Negotiating femininity in photographs

What is real?
By BRITTA KONAU  |  March 14, 2012

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‘INTERIOR #7’ Digital pigment print by Rose Marasco, 2008, 43.5 by 35 inches.
Myths are inventions, not based on truth. Yet myths are invoked to help explain our experiences and cultural practices. "The Myths" at the Art Gallery of the University of Southern Maine in Gorham makes ample use of that function — while also bringing up some troubling questions about what it means to be a woman.

Guest-curated by Heather Frederick, owner of VoxPhotographs, the show features seven New England female photographers: Sharon Arnold, Bev Conway, Jesseca Ferguson, Cig Harvey, Rose Marasco, Abigail Wellman, and Amy Wilton. The first thing to notice in this highly stimulating installation is the distribution and significance of color. Marasco, Arnold, Wilton, Ferguson, and Conway use subdued colors and tints, and their work can appear to have a dated, even nostalgic undertone, whereas Harvey's and Wellman's images are intensely colorful, conferring a more contemporary tone. That said, without any exception, each artist is represented with some of their strongest work; Wilton, Harvey, and Conway stand out in particular.

Marasco's well-known images of black-and-white projections of female models and celebrities in her own home offer multi-layered contrasts between public and private, persona and intimacy. It is as if we were looking into a mind that has interiorized the burden of stereotypes and expectations — even in the privacy of our home we are not safe from the assiduous onslaught of media-transmitted unreality. Wilton has contributed four splendid images in which every compositional and formal element is deeply meaningful. Although from different bodies of work, together the photographs describe the path from childhood to sexual confidence and desire. In Wilton's images, small, extraordinary occurrences happen within the ordinary.

Arnold's digital prints of richly layered imagery are dream-like reinventions of archetypal and historical women, including Jackie Kennedy and a female Cupid holding an old-fashioned phone instead of a bow and arrow. Ferguson is an artist-in-residence at USM and has contributed pinhole photographs and collaged photo objects that use historical processes and old materials. Layering artistic, art historical, and textual representations of women throughout history, she firmly places them in the past like memories, though not without a good dose of nostalgia.

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‘JUNCTURES SERIES: DESIRE’ Digital pigment print by Amy Wilton, 1998, 15.5 inches square.
An exquisite discovery are Conway's ethereal portraits of young women, which are also the only works in the show that aren't gender specific either in treatment or message. Conway's images evoke Julia Margaret Cameron's, but only in a most fleeting way. Using an unstable process called Anthotype, the portraits are realized in beautifully nuanced tones of orange and protected by cloths that visitors have to lift. The resulting intimate viewing experience is amplified by the portraits' soft edges, making them seem to fade into the background like memento mori.

Harvey's large, striking photographs display her sophisticated feel for color and its emotional impact. Her unexplained scenarios of women at various stages in their lives bristle with narrative and fantastical potential. Wellman turns color and in-your-face-ness up a considerable notch. Her protagonists try on stereotypical personas, including vamp and inexperienced girl, whose artifice is foregrounded. These are, however, passive women, offering themselves up as objects, which is of course troubling.

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