Full of snowy paper and sleek framing, Female Problems, a new show of mixed-media photo-based art at Emmanuel Gallery, seems as crisp, white and sterile as a hospital operating room. On closer examination, however, the pristine mood is shattered by revelation after revelation of painful experiences involving the vulnerable female body. Four artists delve into past medical experiences (many their own) to gain insight into the way certain "female problems" have affected their lives. All four turn their horror and loss into the stuff of fine art.

Karen Hymer-Thompson documents her frustration with her own apparent infertility in a series of dark-aspected photos. Catherine Angel compiles a surreal photo-diary of a bout with ovarian cancer. Lynne Brown's sculptural pieces combine found text from old medical textbooks, photographs and see-through Mylar for a veiled look at medical practice and stereotyping. And Leslee Broersma's computer-generated visions of childhood surgeries and sex-ed class amuse and hurt at the same time.

Among all the sanitary brightness, Hymer-Thompson's "Fertility Series," with its magical silver-print Sabatier technique of photo-printing (all black with silver highlights) stands out for its detail within darkness. Inside the photoprints, mysterious double exposures of ethereal female forms appear, overlaid with ghostly copies of engraved illustrations and diagrams from antique science books. In another piece, Hymer-Thompson chronicles her attempts to conceive surgically: "Infertility Series" groups together a wide range of images, from copies of ultrasound tests to graphic shots of a nude woman showing off her abdominal sutures. With each, a bit of handwritten diarylike text reveals the artist's distress. Taken as a unit, these dreamy, surreal photos are both confrontational and abject.

Less direct in her approach to medical confession, Catherine Angel uses metaphor and mood in her small paper altars to the body and its mortality. Angel's untitled photo-collages assemble pieces of black paper and bits of snapshots torn from old photo books into a worn and smudgy whole. Upon this tattered background, the artist places larger photos--of clasped hands, windblown women, fragile roses and so on--as centerpieces, then highlights them with wisps of metallic gold and silver. Accompanied by text drawn from old science textbooks as well as the artist's own medical records and journals about her cancer, these monuments to memory and impermanence are haunting and complex.

Continuing the interrelationship between text and photos, Lynne Brown's "Disease" forces us to view photographic portraits through translucent overlays and the images printed on them. A number of wooden clamps are mounted on the wall, each holding together a sheaf of paper-and-Mylar pages resembling a hospital patient's medical chart. One sheet contains a facial portrait, one a medical illustration, one the quaint and chauvinistic text from medical books describing a disease or condition (most of the excerpts are unintentionally funny descriptions of treatment for such diseases as "female hysteria"). The face of a real person appears dimly through each veil of text and diagrams.

Finally, Leslee Broersma appeals to the anxious patient in all of us with her computer-assisted artworks. "Medical Series" includes petite sculptures made from laboratory glass, but these merely enhance the major element, a series of mixed-media color laser prints on vellum. Each print contains a blowup of an old snapshot from the Fifties on one side and a page of manipulated text (once again, from the ubiquitous outdated science book) on the other. Spelling out the unsettling recollections of a botched childhood abdominal operation, Broersma treats this jarring subject with rueful humor.

Female Problems, through February 9 at Emmanuel Gallery, 10th and Lawrence, Auraria campus, 556-8337.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hart Hill