Arts & Theater

Small pieces take on weighty topics at multimedia JayJay show

Katie Thomas, "Shattered," ink jet print on cotton rag
Katie Thomas, "Shattered," ink jet print on cotton rag JayJay

Polemics in art, like polemics in literature, often result in well-meaning works that fail to move us as deeply as art that speaks directly from the artist's subconscious to the viewer's. Such is the case with some of the works addressing the #Time's Up, #Me Too, #We Said Enough movements in a show of small works about big issues at JayJay.

Don't get me wrong. It's not a bad show. There are a number of strong pieces in the exhibition that deal with problems women grapple with today: sexual harassment and assault, retribution for whistle-blowing, unequal pay and opportunities for advancement, income inequality severe enough to result in homelessness and its companions hunger, substance abuse, lack of medical and mental health care, and more.

As my review last week of "Becoming a Woman in the Age of Enlightenment" at the Crocker Art Museum pointed out, these are not new problems, but in some ways, one fears in the light of recent revelations about inappropriate and aggressive behavior towards women at California's State Capitol and in the fields of sports and entertainment, they may be worse because they have been hidden.

Curated by Jeff Mayry, the JayJay show includes works by gallery regulars, such as Suzanne Adan, Robert Ortbal and Julia Couzens, as well as artists new to the gallery, among them OmarThor Arason, Cheslyn Amato and Roma Devanbu.

Katie Thomas's ink jet print "Shattered" gives us a blown-up photograph of a suffragette's head with a shattered glass over her face, reminding us how far the struggle for women's rights stretches back in this country. The broken glass asks a double-edged question: have enough women shattered the glass ceiling or have their hopes been shattered by the failure to break the biggest one of all?

Nathan Cordero's painful juxtaposition of a found photo and found note "She is waiting for no one" places a tiny image of a woman whose haunted eyes stare out of a black hijab and veil over a sad note of lost, or perhaps never found, love in childish handwriting on a torn out page of a psalm book. It speaks of female subjugation and dependence in two worlds.

Pathos also pervades JoAnne Tepper Saffren's moving mixed media sculpture "Appearing with her favorite water bottle and leaning against the gallery wall for support, she whispers Me Too." In it, a much used water bottle cast in white plaster sits beside a back rest made of salvaged wooden parts wrapped in sheer curtains that suggest a makeshift bandage or an ad hoc cushion. Drawing on an arte povera tradition, it's a powerful symbolic portrait of a homeless woman.

In Robin Hill's mixed media wall panel "Do a Full Roll Call; Unfold in the Aftermath," blocks of push-pinned plaster gauze surrounded by slender cut-out strips of paper bearing phrases that range from poetry to truisms also suggests an attempt at healing in a cooler, postmodern vein.

Roger Vail's archival pigment print "Alone in Vegas, Sleeping out on the Streets, Need Help, God Bless," offers a complex portrait of a homeless woman and her pet dog on an overhead street crossing in a chaotic urban cityscape formed from real and reflected images. It's a masterful blend of reality and artifice that one might think is a photoshopped collage, but instead is a stunning, straight shot by one of Northern California's premier contemporary photographers.

It's nicely offset by Angela Casagrande's surreal Max Ernst-influenced encaustic collage, "The Ongoing Saga of Medusa's Daughter." Made up of old engravings and drawn passages, it depicts an arcane, snake-headed, female, exquisite corpse-like figure under a gold-tinged pyramid reminiscent of a Masonic emblem that appears on a dollar bill.

Pantea Karimi's "#Hypatia," an elaborate silkscreen and color graphite depiction of Hypatia of Alexandria that depicts a brilliant woman from ancient times, provides a fitting close to the show. Surrounded by mathematical diagrams, she is shown with a copiously bleeding wound in her neck.

According to a statement by Karimi, Hypatia was a philosopher, astronomer, mathematician and adviser to the Roman prefect of Alexandria who was brutally murdered by a mob of Christian monks when the cosmopolitan Egyptian city shifted from a relatively open society to a conservative Christian one.

Hypatia, she notes, was co-opted as a symbol of Christian virtue during the Middle Ages and a symbol of opposition to Catholicism in the Age of Enlightenment. In the 20th century, she became an icon for women's rights and a precursor to the feminist movement.

If you go

“#METOO/#TIMESUP/#WESAIDENOUGH--Big Issues, Small Pieces - JayJay, 5524B Elvas Ave.. Through June 30. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Free. (916) 453-2999. cq

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