OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Dania Pettus uses the "principles" of black-and-white photography, assemblage and puppetry to construct the harrowing shadow boxes of Do It Until the Principles Are Burned Into Your Mind, at Edge Gallery. No problem there. Pettus's searing images of disembowelment, dismemberment, piercing and bondage, though they involve anonymous paper-doll puppets, are sizzlingly unforgettable. The artist's courageous self-exposure, from nude photos of herself to intimations of her deepest psychological workings, only add to the heat.

Pettus fills the front gallery at Edge with neat boxes made of wood and other materials, some with glass fronts. These formal frames become miniature stages for the artist's dramatic and surrealistic scenarios. These personal works begin with black-and-white nude photographs, most, presumably, of the artist herself. Added to the black-and-white photos of faces are various body parts and objects, which Pettus enlarges and copies as necessary. (That Pettus goes to the trouble of making original photographs for what are basically collages, rather than taking clips from previously published sources, is particularly gratifying.) These flat figures then are manipulated in various ways: made into paper dolls with jointed limbs like puppets, masked, placed in tiny cages, given wings or burdened with rocks for heads.

The whole show has a handsome, unified look because of the monochromatic color scheme, the similar materials and the scale of the works. Individual pieces challenge the viewer with their dynamism--the diminutive plays-in-progress inside the small boxes mingle shock, revulsion and horror with beauty and workmanship. What might have been feminist rhetoric in another artist's work is replaced here by powerful poetic themes: female identity and the pain of being pulled in several directions at once, the joys of release, the organic prison of the body, the difficulties of relationships. Pettus is not afraid to show the stretch marks, the blood and guts, the shame, the fear--or the triumph--of being a woman. But by playing out these bitter vignettes on a contrived stage, with paper puppets made of photographs, Pettus removes some of the sting of the imagery and brings a wry humor to her work.

The largest and perhaps the most striking piece in the show is "Mom, I Don't Feel Good, Could I Stay Home." A cut-up photo of a nude woman wearing a mask strikes a pose on a white background. The legs and other body parts have been cut out, then stuck back on the torso, turning her into a motionless, puppetlike paper doll and emphasizing the overall sense of disjointedness. The mask is not pretty or decorative but seems to be the skinned remains of someone else's face. Three-dimensional entrails and bones peek out of the flat figure almost seductively, although shockingly at first, then become uncomfortably funny, as the viewer realizes it is all a trick--the guts are actually constructed of stuffed and strictured plastic bags and flexible tubing. The combination of extreme exposure and fearful pretense expressed in the piece is both familiar and horrible to witness.

Less frightening, but ominous in its own way, "The Juggler," a smaller nude female figure, wears Pettus's ubiquitous skin-mask while trying to juggle balls labeled "artist," "mother" and the like, concepts that clearly are too large and complex for the ten-inch-tall woman to handle. For "Pins and Needles," Pettus constructs a spiky frame bristling all over with the objects in the title. This coffin holds a small masked woman curled in a fetal position. In a similar vein, "Bound to Please" takes a paper doll and hangs it, bound and gagged, from the top of its toy stage.

In contrast to these singular figures, many of Pettus's works are as crowded with suffering nudes as a Bosch painting. "I Tried to Suggest Other Points of Interest" presents a topographical map of Colorado as a background to many comically wounded nudes whose paper bodies have been pierced by directional arrows. (Could this possibly refer to the deadly effect on art careers dictated by the state's non-New York location?) "I Am Willing but Unable" is an icon-style triptych with three screaming women wearing those creepy masks, each overwhelmed by dozens of minuscule nudes crowding and pushing each other for dominance within the three boxy sections of the piece.

Though characterized by a splendid solidarity of style and theme, there is amazing variety in Pettus's shadow-box theaters. This show is thought-provoking, rewarding and fun; but be advised that some of the anatomically correct details might offend younger or less tolerant viewers.

Do It Until the Principles Are Burned Into Your Mind, by Dania Pettus, with Remnants, by Susan Goggin, through June 5 at Edge Gallery, 3658 Navajo Street, 477-1994.

 
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