The Women's Rooms

The last thing I want to be called is a woman artist," says Annette Wilzig. The remark may seem like an attempt to distance herself from her gender, but it's not. "Woman artist" can sound a lot like "woman driver." Wilzig is reacting to the tendency to make gender, race, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, or a combination thereof, a prefix to the word "artist," when that artist is not a heterosexual white male. Labels trigger a host of stereotyped assumptions before anyone gets within 100 yards of the actual work. In two separate exhibitions, Annette Wilzig and Laura Lark present works with a strong sense of humor that's influenced by their experiences as women, but not defined by them.

Using collected objects, Wilzig makes sculptures with witty, pointed and sometimes poignant commentary. The objects she uses are bought, scavenged or enlisted based on their individual appeal to Wilzig. They are, by and large, the detritus of our culture: winged-victory figures from the tops of trophies; fragments of toys; mannequin parts; elegant silver chafing dishes; taxidermied animals, fedoras. Wilzig plays with the meanings and associations of the objects. The sculptures in her "The Wait on Her Wings" exhibition at New Gallery exist as self-contained narratives; they sometimes have autobiographical origins and are often laced with a heavy dose of black humor, not unlike the social commentaries of Edward Keinholz's early work.

Post-Nuptial Portrait is created from the artist's wedding gown and shoes. In one of those post-divorce cathartic acts, she decided to torch her wedding attire. Figuring, "Hey, at least I can use the ashes in a piece," Wilzig forgot the realities of modern fibers. The result is a drippy, melted baroque form with a pair of singed, curled-up shoes. She mounted the dress on a piece of wood edged with frame samples to create a dynamic halo and a work that hovers between poignant and sarcastic.

Arm's Length is an assemblage with a handgun mounted on a base at a 45-degree angle. A tiny, red leather "ladies" glove, in the shape of a fist, is placed over the end of the barrel with a knife blade poking through it to provide the symbolic middle finger. It looks like a 3-D pictograph for the term "pissed off," an interpretation reinforced when Wilzig laughs wickedly and reveals that PMS is her inspiration for the piece.

With 29 sculptures on view, they ain't all winners; the exhibition would have been stronger with some editing. The weaker works are those overdone with too many purposefully symbolic elements. Conversely, some of the smaller and less-complex pieces that Wilzig refers to as "one-liners" deserve more credit. The Liar simply presents one of those wooden, hand-held back massagers with a handle and two balls; it looks like a penis even without help from an artist. Wilzig hangs it vertically on the wall and tops it with a wooden head from a Pinocchio doll. You can extrapolate for yourself the connection between the male organ, Pinocchio and the title of the work. Wilzig is at her best when she's being a smart-ass.

Laura Lark has an unabashed romantic nostalgia for the early '60s. Not for the Bay of Pigs or segregation, but for that part of the early '60s that was only tenuously based in reality -- the Camelot of the Kennedys, the films of Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn, the fashion magazines that presented smart belted shifts for spring, the world of cocktail lounges, matching purses and shoes with coordinating hats adorning gravity-defying lacquered hair. Lark was born in the early '60s herself, so her nostalgia stems from its idealized pop-culture imagery and family photos.

Lark has created an installation in the ladies restroom of a bar, the cliched gathering point of women. The exhibition is aptly named "Bathos," a puny title that slyly comments not only on the choice of a "gallery" space but also on the very idea of presenting art in a toilet. Lark has painted the walls in a pinker-than-pink shade called "Rose Delight" and has used a decorative roller from Home Depot to apply foofy gilt stripes. You could almost imagine Audrey Hepburn waltzing in, a crisp $100 in her purse for the "powder room." You could imagine it, that is, if The Next Door Bar were the kind of place to feature an attendant with an arsenal of hairspray, perfume and cosmetics, which it decidedly is not.

The bathroom walls are covered with little black-and-white fashion-y drawings with spray-painted gilt frames. The drawings are made from the pages of a 1965 copy of the French fashion magazine, Marie Claire, and they have a vintage graphic feel to them. Lark obtained her copy by "pawing through the garbage" of one of her friend's neighbors, a "little old lady who wore white vinyl go-go boots." The drawings are the stuff of arty teenage girls -- pen and ink sketches of clothes they really liked and faces of glamorous women. It's the equivalent of high school boys drawing hot rods and pick-ups.

The luxe Francophilia of the bathroom was inspired by the Paris scenes in What a Way to Go, a 1964 Shirley MacLaine film about a woman who goes through a host of husbands, played by the likes of Dean Martin, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, Dick Van Dyke and Robert Mitchum. Lark added scented soaps and potpourri and has even hung lingerie behind the door and draped it over a chair. (I think a host of vintage lingerie and more objects would have pushed the boudoir effect better, but I suppose you can only put in a bar bathroom what you don't mind having stolen from a bar bathroom.)

Currently at work on her master of fine arts in painting, Lark is creating a '60s cocktail lounge in her studio. She's already made a padded white vinyl bar and is set to upholster ottomans in black vinyl with rhinestones. Think of it as graduate-student studio meets Dean Martin bachelor pad. She has covered the walls with wallpaper proclaiming "Smoking and Drinking are Fun!" Her work taps into a nostalgia for a time and place that never really existed, but sure sounded like a good time.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer