ON THE MOVE Stern's 'Another Migration for Wary Wanderers.'
M eredith Stern creates dreamy fables. In “Generations | 8 Chapters Blooming,” her exhibition of collages at AS220’s Project Space (93 Mathewson St, Providence, through April 26), three creatures — man, woman, child, part cat, part people — walk across a field of mushrooms carrying luggage; a pair of felines picnic on mushrooms in a sunny rolling field; a smiling cat hammers a board; and another feline cleans clothes. It’s a magical world Stern invites us into, sometimes troubled, sometimes homey. Every detail seems freighted with specific, if elusive, importance.
The Providence artist’s collages are assembled from a lush stew of her own cut-up linocuts and woodcuts, spraypainted stencils, coffee stains, painting, and a collection of handwriting and typing from her grandmother’s cousin who died last year at age 103. Her art has a companionable, homespun feel.
As fables, of course, Stern’s collages have morals, though her elaborate personal symbolism can leave them more intriguingly mysterious than clear. Her subjects here, she tells me, are “what it is to be a woman, what it is to create a home and family, and to think about identity and self.”
So the three traveling cats are inspired by ancestors who “migrated to the US in the early 20th century fleeing from Belarus, from the pogroms against people who were Jewish.” The picnicking cats represent the new arrivals putting down roots. The hammering cat speaks of “tireless optimism” in the face of “an endless struggle for equality.” And the washing cat addresses the unpaid, background work that women often do.
“Women are the ones who keep the family together, the busy work,” Stern says. “A lot of times women have had to wear masks to hide their dissatisfaction with these presumed gender roles.”
“Everyone needs feminism,” reads another collage. Stern says, “The mainstream often presents this view that women want to be better than men. But that’s not what feminism is. Feminism is about equality.”
Following two parallel streams — fables populated by animals and activist broadsides — Stern has been making some of the best visual art in the region. Her style is unique locally because of her use of woodcuts and linocuts and her upfront activism, but her fantasies and her sometimes visionary designs connect her to artists that came out of Providence collectives Fort Thunder and the Dirt Palace, including Brian Chippendale (especially his collages made from his cut-up screenprints) and Xander Marro.
The 37-year-old grew up in rural Pennsylvania. School took her to Pittsburgh and then New Orleans. There she helped found a celebrated artist live-work-performance space called Nowe Miasto (Polish for “New City”) that was inspired, in part, by visits to Providence’s legendary mid-1990s to mid-2000s underground art, rock, and wrestling clubhouse Fort Thunder while she studied at RISD in 1997. After New Orleans, she did grad school in Philadelphia. A professor encouraged her to merge her printmaking and collages. “That kind of blew my mind,” she recalls.