WOMEN'S RITES

The Fourth has come and gone, but the spirit of independence is amply demonstrated in three sparkling new art exhibitions by and about women.

At Edge Gallery, solo shows by artists Cara Jaye and Gail Wagner each explore the idea of "a woman's place" with revolutionary zest. Across town, photographer Joan Roth's Jewish Women: A World of Tradition and Change fills the Mizel Musem of Judaica with an internationally flavored panorama of feminine experience. While depicting various common bonds that unite all women, these works also illustrate important cultural and societal distinctions.

In Object of Home, Cara Jaye expands on the comparison between a home and a nest with a clanking behemoth that satirizes banal domesticity, waste and the slavery of consumerism. Jaye has constructed a human-scaled nest in much the same way that birds build theirs: by fastening together loose bits and pieces of usable scrap. Around a hidden armature, Jaye affixes her materials--bamboo curtains, garden hoses, vacuum cleaners, clock radios, electric mixers, table fans, televisions, typewriters, picture frames, toasters, telephones, coffeemakers, wire baskets, boom boxes, conduit, foam rubber, lamps and more. Certain appliances are rigged up to operate--radios intermittently blast out noise, alarms buzz, fans spin and whir.

The complete bowl-like assemblage resembles a slightly organized trash heap, massive and absurd. Viewers may wonder how this remarkable sculpture was made, then laugh at the kinetic features--but the multiple metaphors woven into it soon become apparent. Though similar in form to a real nest, anyone trying to bed down in this one would find it hard, bumpy and irritatingly noisy (ah, life). And the monumental network of stuff--once treasured and useful, now little more than landfill--is a shocking indictment of the overspending and frivolousness that seem to dominate America's thoughts, time and pocketbooks.

Although women are often seen as "keepers of the nest" in our culture, Object of Home seems to imply that the home/nest is actually inhospitable to them--that plastic, metal and wire dominate here, and that women are dwarfed by their material possessions. Accompanying photos--of suburban tract houses and bare, windy lawns--amplify Jaye's cold conclusions.

Gail Wagner's work offers another view of domestic abundance but with subtler, less critical feminist implications. In direct opposition to Jaye's hectic whirlwind of junk, Wagner's major piece at Edge, Contemplation of Order, sets out to obsessively organize and isolate the seemingly endless stream of physical objects that fill our lives with chaotic meaning. By carefully mounting and placing together unrelated objects of similar size--some from nature, some associated with "women's work"--an illusion of order is summoned. Occupying 180 square feet of wall space, this excessive but neat display of placemats, smooth stones, doilies, seeds, feathers, handmade paper rectangles, bundles of dried flowers, potholders, etc., creates a poetic link between nature and women. Though each object has its own beauty, the overall piece has a sentimental appeal.

After the overabundance so effectively portrayed in these two exhibits, Joan Roth's emotional black-and-white photographs serve as a stark reality check. Her arresting portraits, collected between 1983 and 1993, show Jewish women around the world imprisoned by deprivation, ancient traditions and the disruption of war (rather than by the weight of consumer products). Photographed in Yemen, India, Eastern Europe, Uzbekistan, New York and elsewhere, Roth's women, though burdened with children and struggling against misogyny, anti-Semitism, old age, blindness, poverty and disease, still find heartbreaking dignity--even joy--in the midst of darkness. Their bewildering diversity and exotic beauty provide a brilliant, if somber, counterpoint to the complacency of middle-class life in America.

Object of Home, by Cara Jaye, and Unnatural Orders, by Gail Wagner, through July 17 at Edge Gallery, 3658 Navajo 477-7173.

Jewish Women: A World of Tradition and Change, by Joan Roth, through August 28 at the Mizel Museum of Judaica, 560 South Monaco Parkway, 333-4156.

 
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