Art, gender and freedom/Bronson, Jensen and Popa

I started off a little gallery walk this weekend at the Bonnie Bronson retrospective that fills Swigert Commons at Pacific Northwest College of Art with the subtle geometries of Bronson’s wall sculpture as it developed during her life, which ended prematurely in a climbing accident on Mt. Adams in 1990.

Having circumnavigated the commons and taken a few notes, I took off for the Elizabeth Leach Gallery to see Malia Jensen’s installation, which I’d heard about from Jensen fans. It includes a sculpture, photographs and a video: The sculpture is a salt lick in the form of a breast, the photographs show the sculpture in a field surrounded by cattle, and the video puts a smaller group of cattle in motion around the lick. I’d like to point out that steer 7032 doesn’t share well with others.

And finally, I found my way to Blue Sky Gallery and an exhibition called “not Natasha” by Romanian-born photographer Dana Popa. And somehow it illuminated the work of Jensen and Bronson, as different as they are to each other and Popa’s images, demonstrating how fragile the circumstances of both Bronson’s evolution as an artist and Jensen’s subtle investigation of gender really are, how at risk.

The stories connected to Dana Popa’s photographshave very clear subjects, but in the images themselves those subjects have fled the center of the viewfinder, heading to the periphery, peering out from behind a window or door, turning their backs to the camera and even escaping the frame altogether. They don’t want their pictures taken.Popa’s subjects are young women who are natives of  Moldova in eastern Europe, and their stories have a common denominator: They all were caught up in the continent-wide sex trade that enslaves poor, young women from places such as Moldova, strips them of what makes them human, and then turns them into objects of pleasure for men with the necessary number of Euros at their disposal. Popa’s photographs were mostly taken of the women, some just girls, after they had somehow managed to escape this particular hell and make their way back to Moldova, where they have to deal with the shock and trauma of their lives. So, it’s no wonder they flee the photographer and her frame, no matter how sympathetic she and her camera are.

Popa’s exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery, “not Natasha,”  has just enough information to convey the stories, in her frames and in their accompanying exhibition cards. Many of the women were lured to another country, Turkey or Great Britain, by the promise of a job. Some were simply sold by their parents or a best friend, drugged, kidnapped, confined to a room and forced to “work” hour on end. And then they were discarded or somehow managed to escape.

Discreetly, I look for them in Popa’s images, even though no image, no human expression, can convey the enormity of the betrayals in their lives.

During the Enlightenment, the West started to come to grips with the idea of “freedom,” what it meant, how to get it, how to keep it. We are born with certain inalienable rights, Thomas Jefferson wrote, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are the rights that Popa’s former sex slaves were denied. If pressed, I might summarize those rights as “the freedom to create.”

The best way to guarantee that we keep these rights ourselves is to guarantee them for others. And that’s what links the women of Moldova to us: Their loss of liberty diminishes our own. Any   region of enslavement can grow and multiply, and it might include a class of humans that also includes us.

Bonnie Bronson's 'Tuck-welded Kisses'/Ben Bright Photography

Which brings me back to Bronson and Jensen, because through history the class of enslaved humans has so frequently included women, enslavement taking many forms and varying degrees. Really, only in my own time, have women had the freedom to create art on anything remotely approaching an equal basis to men.  Bronson’s career started in the early 1960s, and for most of that time the number of women in Portland seriously involved in sculpture was tiny (the great Hilda Morris was making spectacular bronzes), only starting to grow a bit toward the end of her life (though, women artists were deeply involved in sculptural matters through craft-based arts).

Bronson formed one of Portland’s famous “artist pairs” with her husband sculptor Lee Kelly (Carl and Hilda Morris, Sally Haley and Mike Russo were two other prominent pairs). Her work at PNCA begins with a couple of excellent abstract expressionist paintings, which in hindsight have a “sculptural” quality. Bronson stacks rough shapes, roughly geometric, constructs gestural figures, and employs black, white and muted colors. Then after some geometric drawings, she hits in the mid-’60s the themes that will occupy her career, geometric wall sculptures, small-scale and large, sometimes a single “modulated” color, sometimes multi-hued.

The focus is on the shape, simple intersecting triangles and quadrilaterals, that create angles that slice right into our minds. Often, she applied paint or lacquer to the steel shapes, sometimes softening them and other times making them seem slick and impenetrable. As objects, they are immaculate, at least until we hit the last wall, the 1980s, when Bronson’s work seems to get looser and more colorful or simply gray. I was especially drawn to “Tuck Welded Kisses I” and “Serpent Feathers III,” which seem so intense and so specific, though they are seemingly so simple. But it seems clear that Bronson’s work was headed in a new direction when she died on Mazama Glacier in 1990. Another way in which artistic lives are fragile.

Malia Jensen's "High Noon"

I watched the 13-minute video of cows relating to Jensen’s sculpture of a breast, closely. Of course, she ensured their interest in her work by making it out of salt. The sky is overcast, the grass tall and brown, the cattle skittish at first, before they start some vigorous licking. As I said, 7032 stakes out the lick, butts away rivals and then works away on the side of the block with his tongue. But soon other animals join him, and the contours of the breast are given a vigorous tongue lashing.

There’s a jest in here, somehow, right? This enticing female “object” attracting the beasts of the field? And in the joke, a comment/critique of the way we consider the body parts of other humans? How territorial we are? How we appropriate them for our own use?

The tongues of cattle have worn away the white salt breast block in the show a bit. Dirty noses have discolored the sides. Apart from the video and the photograph it seems… used.

And then I’m back at the Blue Sky show, and I’m feeling embarrassed for the whole human race, particularly my half of it.


This appeared first on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts & Life page.

The top photo is by Dana Popa, part of her exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery, and courtesy of the artist and Blue Sky Gallery. “High Noon” is courtesy of Malia Jensen and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. “Tuck-welded Kisses” is courtesy of the Estate of Bonnie Bronson, photo by Ben Bright Photography.

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