chau uses her immediate family as her subject matter, drawing on recollections, stories, and old photographs to reconstruct the Asian and immigrant world of her past. Geiger, on the other hand, has spent the past 20-odd years crafting doll-sized, clay and fabric portrayals of marginalized Americans, unsparing glimpses of the unhappy misfits who fill the bottom rung of the economic and social ladder. Her own personal history as a self-identified outsider, based on her struggles with major physical disabilities, seems to be the motivation for her choice of characters, but her precise attitude towards her creations is a bit tough to pin down.
The literary ancestor of this gallery of grotesques is Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, whose character succeeds as an artistic creation because he excites both our aversion (Victor Hugo describes his disfigurement in great detail) and our sympathy. It’s clear that Geiger too wants her character’s inner humanity to peak through their skuzzy outer shell, and to the extent she succeeds, her work transcends its shock value and sideshow fascination.
Take the life-sized figure, "Lucy and the Beautiful Dream," for example. Geiger’s Lucy is a haggard, buck-toothed, middle-aged woman looking up momentarily from the pages of a (real) romance novel, with an expression of pained awareness animating her ravaged face. There’s nothing subtle about the contrast between her longed for future – (“Season of Love: After losing one man, I was ready to try again” reads the magazine next to her) – and her ragged present. She has put on lipstick and painted her nails, but she’s also wearing slippers, pajamas, a robe and an overcoat and it’s clear she’s isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. A cigarette dangles from her oversized hands, pills, sweets, and lottery cards are scattered alongside. But it’s those gigantic, gesturing hands and that haunted face that makes this piece work, connecting us to the mortally-wounded creature underneath all that debris.
Compassion is more difficult to conjure up facing more one-dimensional works like the seriously drooling Down’s Syndrome "Joey," or "Road Killer," a brainless chattering driver who has just run over a bloodied dog. Does Geiger just want us to notice these people, or does she also want us to care about them?
The work of Diem Chau is the Bird’s Nest Soup to Jessica Geiger’s Pickled Pig’s Feet, an exhibition which relies on restraint, metaphor, and craft for its impact, and is as Eastern in its sensibility as Geiger is connected to the motley spirit of the Wild West. Having already explored the theme of cultural inheritance with painting and sculpture (a well-received grouping of tiny portraits carved out of Crayola crayons), Chau here switches media entirely, using thread and needle as drawing tools, creating a gallery of linear portraits with several layers of implied meaning.
The terms “layer” is quite appropriate for Chau’s approach, since her presentation allows her to utilize several levels of physical space. In her works, 52 pieces of white porcelain dishware are carefully mounted on the gallery wall, including cups, saucers, bowls, and plates. The dishes refer to the family meals where tales were repeated and shared. Stretched across each dish is piece of nearly-transparent silk organza, and stitched into each piece of fabric are black thread portraits of (I assume) various family members, most seen posing as if for a photo, alone or in small groups. The faces are generalized, at times entirely absent, and thus few vivid personalities emerge. Clearly individuals and their particularities are not the focus here (once again, the polar opposite of Geiger), but communication, transition, and memory decidedly are.
In one portrait, for example, two women sit side by side, visible from the elbows down. A shapeless tangle of red thread is gathered beneath the portrait’s surface, collecting in one side of the dish, representing the inchoate, collective past before it is turned into language and lore. The thread emerges from the hand of one of the figures, becomes a braided chain that links to the other figure’s hand, and then descends as a single thread to droop down the wall, dangling below the piece. Gold thread is the only other color note, used for the embroidery on one woman’s slacks and the other woman’s shoes.
This tiny vignette rather elegantly suggests the nature of cultural transmission, the way the tale is altered in the telling, and the nature of such tales, which are remain in play for further alterations. Appropriately, silk is both permeable and protective, like the boundary between past and present; silk is also closely associated with Chau’s countries of origin.
The black outline is occasionally left unfinished to suggest the intervention of death, distance, or deception. I’m less enamored of the way red threads emerge from people’s mouths and flutter down the wall, symbolizing the act of oral transmission itself, but reminding me of some of the bodily fluids less salubriously dribbling from people’s mouths in Geiger’s Rogue’s Gallery down the street.
The most striking work in the show is a wall-sized installation entitled Between the Lines. Simple in concept, it’s quietly powerful in effect. Geiger has taken her “metaphorical “ red thread and suspended it in a series of parallel strands just in front of the gallery wall. Each thread – and there are dozens – has been laboriously decorated with knots and loops in a seemingly random pattern, which the accompanying text explains is not random at all, but various stories, songs, and folklore expressed in Morse Code – knots for dots, loops for dashes. I seriously doubt if many visitors will bother making the translation, but that’s not the point. The artist has created a seriously cool abstraction, reminiscent of a garden trellis, Chinese calligraphy or musical notation, with the goal of enshrining the act of storytelling itself, imagining the preservation of socially-significant information as a thing of intrinsic beauty and value.
Geiger and Chau employ wildly different means to an end that’s ultimately not that different: a desire to understand their own place in the world, and to thus help us understand ours. We, too, cherish impossible dreams, excrete bodily fluids, and weave a fragile self-identity out of the various intermingling threads of our remembered past and ever-evolving present.