REVIEW: Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm

Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm, by Margaret Meehan, opened on October 6th at Women and Their Work. The show was one of many to make Glasstire’s 2011 Fall Preview, where Meehan is a contributing writer.  However, regardless of her connections to the site, Hystrionics and the Forgotten Armis a show that speaks for itself.

The exhibition read almost as if one has walked into a turn-of-the-century curio cabinet. Meehan’s pieces juxtapose the ideals of beauty with the exoticism of a vaudeville freak show.  These ideas are further complicated with many references to pugilism, a sport that is rarely identified, if ever, as feminine and yet there is something inherently graceful about boxers and their movements.  The title of the show is a direct reference to this.

Pugilists, detail

The opening work, The Pugilist (Journeyman), is a photograph, 2011.  This is the perfect introduction the exhibition.  The crisp white costume and ornate chair suggest a different time, perhaps the prim and proper Victorian era.  However, model Amy Revier’s white boxing-gloved hands and white fur face suggest animalistic, barbaric qualities.  Hypertrichosis, or werewolf syndrome, would have been the stuff of Victorian side shows, not ladies’ parlors.  And boxing as a sport can be described as barbaric rather than calculating.  The bottom portion of the photograph is ever so slightly out of focus, disorienting the viewer as does the figure and her accoutrements.

74 drawings on cabinet cards entitled The Barnburners, 2009-11—gouache, latex paint and glitter glass—next attract my attention. As Meehan explains, “[A] barnburner in boxing is a very good fight.  One that is very intense and exciting, a real nail-biter.”  Meehan has taken the women of each cabinet card and transformed them with black, white and splashes of pink.  Some have their entire faces covered while others only bubbly or beaded heads.  The nature of the portraits makes the woman seem stern, and Meehan’s playful and deliberate additions add to the intrigue.

The Circled Square was the centerpiece installation.  Despite being composed of the fewest elements, it ties the exhibit together.   The seven foot, white circle is a throwback to boxing rings of old, when they were literally chalked rings on the ground.  A black glass glitter square is off to one side of the circle and silver boxing gloves rest atop it.  Perhaps this marks the spot of the winner of an unknown match.

The Pugilist, diptych detail

Dangling from the ceiling of the corner gallery, a black glittered punching bag in a completely black room. Numerous glass globes hung down around the bag from various lengths.  Unfortunately, I think the piece would have been more powerful had the draping of the bulbs not been quite so loose. But, my mind soon left the technical aspects of the installation, and wondered, imagining a boxer working-out with a punching bag and dreaming of glory, her name surrounded by lights.

Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm is a must-see show. Don’t miss the chance to hear the artist and others talk on October 26th at 7:00pm for An Evening of Conversation: Emotional Excess and the Politics of Hysteria. The exhibition runs until November 12th.

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