HAVE YOU EVER walked into an art gallery and seen what looked like the end of Western civilization hanging from its walls?
By now we Philistines ought to be used to what critics call "the shock of the new." But I'm still disconcerted when I go in some clean, well-lighted place expecting a reasonable facsimile of truth and beauty, and find instead "art" that looks more like the dog's breakfast.
So I was both relieved and delighted last week by the two-woman show put on at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, by graduate students Lana Jackson and Sandra Camomile. The dozen-odd pieces they exhibited for their master's theses were by turns provocative, funny and profound -- and thus completely true and beautiful on the artists' own terms.
It sometimes happens you can learn more about the creative process from so-called "student" work than from what is displayed in more prestigious venues. Ms. Jackson and Ms. Camomile are both mature artists and women with grown children who have returned to school to explore their respective visions shaped by the experiences of a lifetime.
It's not surprising, then, that much of their work is concerned with the roles and identities of women. The artists, who met while enrolled in the graduate-degree program at Maryland Institute, decided to exhibit together after discovering a bond of friendship and creative sisterhood despite differences of race, religion and geographical origin.
Ms. Jackson grew up in Boston in a large African-American family with roots in Northern Virginia. For most of her life she considered herself a painter, while supporting herself as a businesswoman, airline employee and real-estate investor.
She says that it was only after enrolling in the Maryland Institute program two years ago that her focus shifted from paint to fabrics, with which she creates highly individual works, often autobiographical in nature, that reflect her preoccupation with African-American women's experiences and the passage of time.
Metaphor for ideas
Many of Ms. Jackson's works can be described as "conceptual art" in the sense that the medium itself is only a metaphor for the ideas and emotions her pieces seek to convey. Her medium is fabric constructions stained with tinctures derived from metallic rusts.
Because the tinctures she employs are undergoing a gradual process of oxidation, the hues of these creations are continually in a state of slow but inexorable change. For Ms. Jackson, the rusting process symbolizes the passage of time and the accumulation of experiences from which women's wisdom is drawn.
One of her untitled constructions, for example, consists of several dozen little girl's T-shirts of varying sizes stained with rust-colored tinctures and mounted across one wall of the exhibition space. The work both recalls the difficult passage from girlhood to womanhood and evokes the lost innocence of childhood fantasy.
The centerpiece of Ms. Jackson's show was a group of large, stained "prayer bags" arranged around an antique "war dress" decorated with dozens of smaller bags sewn onto its front, back and sides. The prayer bag is a traditional African-American gift that is filled with small pieces of paper bearing Biblical inscriptions or bits of folk wisdom. In addition to these traditional messages, Ms. Jackson's bags also contained letters from relatives, family recipes and other autobiographical documents.
This work does not overtly express a "feminist" agenda, although Ms. Jackson acknowledges that her art is a conscious attempt to explore issues of race and gender relating to her identity as an African-American woman. By contrast, Ms. Camomile's work offers a pointedly political, satirical and often hilarious sendup of conventional notions of femininity.
The title of her exhibit, "Insubordination," gives a hint of Ms. Camomile's irreverent approach. The artist, who says she fled an abusive marriage in a strict Mormon household in Utah before coming to Baltimore, also works with fabric, but takes a quite different tack from Ms. Jackson. Several of her pieces, for example, are fabric constructions sewn from mattress covers and floor mops that have been cut and tailored into the form of corsets -- a garment Ms. Camomile takes as emblematic of the tightly constricted roles within which women as sexual beings are confined.
Ms. Camomile's point seems to be that these unlikely but effective garments seem shocking only because of the materials they are made of, not the use to which they are put. Were they made of silk or some other traditional lingerie material, she implies, we might well find their purpose perfectly acceptable.
The constricting nature of conventional sex roles is satirized even more pointedly in her cunningly executed metal sculpture of a woman's corset, constructed entirely of knives, forks and spoons incongruously welded into the familiar hourglass shape. The unsettling effect of the garment, which resembles a medieval suit of armor, is heightened by a "performance documentation" photograph showing a masked woman, her hair wrapped in a towel, actually wearing the spiky contraption in front of a kitchen stove.
The funniest piece in the exhibit undoubtedly was Ms. Camomile's "performance" art, in which a masked and obviously frustrated "secretary" (portrayed by a model) fussed and fumed behind a paper-strewn desk complete with coffee machine and electric typewriter. Above the "secretary's" head hung a huge papier-mache "ceiling" imprinted on the bottom with impressions of various office machines, and atop the "ceiling" the artist had lined rows of men's dress shoes.
Nothing esoteric here
Ms. Camomile explained the piece as her take on the "typewriter ceiling" that still limits many women's opportunities in the workplace and forces them to compete against other women for the attention of male superiors on the basis of sexual attractiveness or groveling subservience. Periodically, the fed-up "secretary" in Ms. Camomile's piece became "insubordinate" and hurled papers to the floor or smashed fired-clay high-heel slippers into tiny bits in front of her desk.
This may be "conceptual" art, but there is nothing deliberately obscure or esoteric about the way Ms. Camomile and Ms. Jackson express themselves. Viewing such work is at once a challenge and an act of discovery whose rewards are well worth the effort of comprehension. There is a playfulness and joy in these works that belies the often painful experiences they recall. They are honest and truthful, and therefore beautiful on their own terms -- which ultimately is all that really ought to matter.