Cut It, Stuff It, Sew It Up
I was confused. This usually doesn’t happen to me, but I was, admittedly, profoundly confused. As an art history teacher I have spent countless hours lecturing on the duty of the viewer to take everything in, even the hard to look at, and value it for its presence and inherent meaning before disregarding it as too edgy, complicated, or grotesque. I have always stressed that there is something to learn — or even enjoy — in the darkest elements of being human. I still believe this is true.
What was utterly confounding me was my inability to come to terms with the conflicting terror and beauty in Erin Hewgley’s work. It is honest, painful, lovely, ugly, and scrutinizing. I was confused, I now have come to understand, because I absolutely love it as much as I was repulsed by it.
Erin’s most recent show, Beautiful & Grotesque, opened with a collection of some of her most poignant and penetrating work. It is an installation in which you walk into sounds, words, passing over you as though you are hearing them in conversation rather than the overhead speaker that they are really coming from. I viewed the work quite alone and in bare silence, but what I imagined was that if the crowd was large enough and the voices loud enough, Erin’s recorded, spoken words would have blended quite smoothly into the atmosphere. Cocksure…Hussy… Womb… it goes on. It has a stark effect on the viewer in deep silence and I would imagine that it also resonates quite well among a crowd. It prepares your psyche for what is coming next. As you pass through the foyer and into the next space you come across “Show Pony Saddle.” The image is painful to look at — the artist’s own body cast and transformed into latex to be cut and sewn back together. Show Pony Saddle presents one of several forms that have served as a catharsis for the artist’s past experiences with rape and survival as a woman. The piece is the likeness of her beautiful form transformed into a saddle — it is an image that you can’t look away from but are simultaneously repulsed by. It is Erin setting the theme before you wander too far into the rest of the installation: “Ever felt like this? Yeah, me too.”
I think the most fundamentally important part of Erin’s work and philosophy is her urge to create a sense of kinship among humans. It may seem like a simple perspective, but Erin has the profound ability to reach into each person’s insulated identity and to present to them the possibility that, maybe, just maybe, they have more in common with the person standing next to them than they realize or want to admit. We are not as separate as we feel. We are not as attached to our individuality, emotionally or physically, as we feel. To present this in several works of art is noble, and when it is done well, outstanding and provocative.
As you work your way into the rest of the show, you find yourself standing next to a carefully constructed, dangling ball of hair and latex. “A History” reaches from the ceiling and drops to the ground where you will find a rather disturbing puddle of something. The puddle (which is actually detritus sludge) starts as drips throughout the strands of hair and maintains a great body-fluidish tinge to it. It is as cerebrally biological as you can get without being pointless. It is also a very beautiful, serene image that, somehow, makes you think of the remarkableness of being human, with some of the less beautiful things lying on the ground. It’s everybody’s history, isn’t it? We struggle through our lives trying to maintain the lovely shape of ourselves while shit (or detritus sludge, as the case may be) penetrates us and we somehow, hopefully, allow it to lay lifeless on the ground beneath us.
Hewgley moves you into the next piece — it seems meant to be an evolution as you walk through. Every piece seems to be carefully placed so that you are led from one to the other as though being led through a story. And she leads you to “Step Right Up” — possibly one of the best pieces of contemporary art I have seen in ages, especially around Nashville. Maybe I am a sucker for images that maintain a certain sense of humor, and that is quite possibly the case. I love the idea of taking a serious and shameful issue and making light of it, especially in art. I don’t know, necessarily, that this was Erin’s goal in Step Right Up, but it makes me giggle. It makes me giggle because I think it is a glorious way to show the ridiculous nature in which women are viewed in our culture. As much as I want to leave out any overtly feminist issues from my writing, I won’t on an occasion such as this because I don’t think it is meant in an overtly feminist fashion.
Erin isn’t a feminist artist. It just so happens that she is a woman making art and these are her experiences. They are my experiences, too. And, even if you are a man, you reading this can relate to feeling tapped as something worthless save your sexuality or your career or your otherwise interjected role in our society. Step Right Up has remnants of ritualistic meaning. The lipstick smudges underneath each lock of hair bring to mind tribal (both primitive and modern day) ceremonies of mating and hunting. The locks of hair evoke a sense of ownership — if you grab the tails and pull hard enough, whatever is attached to it will be yours and you can do whatever you wish. It’s a callback to the caveman dragging his woman around by her hair — an image we all were raised with on Benny Hill and in the Sunday morning comics. So much a part of our social construct, we laugh thinking it all a harmless gag.
But the reality is much thicker than that. We laugh because, no matter how hard we try to fight it, and no matter how aware we are of it, we all manage to fall into the roles that we have acquired because of our gender or our class or our race. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a victim? What does it mean to be a woman or man or child in a world that fills our minds with actualized roles and proper place settings? Is it possible to escape the socialized lifestyles we have all fallen into, no matter how intellectual or counter-cultural we are or think we are? Step right up folks, you are about to enter into a world in which you have no choices. They are all being made for you well before you are born. Those of us who question these are considered abnormal and the irony isn’t worth ignoring for Erin, god bless her. She manages to evoke all of these questions and create a personal wrestling match for the viewer.
For the first time, I celebrate that a woman is making art about being a woman because Erin is not saying that it is just our plight as women to be vulnerable or targeted. It is the human experience. It is how we live, every day, trying to create a world in which we are ourselves, rather than who society has deemed us. For me (and I take a ladies’ stance on this because, well, I am a girl) I can relate to her volatile, sexual images of the female form. It is something that, as a woman, you can feel with the utmost depths of your physicality. It is personal. It recalls every conversation with almost every woman I know, from my mother to my high school students, about how it becomes part of our pathos to accept being violated or taken apart by someone’s mind or eyes, or how most of us are born with the distinct urge to prove that we are more than just a pussy or a receptor for a man’s urges. It recalls every time I have been a victim of my gender, beginning at the age of eight, and the realization that having our bodies used against our wills is, at some point in every woman’s life, a matter of fact. And why is that? — because our sex determines things for us that we have not yet, as a society, been able to escape. This is where it no longer becomes a gender issue, which I find a glorious success for any artist. It becomes an all-encompassing human issue. Because no matter who you are in the whole scheme of things, there is some tag that remains on your head.
The last piece I looked at was “Conciliation.” It is a beautiful end to the show. You find yourself in a dark room, alone as I was, with a large bed covered in a blend of the artist’s hair and synthetic hair. It is a peaceful image. It is an offering to the viewer — here is where we lie now and it can be honest and it can be collective for everyone who wants it. It is Erin giving rest to the turmoil and intensity to those who walked through her — and all of our — entire story.Erin Hewgley is a fine art graduate student at Ohio State University. She can be reached though the author. Lisa Rierson is an artist and writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.