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Balls & Dolls
a review by Michele Natale for The Spectator
It's April, and for the third month in a row, I find myself reviewing LUMP's art offerings because, almost single-handedly, they keep going where no local gallery dares to tread. This month's show, "Balls & Dolls," a two-person show featuring Max Below Toledo-Paris and Sherri Wood, is no exception, bending gender to the max, posing serious questions, and yes, perhaps shocking us.
I'll start with Wood's work, because it is least difficult of the two. Along the left side of the gallery wall, an array of cloth-bodied baby dolls stand on miniature pom-pom-trimmed white faux-fur rugs which rest on circular wooden shelves. Circular mirrors are mounted behind each shelf, so that we can see each side of the dolls' bodies, which are elaborately embroidered.
All of this may seem perfectly innocuous at first glance, until you realize that the decorations are actually tattoo designs, subverting conventional macho imagery into feminist empowerment. Wood collaborated with women tattoo artists from all over the country to produce these pieces, sending each artist a doll to design.
For example, Sailor Feebee, who sports a clipper ship, bluebirds and "Mom," designed by Kate Hellenbrand of Philadelphia, Pa., and Ms Femme, a vision of pastel psychedelia by Michele Wortman of Chicago, Illinois.
Wood has cleverly played upon the stereotypical naming of women as "dolls," then invited women in a male-dominated art form (tattooing) to create uplifting female imagery for these stand-ins for the female figure, while insisting upon a traditional female craft - embroidery - for their execution.
More outrageous are a series of cotton panties which Wood has embellished with vintage-style hand-towel designs that have a double-entendre edge. Adding to the sexual content of the message is the fact that these panties have split crotches, adorned with embroidered buttonhole stitching. The shock value in these works consists of their clever juxtapositioning of tame female craft with overt sexual reference.
Max Below Toledo-Paris's work operates on a much more complex level. He photographs men with a large-format Polaroid, presenting us with views we are more than unaccustomed to looking at.
Down the right side of the gallery, a row of life-sized men's torsos progresses from a nearly hairless chest through gradually hairier, and finally hairiest and graying chest, suggesting a man's progress from youth to age. I feel a twinge of discomfort. Used to seeing bare female torsos in art, we readily assume their aesthetic beauty. Toledo-Paris dares us to consider the male body this way.
Three more photographs prominently feature the lower portions of their subjects' bodies, accompanied by texts which describe their experiences with various kinds of games. In order to read the stories, we must come in close to the photographs, face to face with parts usually considered private. (I spoke with a gallery viewer, a male, who was so intimidated as to avoid getting close enough to these pictures to read the stories. Now that's art-power!)
Biblical texts on the wall speak to our original state in Eden, unashamed to be naked. Toledo-Paris asks us what are we afraid of? Again, as with the torsos, nude women thus posed have been accepted as the norm in art for hundreds of years, but a man posed in this vulnerable way, presented by a male artist, still somehow disarms us. There is an insidious double standard at work here, and Toledo-Paris goes straight to the heart of the matter.
An array of balls of all types - golf balls, tennis balls, beach balls, basketballs, soccer balls, footballs, most beaten-up and deflated, line up underneath the photographs, as if to defy the glorifying myths of that most hallowed male enclave, sportsdom, as well as play off of the anatomical slang of the show's title.
Toledo-Paris gives us man after the Fall, man defying society's injunctions to machismo, man as tender and open as his human counterpart, woman. Why we feel uncomfortable with this re-envisioning is indeed a revelation to contemplate, and the stuff of true and challenging art.
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