The timing couldn't have been more appropriate. The Thin Skin exhibit currently at Boise Art Museum (BAM) has focused our attention on contemporary sculpture's embrace of inflatable, malleable and fragile non-art materials. As it is, BAM's event can only suggest the scope of this phenomenon and the range of stuff artists will commandeer for use in their work today. So it was a fortunate turn of events that the Boise State Art Department had invited international sculptor and installation artist Jehanne-Marie Gavarini to come to Boise last week to lecture on her art and conduct studio critiques with undergraduate and graduate students. Her slide presentation offered a view of a unique body of work that elaborates on some of the same themes touched on in the BAM show.
Gavarini is a French-born artist who received her BFA and MFA at the University of California at Berkeley and Davis, respectively. She is currently an associate professor of art at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and has exhibited and lectured both in this country and Europe. Her talk at Boise State traced the evolution of her sculptural and installation work over the last ten years during which she has mined the contrasts between the weighty and weightless, the familiar and the foreign to subvert our engrained, complacent acceptance of the status quo.
Two things need to be said about Gavarini up front. First of all, while she is a maker of objects, her art is emphatically conceptual. Each work is generated by a particular idea, and the end result stands primarily as representative of that idea or concept. A symbiotic relationship may develop between the concept and the medium whereby the former is influenced by the latter, but Gavarini's choice of materials is secondary to the initial intellectual process. The tenets of post-minimalism that espouse the expressive potential of negative space, insubstantiality and repetition are an integral part of her aesthetic too.
Secondly, underlying her work is a deep commitment to social criticism. Gavarini's focus is on the ways western societies mold people to fit pre-fabricated roles and establish predictable patterns of behavior, particularly in terms of gender and race. While her philosophy is grounded in the women's movement, I would not call her agenda a strictly feminist one. Rather, it is broader than that, reflecting her concern that despite the much-touted emphasis on the individual in America, there is enormous pressure to maintain a routine for both men and women. In her art, Gavarini creates dichotomies that bend boundaries, confuse categories and challenge received notions of gender roles, racial stereotypes, sexuality and other sensitive matters.
Despite this seriousness of purpose, her work is not necessarily dry or dismal. On the contrary, an element of play and humor is increasingly evident in her art over the years. Still, some of her earlier installation work could be pretty somber and intense. Her 1994 installation entitled White took place in a dark monochromatic basement setting in which she created oases of white objects like a pool of cotton balls and stacks of folded linen, highlighted by bluish spot lighting. Spare yet dramatic, it delved into popular connotations of "whiteness" relative to matters of gender and race such as femininity, virginity, purity, physical and moral cleanliness and the ritual of marriage as a purification rite.
Gavarini is good at turning found artifacts of our society into social critiques. In Our Daily Bread from 1996, Gavarini's thoughts on the empty, homogenous quality of Western culture found expression in her use of Wonder Bread as a sculptural medium, made into a paste and molded into happy faces and other objects decked out in fabric accessories or restrained in metallic hardware suggesting bondage and "imprisoning" social categories like bride/groom or butch/fem. More recently, Gavarini has been into transforming knickknacks acquired from raids on dollar stores into fantastical, often erotic creatures that juxtapose typically exclusionary identities and persuasions.
I was intrigued by Gavarini's notion of gender as performance, her observations on how we play out the roles assigned to us by society. In her sculptural installation entitled Dressed to Kill, dating becomes the metaphoric equivalent of hunting, seduction an act of war, with the artist using diametrically opposed materials (such as concrete vs. yards of pink tulle) to represent the contest between the parties. It is an egalitarian vision; Gavarini takes no sides. When it comes to scoring these days, the roles of hunter and hunted are no longer gender specific.
Gavarini's loaded subjects are hybrids of competing perspectives and orientations. It is what gives her art its edge. Curiously, her current work—large vegetative forms made of colorful fabric—looks less provocative. I hope this insightful, feisty partisan isn't mellowing.