Have you ever wondered about the effect of the Chinese practice of binding women's feet? Whether it just made them smaller or did something else?
Now you can see it, if you have the stomach for it, by going to "Decoding Gender," an effective if fairly obvious School 33 show that questions gender roles.
Hung Liu is a Chinese-born artist whose "Virgin/Vessel" addresses the traditional role of women in China. The woman of the title sits in front of us with her feet bare, the toes, except for the big toe, curled up under the soles of the feet grotesquely. On the front of her costume is a picture of a ceramic vessel on which are shown a man and woman in sexual union -- suggesting that this woman, too, will play the role of a vessel, a useful household object. Beside the painting, hanging on the wall, is a broom, symbol of the woman's duties.
This indictment of women's traditional place in China is one of the most specific works in the show, curated by Village Voice columnist Robert Atkins, but it's certainly not the only communicative one. Ruth Pettus' "J'Accuse," a big bust-length painting of one of her suited men, looks much more in place in this theme show than it did in the AIDS theme show at Artscape a year and a half ago. Here, the eyeless (read soulless) man with the self-satisfied little smile can stand for man's smug sense of his superior place in the world.
But this isn't simply an anti-male-domination show. It takes on other aspects of gender, too. Peter Walsh's "Factual Slander" quotes women saying horrible things about men -- the kind of things that would certainly be called sexist if aimed in the other direction -- such as Valerie Solonas' statement which ends "maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples."
Steven Evans' three works taken together challenge the traditional image of gays. "Boy's Blouse, 5Combination (1896)" and "Boy's Extra Quality Dark Colored Fancy Shirt Waist (1896)" are (today) feminine-looking pieces of clothing that one could associate with children who might grow up gay. But the photo of a guy in T-shirt and jeans, holding a bottle of beer, with the neon sign "Torso" next to it, is a much more realistic portrayal of a gay man.
This is the most recent of a series of social issue shows to play Baltimore this winter, and, admirable as they are, after a while it begins to sink in that they don't tell us a whole lot we don't already know. We know that gay men don't fit the stereotype of sissies. We know that making women bind their feet to satisfy a male fetish is abominable. We know that women calling men names is as bad as men calling women names. So you won't get many surprises here -- except possibly that male cross-dressers (men who dress as women), the subjects of Mariette Pathy Allen's photographs, are mostly heterosexuals.
But it doesn't hurt to reiterate the points made here, and, as Atkins indicates, reiterating them in the form of art gives them added punch.
"Decoding Gender" runs through March 27 at School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St. Call (410) 396-4641.