“Vacillate: A Conversation on Contemporary Femininity,” a group exhibition at Gallery Z (through February 11), makes its collective point right off the bat: there is no single legitimate way to visually express what it’s like to be a woman, and even women who know who they are will be apt to waver in that perception.
Styles range from Melanie Ducharme’s raw portraits of female punk rockers and Stefanie Porcaro’s brooding, tightly-cropped self-portrait to Mollie Pettengill and Kate Truskowski’s direct, uncomplicated faces. The conventional cultural association of femininity with attractiveness and beauty is bound to be the first gloss of the subject. Most of these eight artists touch upon that, but in interestingly divergent ways.
There is a pinup quality to most of Thomas Terceira’s collages on display, though these women are fully clothed and look like 1940s glamour shots. In two of the four, the eyes are obscured, but the presence of flowers in all of the small images establishes a benign, or at least hopeful atmosphere. In each is a postage stamp and in most a telephone book listing is in the background, indicating communication.
In contrast, the matter of women as sex objects is explored disturbingly by Veronica Ochoa and Sydney P. Hardin. In three of Ochoa’s four paintings, a solitary woman is surrounded by threatening imagery. Even Wonder Woman has her hands up in what could be surrender, bracketed by a bald eagle with a bloody beak and words that represent the ashes of failed relationships: “grifters, cheats, losers, liars.” In Sitting on Uncle’s Lap, a deeper source of disturbance is found. Here the scrawled words are “forgive, forgive, forgive . . .” and “thou shall not covet your niece.” The perpetrator — his T-shirt announcing “Jesus Saves” — is on a sofa next to a smiling pigtailed child.
Child sexual abuse is just as explicit in Hardin’s Naughty or Nice, in which a Santa sits on a throne, undressing a young girl. But when this painter treats sexuality rather than betrayal in Playing Horsey, she does so with humor as well as sensuality: a dreamily aroused young woman is astride a snorting carousel unicorn, clenching its horn, her red hair and a similar flowing mane unite the two. This painting shows Hardin to be one of the most technically adept in the exhibition, giving dimension to the shapes despite limiting herself to sharply demarcated patches of acrylic paint.
A show with the theme of femininity is obliged to include nude studies. That requirement is satisfied ambitiously by the eight paintings (more works than by anyone else here) by Boston artist Mary McCorkle. They arrest our attention immediately by being in a Cubist style — the gracefully sweeping and converging lines of Robert Delaunay rather than the oblique angles of Picasso and Braque. Mostly they are studies of the same model. One or two of them, such as Pat Holding Her Hair, work quite lyrically as a whole composition. But the others contain portions where our eyes are not directed helpfully, swept to dead areas of the composition or even disintegrating to conflicting rather than contrasting grotesqueness.