Fear Factor

by Ellen RoseMore womyn artists this week—and still no Pap smears or stirrups! Could we be moving beyond identity art? Is that soooo 1980s?

There's still a feminine lilt to “When Women Dream,” of course. Hell, it's got “women” right there in the title. And it has thoughtfully clumped six disparate members of the second sex into one show right in time for Women's History Month!

“When Women Dream,” aside from the Oprah-ish title, is a fine exhibit totally lacking in petulance, bitchiness, moodiness, and any and all other indicators of PMS. Pardon me: that's PMDD. And that's a problem. (I know. What isn't?) If an entire show is predicated on the fact that the artists are lacking Y chromosomes, why isn't there identity politics? Why isn't feminism/inity an issue? If these chicks are just being regular old artists doing very fine work, why relegate them to the fem-show ghetto? Why am I so picky all the time? A near-constant state of PMS, that's why. And I'm not ashamed to say so.

“But this is a show about women's dreams,” you're saying. “You are being so unfair,” you're thinking. “The subconscious bindings, the different goals and even cultures, don't have to be stated aloud. They're interior and intimated rather than set down in a textual laundry list that would be not dreamlike but the most tired kind of political harangue.” You continue, “The show is not titled 'Oh, How Hard It Is to Be Women in America' or 'Watch Us Be Oppressed.' It doesn't purport to address political ills or travails; it's personal—and optimistic—from the get-go and says so upfront.”

You think you're so smart, but once again, you're wrong. The title's just a pleasant, generic catch-all. Only two artists herein actually show anything like interior dreamscapes—Deborah Davidson paints peopleless, arid vistas; Roxene Rockwell collages juicy fantasy lands. The other three just keep on doing their very fine thing.

Of the artists here, Ellen Rose comes closest to tapping into universal experience—childhood, time, aging and an unbroken line back to the beginning of the world—with distinctly undreamlike paintings copying ancient photos of her great grand-uncles and -aunts as children. In each, they sat for the camera with the loopy family dog (Rose is terrific at capturing the slobbery, sweet idiocy of family pets), who generally shows more personality than the glumly posed adults-in-miniature. Of her Ancestor Series, Great Uncle Alvin and a Sly Dog is the most infectious. Uncle Alvin looks very like a Maurice Sendak hero, befuddled and upset, with the plump, healthy face of a Campbell's Soup Kid, while the sly dog is clearly the smarter of the two. In the cartoon, he would speak with a British accent. The photos Rose copied are deteriorating, and the passage of time is illustrated in her crumbling, featureless faces, melted smooth as Cabbage Patch Kids or burn victims.

Jennifer Celio's graphite drawings are wonderful: the crumpled tin of car wrecks, an empty swimming pool, a shack in the desert, each minutely detailed object. In each, there is no background or landscape, just white space stretching forever from the painting's sole element. They're not so much lonely places—even the dilapidated shack, empty but for the smooth graffiti on its face—as they are magical ones, set down like Dorothy's house in the middle of a strange, luminous void.

Roxene Rockwell's Squash and Oranges are bright, storybook collages. Squash has a giant squash plopped down in the middle of a verdant mountain pass, blocking a highway. It looks exactly like the winding highway that Christo blocked with giant red curtains. Oranges and Apple Grove show Candyland type marvels of un-nature, the kind where giant caramel apples sprout from the ground and oranges big as trees peel themselves into lush sections.

Peg Brady's small sculptures are scattered throughout the pretty gallery; the best of these is The Spark, which rests atop a gross rat's nest of human hair. A woman fashioned of rusty wire and the mesh from a colander rises up from the matted fur. Her belly is distended in pregnancy, her spine long and elegantly curved, and her face holds the huge, hollowed sockets of an alien skull.

Deborah Davidson's oils are dreamscapes—they're very like the moody, ocher expanses visible in every show at Diane Nelson Fine Art—but they're saddled with saccharine titles. Shielded In Grace has the Virgin's arms sticking out of a trompe l'oeil slat in the sky above a mauve landscape. Parents features blue, murky skies over a vista bare but for dual cypress trees. Suspended from the sky is a crib mobile with two airplanes. The most whimsical is Across the Wilderness From Me to You; rowboats line up in the sky over the shore like a Terry Gilliam fantasy.

Are women's dreams different from men's? Joan Armatrading imagined at length what boys dream in the aptly titled song, “What Do the Boys Dream?” Her early '80s answer had a lot to do with killing space monsters and stuff, and I totally don't dream about killing space monsters. My mother used to dream that a carnival ride had broken free and flung us all into the sky, and she was trying to hold us safely in the seat. But how could she? I dream frequently that I'm trying to lift my son out of a deep pool, but instead of allowing him to break the surface, my arms aren't long enough, and I'm keeping him trapped under the dark water. These are probably the typical dreams of women, expressions of a near-universal fear that has nothing to do with being oppressed, but rather that we might be oppressing our children, failing them in individual and horrible ways. It would have been nice to see some fear and loathing in other women's dreams as well.

“When Women Dream” at the Square Blue Gallery, 355 Old Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 548-1101. Open Thurs.-Sun., noon-6 p.m. Through March 9.

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