THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Dramatically foreshortened as if it belongs in a Marvel comic book, a large, foreboding meat cleaver threatens to fly off the edge of a tabletop cornucopia of cooked goose, sausage, whole fish and carved ham. The server of the feast in Meaty (2017), wearing a fur coat and outfitted with a wire egg basket in place of a head and baguettes for arms, regally presents herself as if offering a hearty bon appétit! The setting’s photographic rendering is surrealistic, hallucinogenic, nightmarish and hilarious.
Welcome to the brilliantly psychotic, introspective and satirical world of photo artist Patty Carroll’s “Anonymous Women,” a silent, theatrical place where a woman’s self-identity gets displaced and devoured by the artifacts and schizophrenic demands of domesticity and is viewed through the opening or closing of luxurious stage curtains. Each environment is presented as if it’s the beginning scene of a mystery or the last act of a drama.
Copious drapes and fabrics are to be found in each of the sets. In real life as in stagecraft, curtains sequester one from the world. From the studio, lost in her work, Carroll hears birds singing outside but doesn’t see them.
“Anonymous Women” is an ambitious, ongoing series with subsets that began around 2005-2006, starting with “Heads” and “Draped.” The theme behind this evolving body of work, which confabulates Carroll’s real self with her home-centered furnishings, is consistent throughout and a makes a serendipitous fit with the current Zeitgeist in terms of trending women’s empowerment concerns and the Me Too and Time’s Up movements.
Each work is a kind of referential or psychological self-portrait wherein a deep, critical self-awareness is made palatable through mind-blowing opulence and visual game playing. The female figure always appears alone, so that the viewer may imagine himself or herself as a participant who shares some responsibility for events.
Each elaborate setting is artfully and painstakingly assembled. The concept for a scene might begin with a general idea, such as “stripes” or “plates,” with a single prop or household accessory, or with a rudimentary thumbnail sketch. If the availability of interesting knickknacks seems to be surprisingly low at your neighborhood thrift store, the insufficient inventory might be attributable to the voracious tchotchke hunting of Patty Carroll and her assistants.
Patty Carroll, Meaty, 2017. Archival digital print, 38x38.” Photo courtesy of One After 909 Gallery.
Baroque and Gothic aesthetics are channeled with a horror vacui that makes much use of patterned tapestries and decorative adornments. The influence of 17th century genre painting from the Dutch Golden Age is reawakened to meet Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives.
In each context, a mannequin fills in for a human model and is surrounded by so many objects that, as Carroll says, “her stuff has to do her in.” She transports observers into this comedic, jaded world, and like any good mystery writer, entices us to search through the crime scene, hoping to find significant clues within the minutiae of details and patterns, none of which seem accidental; not the cherub on the lamp base in Domestic Bliss nor the diminutive, furry toy animal creeping over the worn armchair that spills its stuffing in Walled In.
A major distinction between the mystery genre and Carroll’s oeuvre is that, in a thriller, one might not know in advance who the next victim will be, or who did it; in Carroll’s world, the woman is always the victim, asphyxiated by the psychological burdens of her own baggage.
Her thoroughly mastered tricks of the trade possess much in common with those of advertising, graphic arts, fashion and commercial photography. Depth of field is spectacular, and the balanced compositions always draw the eye to the center of attention. Lighting avoids hot spots, shadows are kept to a minimum and color saturation can be intense.
Carroll studied with some giants of photography, including Gary Winogrand, Aaron Siskind and Art Sinsabaugh; she’s also a certified Adobe Photoshop expert. Like the photographic works of Ruud van Empel and Tim Walker, or the richly patterned paintings of Kehinde Wiley, each of her pieces presents irresistible visual abundance.
Carroll’s works brings to mind Cindy Sherman’s conceptual portraits, as both artists explore issues of female self-identity; the main difference being that Sherman focuses on intertwining her own image with archetypical women found in popular media, while Carroll succumbs to the material accessories and gimcracks that preoccupy and overwhelm her subjects.
Mad Mauve (2018), smothered and buried in furlongs of funereal mauve drapes, is illuminated by a sedate light emanating from two faded purple lampshades. She’s clutching two lusterless and lifeless roses in her right hand. One imagines the smell of death at the sight of the figure reclined on a plum armchair beneath the weight of her situation. If there were a soundtrack here, it would be Radio Mystery Theater.
Sad songs are the most piquant, and Patty Carroll’s gloomiest and most somber moments share a pathos that speaks in any language. Darkly (2016) avoids postmodern glitz and settles for gravitas. In a black room, behind black curtains, a black, double-breasted Victorian dress adorns a headless standing mannequin, whose uncoupled head is to be found within an oval mirror on the back wall, completely shrouded in black cloth that is fastened around the neck with a black and white beaded collar, suggesting that this could be a reflection of the spectator. The similarity to a burqa is not entirely coincidental in that Carroll’s niece served in the U.S. Marines in Iraq in the years immediately following 9/11.
So much in Darkly is black, including the Royal typewriter, telephone handset, vases, flowers, lace and carpet. If brightness is a sign of hope, the only prospect herein is the white paper in the typewriter with white keys, the pearls, jewelry and a gold telephone base, these hint that attempts to communicate might bring a ray of sunshine into this lugubrious setting. The illumination of only select parts of an otherwise dark composition, a device favored by Rembrandt, in Carroll’s work gets re-introduced into more contemporary middle class living rooms.
Patty Carroll, Yellow Wallpaper, 2018. Archival digital print, 38x38”. Photo courtesy of One After 909 Gallery.
A few of the other works in this exhibition are very bright: Smothered, Yellow Wallpaper, Domestic Bliss and Ghastly appear drenched in a soft light that bathes the retro but postmodern assemblages. Within these dazzling scenes are premonitions that one’s brightest moments might remind us to be wary of self-inflicted “sugar” overload.
As if to make this point, a dagger-shaped fragment of a broken plate plunges into the heart of the protagonist who is over-burdened by her matronly collection of pretty decorative plates (Revenge of the Plates, 2017). Like a pop music diva, Carroll beguiles us into falling for excessively easy narrative readings of her visual stories while, like Nancy Wilson, also indulging in shimmering, soulful subtleties.
“Anonymous Women” is the second exhibition at One After 909. The gallery opened in June 2018 and is located in Chicago’s new arts district in West Town. Gallery owner Stano Grezdo, accomplished former curator of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern in Art in Chicago, is committed to featuring art that responds to contemporary issues of social awareness.
“Anonymous Women,” September 7-October 20, 2018
One After 909, 906 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60622
Bruce Thorn is a Chicago-based painter and musician. He has degrees in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Contributing Editor with the New Art Examiner.
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