Like a ghost from a past life, the short film by Jen LaMastra Reduce by half seems to rise from the depths to haunt both viewer and subject. Barely visible in the midday sun, the film swings between scenes of a woman in a large royal dress walking slowly through a lake and then floating to the bottom. The film plays on a loop and presents “Power Positions: A Dismantling of Phallacies”, presented at the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, as a funeral that follows a death but also inaugurates something new.
On December 23, 2020, Elisabeth Jones Art Center voted to convert from an LLC to a non-profit organization. On July 1 of the following year, Chandra Glaeseman was hired as general manager to mark this change. Their current exhibition, on view through March 18, represents the inaugural show for this newly revamped organization, following the completion of its transition to a non-profit space. A land of 2500 sq.ft. gallery in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District, Elisabeth Jones is “committed to sharing contemporary art that offers a thought-provoking perspective around social and environmental issues,” according to their website.
Glaeseman explained that Elisabeth Jones’ mission, after they reopen after a year-long hiatus, amid the pandemic, is to set the bar both for the conceptual integrity and for the curatorial artistry of art. “We want to bring a new message to Portland that’s not about the money but about the concept,” Glaeseman said. “Our mission is to bring community art to social and environmental justice – which we are all truly passionate about – including board members.”
In this line, “Power Positions” represents this step in a new direction, for Elisabeth Jones. A collaboration between each member of the staff team, the curatorial acts of the exhibition, the writing of the summary and the reopening of the gallery powerfully embody the renewed mission of the organization.
“We’re raising the voices in a way Portland has never seen before,” Glaeseman said. “We started with this idea of wanting to celebrate women, wanting to bring these visual conversations about vulnerability, connection, emotion, empathy and strength into this space.”
From my perspective, this project landed exactly where it was supposed to. The summary of the exhibition itself – which begins with “This exhibition is a response to the myriad of complex challenges that people who identify with women face in our current environmental and social climates” – testifies to the opportunity to a conversation about the politics of the body, sex and sexuality, and systems of oppression. It also presents Elisabeth Jones’ current exhibition as a sort of manifesto.
At every turn, “Positions of Power” presses into and against the viewer’s visual experience, so that the collective invitation to dismantle illusions about “women’s roles, bodies, sexual organs, reproduction, marriage, power dynamics, systems of oppression, etc. .” is less a suggestion than a kind of immersion. The urge to deconstruct and reimagine society for women resonates in the body long after the show has been released.
His bold exploration of the idea of political phalluses – the definition of which, “a false or mistaken idea, constructed and perpetuated by patriarchal systems”, is printed in bold black type at the start of the show – is well balanced by the masterful work subtle exhibited in the exhibition by artists Jen LaMastra, Natalie Kelton, Juvana Soliven, Essie Somma and Sarah Stolar.
LaMastra’s installations in particular, which caught my eye as soon as I entered the gallery, seem to be the beating heart of the exhibition. In They said it would just take time (2021), a figure asleep on its side on a bed, which rocks from side to side as it floats above the ground and is made entirely of eggshell the artist has collected and rebuilt for several years. The quilt on which the woman rests was also sewn by hand. And the miniature bottles, which hang above her and shimmer in the light, contain origami stars of folded paper wishes that LaMastra collected from friends. The detail and care in his work is breathtaking – he also openly rejects any capitalist impulse to make art quickly. Nothing, in fact, in LaMastra’s art alludes to commodification.
If LaMastra dismantles “phallicity” by breaking all the rules of production, Juvana Soliven’s work follows the rules of phallic centrism to the point of the absurd. Watching his series, Utilities (2021) – a collection of tool-like objects laid out on a table, whose purposes oscillate somewhere between gynecology and sex toy – I was convinced I had seen some of these things before, perhaps in a museum or a textbook. I was also convinced that this was the kind of stuff I shouldn’t be watching. Neither, of course, is true, because neither of these objects “is” anything. The taboo can be medical or sexual, however both associations play with the assumption that the female body is something to be pricked, probed, altered, objectified. They reveal how clumsy and archaic man-made tools can be.
Speaking of human creation, no “Power Positions” artist more directly reuses a trope in high art than Sarah Stolar. His series of portraits, composed especially for the exhibition, responds to the expectation that a portrait presents the sitter with a kind of regal gravity and distance. If the European portrait of the 1800s responded to the “current taste” that a wealthy model of a painter found fashionable, Stolar’s portrait addresses the same question and approaches it in a very different way. When Stolar asks, Who do you want to be? his sitters nod not to representations of wealth or status, but to the essence, to self-understanding.
Stolar’s portraits do not allude to the male gaze, and his subjects seem uninterested in what others think of them. The orientation of these works is centered on the true self of the subject. In Boudoir, for example—which I didn’t find particularly progressive, as far as fourth-wave feminism goes—the subject matter of the painting is portrayed exactly as they intended. Without any Photoshop, airbrush or other glorification, the subject strikes a familiar pose. But she does it on her own terms. Nothing in the show more succinctly embodies the dissonance between feminist movements. On the one hand, you might as well see this kind of piece in a pornographic magazine. On the other hand, we are not. We see it in an art exhibition.
Natalie Kelton’s photo series, printed on wonderfully saturated tin foil, makes a similar move. In each of his untitled photos, goosebumps, stretch marks and body hair are no longer distractions from larger features but topographies of their own. For Kelton, love handles are not flaws, they are landscapes to be lovingly explored, admired, respected as alive, human and palpable.
At the same time that these photos bring me closer, about as close as a lover, each subject’s skin is also abstracted into some kind of canvas or material on which a life is lived – subject not to Male but the female look. Each piece seems to ask the question: what is the body? Where was it? Why is it?
Through her photography, Kelton restores the power of storytelling to the subject, so that all questions are directed away from the viewer and towards the woman.
This game of turning tables, which reorients both the subject and the object of art and suggests a new way of looking at it, seems to be the essence of Elisabeth Jones’ awakening. Without a doubt, this project was born at the right time. The work he sets out to do to imagine a brighter, more inclusive future for people who identify with women everywhere is just as exciting as the future of Elisabeth Jones.