Mirror Image: Women Portraying Women
N.C. Museum of Art
Through Nov. 27

The documentary impulse is always present in representational art. Sometimes this impulse limits an artist’s expressive range as she resists abstraction in favor of pictorial clarity. This is not the case, however, throughout Mirror Image: Women Portraying Women, a conceptually powerful group exhibition at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art.

Thirteen womenincluding area artists Stacy Lynn Waddell, Rebecca Fagg, Emily Scott Beck, Mary Shannon Johnstone, Roxana Pérez-Méndez and elin o’Hara slavicktake an unblinking look at issues around femininity, depicting women through lenses of race, marriage, family and childhood.

The show features a wealth of challenging photography in the North Carolina Gallery of the East Building. Two artists use the medium to capture startling images concerning marriage, the most captivating of which is Rosemary Laing’s “flight research #5” (1999). In this large landscaped image, a skydiving bride is poised groomless in free fall, thousands of feet above a barren, mountainous landscape. She stares out sternly, lips slightly apart, legs folded beneath her, arms straight out from her sides. Despite her high-altitude predicament, her expression is hard to read, an impatient but casual “what do you want from me?” There are no signs of a parachute. It’s as if she is ascending, not descending.

Two photographs from Mary Shannon Johnstone’s Silent Home series (2003–2004) depict difficult moments after her parents’ separation. In “Bruised Mornings,” a young woman is curled in bed, staring into space in total, self-erasing preoccupation. In “Sad Christmas,” an older woman has succumbed to disconsolate weeping. Her face is buried in her hands. The glint off a ring on her right hand makes a marital smear across her blurred image.

Johnstone’s images of isolation are uncomfortable to look at, showing the kinds of emotions one gives over to only in solitude. A viewer must determine how close to or distant from them he or she needs to be, dealing with the pull of sympathy and the push of leaving people to their personal business. Laing’s image is also one of isolation, but there’s neither introspection nor panic, only defiant, defensive strength.

Margaret Sartor’s trio of black-and-white photographs of girls ostensibly at play provides an interesting counterpoint by critiquing formative moments in suburban female identity. Sartor’s girls are Laing’s and Johnstone’s brides in training. A preschooler poses on a porch in “Katherine in the Playhouse, Monroe, Louisiana” (1989). Seen from below, Katherine hunches slightly in front of the house that she’s already outgrowing, her head touching the underside of the porch ceiling as she stares down with a dour, bored expression. In “Morgan in the Driveway, Monroe, Louisiana” (1993), another 4-year-old stands in her bathing suit, hands together in a diver’s pose, in less than an inch of water on the concrete. An older bather bobs in a swimming pool in “Emily at Gulf Shores, Alabama” (1987), holding the pool edge, her underwater body an abbreviated blur. Mundane danger emanates from each imageKatherine’s implied jump, Morgan’s dive into concrete, the nothingness of lit pool water behind Emilyrevealing the imaginative personae of the homemaker and the bathing beauty as training to play pre-determined, suburban feminine parts later. But these almost expressionless girls show some measure of awareness, implying that they have as much of a chance to resist as they do to succumb.

Rebecca Fagg’s virtuosic oil painting “Lila” (2007) also shows a pensive young woman, and like Sartor her photorealistic style earnestly refuses the surreal. Lila glows in bright, low-angle sunlight, in seated profile. Her tight shirt is stretched across her frame, its elasticity shown in sharp shadow. Her hair is swiftly pulled into a ponytail, several escaped strands beneath it blasted white with the light. This is a painterly study in light, but so wonderfully executed that it feeds back upon the subject, making Lila glorious, luminous, and imminent. She’s not simply sitting in late-afternoon or morning light. The light makes us ask what Lila is thinking and what she’s about to do, while offering no big answer.

The show also includes two of elin o’Hara slavick’s photographs of women in their workplaces, with their eyes shut in contemplation. In “Shedelia Woddard, Mary Lane, Flo Ferrell, Glendia Ratcliff, Cooks, Epic Buffet, Hollywood Casino, Shreveport, LA” (2001), four women on break sit shoulder-to-shoulder, their aprons flecked with spaghetti sauce or au jus. They could be asleep, in prayer, mid-wishpointedly in an internal moment that we can’t see. In “Matilde Llambi, Venice Biennale Gallery Attendant cleaning Fred Wilson’s installation, Italy” (2003), Llambi is captured kneeling on checkerboard tile in a subordinate momentcleaning a man’s artwork in an image that echoes Muybridge’s misogynistic movement studies. But her slight smile shows that she’s full of agency, transcending the grim fate of Sartor’s girls. Slavick’s women are not their appearances, jobs, clothes, or tasks. Their identities are impermeable and unknowable, despite the roles they play.

Stacy Lynn Waddell’s gigantic triptych, “The Amazing Adventures of Tar Baby Mama” (2010), hangs at the center of the exhibition. Comprising panels of singed and burned paper and other mixed media, its images initially appear fantastic, but don’t be lulled into that reading by its monochromatic sepia tone. Waddell has crafted a circuit of images that hums with the fantastic reality of history, powered by currents of racial oppression and adaptation. Her rendering of the images through both brushstroke and heat fundamentally grounds the work in feminine identity. The images are not merely placed on a surface but burned through that surface, implying branded skin. Reading the image from left to right, the first panel is topped by a distant tropical island and bird of paradise. At its bottom, a miniature slave ship follows a posed African dancer’s gesture up a watermarked cone that tapers into the middle panel, which the central tar baby mama character dominates. She looks out at the viewer with a Louis Armstrong smile, both entertaining and taunting, and sits upon a clipper ship docked at her high-heeled shoe. Sepia drip lines descend from the darker parts of her body to form the masts of the ship. In an elaborate feathered and flowered headdress, she holds a goose. The watermark cone that contains the tiny ship and dancer turns out to emanate from a tiny wand sticking out of the mama’s rear end. In the final panel, a doll-like, nappy head tops a distended tropical tree, the warped result of taking root in new American soil. Birds sit in the tree, and a pair of lovebird swans touch heads in Hallmark-card profile at its base.

The magic spell cast from the mama’s backside wand contains her African past and implicates the New World economy that wrested her from it. The horizon line from the tropical island comes across the top of all three panels, winding around the mama’s headdress before looping around the trunk of the tree in the right panel.

By connecting isolated pictorial elements with these wiry filaments, Waddell shows the tar baby mama’s subversive system of exchange, inserted against her will into the new territory’s identity, but also corrupting the oppressor’s identity through her own cultural contribution. The web-like lines also refer back through the Uncle Remus stories to the tale’s Ghanaian origins in fables about the trickster hero Anansi the spider, revealing a transformation of narrative comparable to that of a slave’s humanity.

The most technologically fascinating piece in the exhibition is Roxana Pérez-Méndez’s alcove installation “Caridad” (2009), which combines sculpture and video in a Pepper’s ghost illusion that dates back to 19th-century theater. The illusion uses a sheet of glass to reflect a video loop of a young woman rowing and bailing water, superimposing it upon a miniature dinghy model complete with fan-blown blue plastic waves to achieve a similar yet staged effect. Nothing’s hidden. The piece is contained within an open box frame, revealing its artifice. Caridad is a Latino Caribbean saint whose statue would appear to fishermen in troubled waters, showing them the way to safety. Tirelessly rowing, Pérez-Méndez’s woman conflates the sailors with the saint: she is saving herself. But the illusory nature of her image flatly presents itself as metaphor at best. One has to walk away from this work and still deal with her own life.

The work in Mirror Image gazes back as intently as one gazes upon it, with a collective intelligence multiplied by the variety of artists nearby. Rather than giving a simple reflection, the show is a house of mirrors that reminds us there are as many different readings of femininity as there are women.