How Can You Do This to Me, Babe?!

Some good, some lousy art by women who loved men who beat the hell out of women

Photo by Jack GouldIt is so not okay to rag on survivors of domestic abuse. So when reviewing an exhibit of art produced by women in shelters—such as "Windows Into Our Future" at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery—it is important to tiptoe around the issue of the art itself.

I understand perfectly well why exhibition organizers chose to showcase works made during art therapy: it calls attention to the issue, which has languished recently (along with the fortunes of the Nicole Brown Simpson Foundation), and it gives the artists an opportunity to bolster their self-esteem and feelings of power.

So it embarrasses me to have to report that most of the works in "Windows Into Our Future" border on the unseeable. I mean like you might wish you were blind and a participant in an art therapy class for the visually impaired. But in this day of feel-goodism, that isn't the point at all —and oddly enough, I'm not saying that to be snotty.

The smallish gallery is packed with tiny pictures—most of which are collages —all in the same 4-inch format. They're supposed to represent windows, of course. It doesn't take long to browse through them, as numerous as they are, because most say the same thing. For such a volatile subject, there is no drama and even less tension. Just predictability. They are reiterations of the lessons their creators learned in self-esteem class, crowded with mantras clipped from magazines, like "Hope" and "Courage" and "I am a human being worthy of respect." They're good mantras, but they seem to say more about the buzzwords that have just been fed these women than any truly personal insights. Few explore or deal with the abuse that was heaped upon them; most simply bury their heads and turn into Stuart Smalleys. This is probably really good therapy, and I don't mean to denigrate it. But therapy art by schizophrenics, with its tensions and striving for happiness while at the same time living under dark, dark clouds, is a lot more arresting.

That's the worst part of the exhibit, and I'm loath to say it and look like a perfect asshole. A picture doesn't have to look like shit. "Naive" and "outsider" art garners a lot of respect these days; it simply seems elitist not to accord it merit and dignity. The problem with the works at Chapman is they don't even seem to rank as naive art—works by unschooled artists that are nonetheless vivid and often engaging. Instead, they feel labored and at the same time, somehow, dashed-off. They are just another assignment to be completed, a step on the road toward complete personhood.

But there are pleasures here, mostly simple washes of color that are heartening and happy. At least they're not collages. Untitled by Anonymous (there's a lot of that here) is a Haringesque series of rainbow squiggles; figures seem to dance, or perhaps they're cells undergoing mitosis. Patty K. Badgett's Raggedy Man is a linty, beaten envelope crushed beyond recognition, as though it had gone through the rinse cycle in someone's jeans pocket. The paper forms a sloppy little man mounted on a brown grocery sack, and it's the only good beaten-paper work I have ever seen. It's also the only piece in the exhibit that deals at all with the men left behind.

Some works are very pretty, like Theresa Tolan's Receiving and Giving Love and Respect—Being Open to Peace and Harmony. To make up for its unwieldy title (so like Fiona Apple's latest album), the piece itself is a vision of simplicity. A deep wash of blue, like Joe Goode's ocean series at the Orange County Museum of Art two years ago, morphs into violet and hot pink that evoke nothing so much as hot tropical sex. A barely there Christ figure—just a few dashed lines —holds out his crucified palms in welcome and forgiveness.

Janice DeLoof, who's active on the local art scene and in various art clubs, offers a Japanese Minimalist Sun Rays on a field of pearly lipstick pink. A red sun shines forth, a few thick blades of grass rising up to meet it.

Suvan Geer is here, too; she sits on the board of A Window Between Worlds, the umbrella organization. When I saw her last, she was drowning in Conceptual vats of steel and electrical cords; here, she's femmed it up, using pretty, girly colors that at the same time aren't at all vomitous.

A small annex holds larger-than-life portraits by Cathy Salser. These are the best part of the exhibit, both for their immodest size and the women's voices. Here, rather than parrot quotations of self-esteem, lengthy captions quote the subjects talking about the men who beat them and how they finally left. It's the exhibit's sole source of urgency. One, a pleasant-faced, beautifully groomed and made-up fat woman, remembers the night she had her husband arrested. The cops are there for the hundredth time; her nose is busted and her tooth knocked out. Blood covers her face. She tells her husband she's pressing charges, and he asks, astonished, "How can you do this to me, babe?"

In today's pluralist, Warholian society, talent isn't as important as the sense that every voice, no matter how goopy, matters. If women who've just had the shit beaten out of them by their wonderful husbands feel as though they're making art, then they're making art. And according to today's Conceptualists, the aesthetic of a piece doesn't matter at all, anyway—the message does. As far as messages go, "I am a worthy human being deserving of love and respect" is right up there—though it would be a lot more convincing if it didn't seem so rote, as if the women in question hadn't deprogrammed from one brainwashing mode straight to another.

"Windows Into Our Future" at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange, (310) 396-0317. Open Thurs.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. Through Jan. 30. Free.
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