by Noga Wizansky
The initial theme for Bodies, a group exhibition at Creative Growth Art Center, was portraiture, but after Sarah Galender Meyer, the exhibition’s curator, surveyed the available offerings, she widened the focus, opening the show to various meanings and affects issuing from the body, among them touch, gesture, conventions of beauty, signs carried by clothing and sexuality.
Her choice yielded a range of approaches and visions: bodies that are muscular and flexible; cipher-like and porous; constrained and vulnerable; defiant and hilarious; and some of hybrid identity. The exhibit doesn’t shy away from psychological complexity or indecipherability — or from imagery that might be read as politically incorrect. Sexuality, always charged, also brushes up here against the widespread aversion to thinking about people with developmental disabilities engaged in sex.
William Scott, a Creative Growth member since 1992, is perhaps best known for art that blends utopian-religious aspirations, childhood memories and visions of human renewal. He’s placed three renderings of black bodies on view in this exhibition. In one, a painting of a female body builder he saw on YouTube, the subject turns her backside toward the viewer, flexing a powerful torso, buttocks, arm, and leg muscles. Another ceramic figure, more completely covered and showing far less flesh, wears a close-fitting dress that leaves her full curves and globe-shaped breasts no less exposed. These works express the pleasure Scott takes in looking at women’s bodies, and while that might make some people uneasy, it signals not only the underlying power and gender relationships between artists and their subjects, but also how context changes them. Scott portrays his subjects inhabiting their bodies with assurance, something that he, as a disabled man, may be unable to do outside the supportive environment offered by Creative Growth, despite the fact that his own art, thanks to that very support, has helped him garner mainstream recognition.
In another painting, Scott imagines his own divinely engineered rebirth, signaled by the words “God’s Plan” at the center of the picture. What the artist envisions in this “before” and “after” double self-portrait is the erasure of a large scar on his chest caused by a childhood accident. In his “new life” it vanishes. The portrait, set against a blue ground with floating text, displays the artist’s skill at painting the human form, replete with skin folds, soft nipples, chest hair and a gentle, sensitive face. Still, the artist’s longing is tempered by reality: the “old Scott” sits comfortably facing the viewer, while the “new Scott” is squeezed against its edges. This work makes one wish for a world in which injuries and "imperfections" of this sort didn’t carry such a stigma.
Other artists explore aspects of the body that delineate boundaries. With condensed lines and delicate washes Aurie Ramirez draws bodies that conform to widely accepted cultural
standards of physical beauty. They are incised and penetrated by food, adorned with flamboyant glam rock accessories, and engaged in intimate encounters that, the longer one looks, also reveal emotional distance. A series of four drawings reiterates the motif of a slim female belly slit on either side of her navel and pubis. Fried eggs, corn dogs, hot dogs and lollipops are slipped into the belly cuts, while replicas of each snack wait smilingly on either side as if on a conveyor belt. The theme is both jarring and playful. It evokes a mechanized forced feeding system you might see in a sci-fi film, or perhaps a futuristic design for nourishment and gratification, functional anatomical pockets for having food always on hand — “in-body” as it were. The women’s heads are cut off at the drawings' edges, while other smaller faces multiply within the images. Mask-like, they blur the lines between human and inanimate forms, raising uncertainty as to whether they look assertively at the viewer or protect the faces behind them from being seen, or both.
Cedric Johnson’s oil pastel drawing is one of several exuberant works made following live yoga sessions held at the center. With two numbered variations on the half-moon pose, it suggests an instructional manual. Marks describing the bodies migrate playfully, rhyming muscles with legging patterns and yoga blocks. I heard Johnson once describe his own practice as a sustained conversation with each work in progress before settling on its final form. As he put it, “sometimes I don’t agree with my work . . . but then I do.” Viewers who follow Creative Growth artists may recognize in this drawing too, Johnson’s syncopated arrangements of diverse elements — lines, patterns, figures and fields; black, white and color – into a composition that retains a sense of the artist’s momentum at the moment he decided it was done. Like the pose it depicts, the structure of the drawing balances energy, stillness and incipient movement.
While Judith Scott is the Creative Growth artist most often associated with the idiom of wrapping, other member artists have explored this mode in distinctive ways. Scott worked by gathering things around her and concealing them within woven layers of yarn and flexible solids. Tony Pedemonte distinguishes more deliberately between the armatures he constructs from found objects and their fibrous wrappings. In the sculpture on view, limbs of soft dolls protrude through layers of thin threads. The relationship between core and wrapping confuses perception of the visible body parts — what I first saw as giant knuckles on closer inspection proved to be a set of knees. This uncertainty yields similarly fluid interpretations, oscillating between dread and wonder, where bodies appear to be alternately strangled or cocooned, suffocated or enwombed.
In the early 1990s, Carl Hendrickson with the Creative Growth teaching staff, designed and built, a wooden chair on wheels to support his life as an artist diagnosed with non-verbal cerebral palsy. A photograph of the chair in construction beside his commercial wheelchair shows new functional elements including a headrest, spill-proof drink container, canopy shelf
and trunk, and a stable tray for art making. Painted pale green with fruit patterning, Hendrickson’s design expanded the standardized medical device into an environment that affirmed his aesthetic sensibility and creative pursuits. I was especially taken by the way he used the design to assert personal boundaries around verbal communication. As the wall text explains, Hendrickson incorporated into the chair only those aids allowing him simple yes or no commands, while rejecting the use of additional symbols as a language and speech therapist had recommended. His refusal to expand this direct verbal tool set seems to have challenged his therapist’s suggestion, ultimately posing the question, aids recommended for whom?
I am not the only writer to comment on their first experience visiting Creative Growth. At the time, it felt as if I were breathing a new type of air. The typical separation between studio and exhibit space is dissolved by the apprehensible presence of many artists at work in the adjacent studio. Their privacy is protected, but the ferment of art making carries through in continuous sound. Lucky visitors may also enjoy encounters and conversations with artists who move freely between the studio and gallery.
Creative Growth artworks, utterly compelling in their own right, also represent a social space undergirded by the principle that creativity is a human capacity and right. The pleasure sensed upon entering the center reflects, I think, an affective recognition that some relations and expectations underlying the professionalized art world have been reconfigured. While I have pressed my own students to develop the visual and material sensitivities evident in Creative Growth exhibits, I fear its artists would probably not find similar support in cultivating their voices within the same college classrooms. Mainstream institutions might consider this contradiction as a suggestion to probe assumptions embedded in their mission statements, teaching programs, and economic models about what art is and which bodies and minds are able to make it.
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“Bodies” @ Creative Growth Art Center through May 1, 2019.
About the author:
Noga Wizansky was born in Ashkelon, Israel, and now lives and works as an artist, writer and educator in Oakland, California. She teaches at California College of the Arts, where she is also an active member of the adjunct faculty union. She has exhibited in the U.S. and Israel/Palestine. Her writing has been published in Hyperallergic and Art Practical.