Exhibit Showcases Female Memories, Durango Herald, Sept. 19, 2008

“The Insistence of Memory,” an exhibit at the Durango Arts Center’s Local Expressions gallery, is a show featuring “five women, five forms, five perspectives not to be forgotten,” according to the news release, also suggesting the show was “fresh.”

“Fresh” and “memorable” for Durango, or the greater art world?

“The Insistence of Memory” is a multimedia installation that explores the nature of the past in the present. I’m not sure whether the artists intended the exhibit to be viewed as one work of art, or an assemblage of five works by five different artists.

The memories in Maureen May’s black ink drawing on plexiglass are dark. A woman sleeps, her hand hanging down below the bed. Beneath the bed are surrealist images of her past – a match, a burning house, a stairway, a girl on a toilet.

Maureen May’s “Going There” is displayed on the windows at the Durango Arts Center.

One thing “fresh” for Durango is the inclusion of an auditory component. Audio is standard fare at museums, alternative art spaces and galleries. The sounds accompanying May’s “Going There” are of night, a creaking door, the heft of footsteps on the stairs, the sound of someone using the toilet, the striking of a match.

“Going There” is displayed in the windows of the gallery and I like that the light coming in gives the work a luminosity and scratchboard feel. But the work would have been more powerful if it had reached all the way to the floor and completely covered the windows.

And even though the auditory component is fresh, it is also problematic. There is only one CD player and headset. All five artists’ works are on that one CD, which is narrated by the downy voice of Nancy Stoffer. It would work better to have one CD player for each artwork. The 20-minute soundtrack is too long for a casual visitor, and there is too much music between tracks on the CD.

It’s too bad the gallery isn’t set up to handle auditory components in art, because they can be powerful. With May’s work, the sound correlates to the imagery and reinforces the discomfort the viewer has attempting to put together the snippets of memory shared.

The verbal element accompanying Karen Pittman’s paintings is an alphabet of words plucked from a thesaurus defining memory. “Studies” and “Work in Progress” are literal titles. Pittman displays an unfinished painting and comes into the center on Wednesdays to paint. The works are all blue abstracts with imagery of female genitalia.

Performance and conceptual artists, like Marina Abramovic, put themselves on display. Abramovic is the art.

An artist painting while others watch seems more sideshow than conceptual performance.

As for hanging unfinished work, Yoko Ono did it in 1965, but Ono’s performance called the unfinished paintings, “instruction” paintings and the viewer was invited to become part of the process by completing them.

It isn’t clear that Pittman’s “Work in Progress” is an ephemeral work. It is simply a bigger painting of the smaller “Studies.”

Sandra Butler takes the viewer back to Lewis & Clark Junior High through her “Can of Worms.” The work is a series of sculptures completed inside lockers. One is a ladder that reaches out of the first locker, the second a Tara Donovan-style grouping of prescription bottles, the third a shower curtain, the fourth a dripping sink and the fifth a window. In the soundtrack, the artist talks about the memories that are “too sad, too painful” – the dog hit by a car, the chemotherapy, the suicide. And she recalls the dripping faucet that ticked like a clock as she tried to sleep.

Jules Masterjohn exhibits wire mesh sacks of rocks in long and short phallic shapes. The rocks, she says, are markers of memory, an overused device. She describes the work as memory ganglia and recounts a childhood story to which she traces her distrust of authority. But there is no synapse between the rocks and the words. Without the words, the work doesn’t express memory.

“The Insistence of Memory” presents five perspectives of memory as the involuntary mental representation of past events. Butler achieves the most mn-emonic value through the dripping water in her sculpture. Memory is not just the representation of past events; it is the organization of cultural artifacts.

The exhibit as a whole is a bit too self-conscious and repetitive in defining memory. It never transforms into something more than the sum of its parts.

artsjournalist@mac.comLeanne Goebel is a member of the International Association of Art Critics and the recipient of a 2007 Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant.

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