We don't often get to experience the stunned awareness in realizing that what stands (or hangs) before us isn't really what it seems. Recently, for us, it was realizing that what looked like an actual dress stretched out and pinned to the wall was, in fact, a digital photograph --- complete with all the requisite shadows and wrinkles.
It is appropriate that this seemingly tangible dress is the inspiration behind a series of photographs and sculptural objects that comprise Seamingly, a seamless exhibition of seemly new work by Rachel J. Siegel.
Siegel is interested in how to address cultural markers of feminine allure. In this exhibition, she uses a hot-pink 1960s party dress retrieved from a thrift store as her leitmotif. We initially encountered "the dress" in the form of small, hand-drawn, scanned, and inkjet-printed facsimiles ironed on to gauzy curtains that front the entrance to the exhibition. The look and feeling of the space is intimate, private even, as if we've just transgressed the threshold of a lady's boudoir, oh-so-alluringly drawing us into the little gallery space.
Just as we had to reconsider the dress-that-wasn't, viewing the contents of Siegel's exhibition as a whole also encourages us to reconsider a variety of contemporary concerns, ranging from "ideals of feminine beauty" and "the essence of femaleness" to the role of the body and memory in artistic work from a feminist perspective.
As a sculpture, the dress is literally inverted and suspended. Without a body --- specifically, the female body --- the dress isn't a dress anymore but rather a shape with color, texture, and volume. Similarly, the large and seductively beautiful digital print of the dress also challenges our conception of what, exactly, is being represented.
Meanwhile, in a selection of photographic prints, we again see the dress, but this time, a woman's body shapes it. Yet, the woman is not seen as proudly wearing her pretty pink dress but is instead fighting to get out of it, as if it were a straitjacket. This dress doesn't have any armholes; they have been seamed closed.
These photographs are eerily reminiscent of 19th-century medical documentation, especially those photographs used by Jean Martin Charcot to illustrate the physiognomy of hysteria. Interestingly, Charcot, who was one of Sigmund Freud's teachers, also saw himself as an artist.
Just like in art where women are seen more as objects than the subjects, Charcot's images created "scientific" narratives --- narratives that once again subjugated women as "pure" examples of a clinical malady. Siegel's work rewrites, or better yet, writes over these issues and simultaneously exposes the female subject to a judgmental eye.
Charcot's images were meant to give closure or resolution to the narrative of hysteria. The narrative in Siegel's work does not pretend to be science nor is it simply fiction. There is no attempt to give the viewer closure. Rather, questions just pile up on each other.
Her work curves and circles around issues of representation of the female body, femininity, pinkness, or sewing as yet another example of women's work, woman's identity. There is no plot.
The questions weave in and out, never providing the viewer with a useable object or an answer. It is as if her work addresses some place in between the stitch, a place where gender, and social and medical narratives exist in the first place.
Seamingly is on display at The Gallery at the Art & Music Library, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester, River Campus through Thursday, June 17. Hours: Monday, Thursday, and Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. 275-4476 | From June 19 through Monday, July 19, Seamingly, Again will be at the Rochester Contemporary's Satellite site, the Sibley Centre Window, 228 East Main Street, Rochester (across from the Liberty Pole). Visible at all hours.