By CAROL CELENTANO, JAN. 2018
The term “soft power,” coined in 1990 by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, describes a strategy that favors the use of diplomatic attraction and seduction rather than brute force or economic inducement as a means of altering behavior and opinion. While the concept has been used primarily in international relations to shape global policy, the current exhibition at Elga Wimmer PCC co-opts the phrase and broadens the concept to bring together seven female artists whose work illustrates the notion. Although Aisha Bell, Carol Szymanski, Nicola L., Carolee Schneemann, Sharon Lockhart, Kerri Scharlin and Anita Sieff represent a diverse range of disciplines, approaches and outlooks, each artist imparts their underlying socio-political messages with elements of sensitivity and discretion crucial to the concept of “soft power.”
The multidisciplinary artist Aisha Bell draws on the painful nostalgia of her African ancestry to explore its legacy of exploitation in DeCrown, a series of sculpted ceramic crowns ornamented with faces symbolizing the victims of imperialism and colonialism. However, by inviting the viewer to wear the crowns as part of this project, Ms. Bell adds a restorative element that serves to metaphorically redistribute the balance of power and mitigate much of the potential for anger and resentment.
Carol Szymanski, a language-based conceptual artist and former banker contributes Lay Off series, a suite of six lithographs that explores the language of corporate culture and specifically the multifarious and somewhat indirect, terms for the phrase “you’re fired.” While the expressions range from humiliating to euphemistic, the cheerful color of the prints and the erratic changes of the words’ fonts, styles and sizes, add an element of flair that masks the emotional intensity of the language while emphasizing its nonsensical and spurious nature. Nicola L.’s Same Skin for Everyone, a canvas banner featuring soft sculptures of eleven protruding head coverings meant to merge individuals into a shared structure, manages to bypass politics altogether in order to anthropomorphize the concept of tolerance. An example of the artist’s Penetrable series - a mainstay of her practice - these textile casings that enclose multiple bodies have been used to emphasize principles of inclusiveness and collectivity in a series of performances the artist has staged throughout the world.
The groundbreaking performance artist Carolee Schneemann, widely known for her sharp commentaries on sexuality, gender and the liberation of the female body, is represented by an aggressive political discourse tempered by delicacy. Devour/Goya, composed of still images culled from the artists multi-channel video projection combines menacing photographs of atrocities with those the artist refers to as the “ecstatic normal” of quotidian moments. Visceral images of war and political disasters are subdued and made digestible by their juxtaposition with fragile domestic scenarios, namely the kiss of a cat and a suckling baby. The power inherent in human relationships drives the work of Sharon Lockhart, Kerry Scharlin and Anita Sieff, albeit in highly different ways. For Lockhart, a photographer and filmmaker, it hinges on a collaborative spirit she develops as she engages with a variety of social communities. The exhibited photograph Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark and Laura Owens, was produced early in her career for a collaborative exhibition that explored influences among three emerging artist/friends. By presenting these women wearing identical detached expressions, and wrapped in sac-cloths that together form the California flag, Lockhart upends the traditional publicity photo using droll self-mockery to convey the three artists’ solidarity and bold independence from the male-dominated art world.
In a different vein, Kerri Scharlin creates human connection through symbolic relationships with the community of female artists. In the past several years, her practice has diverged from a conceptual examination of the self through the gaze of others, to an investigation of a variety of female subjects from her environment using traditional painting methods. Envisioning painting as an invitation to friendship, Scharlin’s most recent series In Her Studio depicts practicing women artists in their workspaces that she selects from artists whose work she supports and paints from photographs. In Marina Adams in Her Studio, she “communes” with Adams as she envelops the seated figure in a limited palette of bright colors that merges her with the paintings and crowded contents of her space.
While all of the artists represented in Soft Power aim to communicate their ideas using empathy rather than ridicule or propaganda, it may be the selection representing the Italian photographer and filmmaker Anita Sieff that provides its most apt metaphor. Ms. Sieff’s highly philosophical, non-linear films and videos explore the emotional fabric of human communication and interpersonal relationships that are weighed upon by landscape or environment. Her films inevitably view humanity caught in a web of alienation that paradoxically also embodies the possibility of belonging. Sieff’s contribution to the exhibition, entitled Solfeterra, is a photograph that documents the artist and a group of colleagues at one of her film locations near Naples. Subsequently, the site was discovered to be an inverted volcano when the earth began boiling up sulfur vapors from its buried cone through holes at its base on the surface of the landscape. Typically for Sieff, for whom power is critically related to one’s environment, this photograph, like the phenomenon – non-existent, untapped, latent power transformed overnight into energy - came to symbolize nothing less than a period of re-invention pointing toward a new era for mankind. WM
Soft Power: Aisha Bell, Sharon Lockhart, Kerri Scharlin, Carolee Schneemann, Anita Sieff, Carol Szymanski & Nicola L. continues through February 3rd, at Elga Wimmer
PCC, 526 West 26th St., #310, New York, NY 10001.
Carol is a writer in NYC.view all articles from this author