essays

I.

"SEX, LIKE BEING HUMAN, IS CONTEXTUAL"
THOMAS LAQUER MAKING SEX

While our perceptions of the sacred and the profane can shift according to circumstance and social climate, one absolute appears to spring eternal: the division between the sexes. Just as Stirratt blurs the lines between flesh and meat, food and us, noted printmaker Adele Henderson questions the rigid divisions between men and women, between fact and opinion. In an ongoing series of diptychs entitled Normal Male/Normal Female Henderson shows the outlandish and acrobatic efforts that can be made to prove the primacy of gender. In these quaintly paired images, beneath whose waxy surface a male and female chromosome can be glimpsed like biological shadows, Henderson shows how desperately science has worked to justify social role via science. Henderson's witty pairings lampoon the rigidity of science showing the ultimate circularity of its rules: how the cultural "law" that boys like blue and girls like pink reaffirms biological differences which then predetermine nurseries decorated in shades of periwinkle and rose.

 

II.

"[THE] SOUL IS THE SAME THING IN ALL LIVING CREATURES,
ALTHOUGH THE BODY OF EACH IS DIFFERENT."
HIPPOCRATES

Mocking the fact obsessed rituals of science, Henderson presents images like nursery room illustrations of kittens: the girl kitty with coquettish downcast eyes and a fluffy powder puff, the boy cat wearing a jaunty bandanna, slicking his fur back with a comb. The artist performs a leveling gesture, equating the "proof" of these gender-designated kitties with the scientific "proof" of a male pelvis in one image and its twinned female pelvis in another. In other pairings Henderson offers saucy ripostes to the social definition of "normal male" and "normal female." An illustration of Pinocchio boasting of "No Strings Attached" testifies to the giddy wanderlust of male freedom contrasted to an image of a bird's nest and two bitty eggs, illustrating the plight of the mother bird with none of the gallivanting, free-wheeling liberty of Pinocchio, Esquire.

Henderson's Siamese imagery implies a world obsessed with documenting proper and improper male and female behavior that either you fit the mold or your very identity is in question. Like stereotype-busting flash cards, Henderson's images are governed by a biting, surreal sense of humor that jousts with the dead-serious assertions of science. Henderson's work is a cunning philosophical game which forces us to perform a subtle exercise as we attempt to decide, via the pictures, why one image of some obscure mechanical device is "female" and why another is "male." Henderson thereby forces us to see the absurdity in such ascription of gender "facts" by having us assume the ridiculous position of tailoring our own prejudices to fit her surreal pictures.

 

III.

"WHAT IS HISTORY, BUT A FABLE AGREED UPON?"
NAPOLEON BONAPARTE

Henderson's savvy provactions are nowhere clearer than in Lazaretto No. 7 whose feverish, melting hues of grimy, burnt oranges are the apocalyptic backdrop for a scenario that overturns and challenges our ideas of medicine and gender. Henderson pictures a trio of 19th-century women being given a tutorial by a female instructor. The corpse on the slab before them is male with a perfect round wound cut into his chest. Medical history is full of such vaguely sexual scenarios, of groups of fully dressed, stern and serious men of medicine consulting over a supine female body. Henderson's scenario, however, feels nothing short of revolutionary for re-envisioning our medical history so that women hold the scalpels of power and men are the guinea pigs. The image is disturbing not only because it runs counter to our visual record of medical history and what is Normal Female, but because our cultural understanding of women as the caregivers, nurturers and nursemaids cannot reconcile the idea of such icons of benevolence cutting into a lifeless body.

Like Stirratt's culinary efforts to tame the wild world to table, Henderson's horticultural catalog of her garden's output June both indulges and mocks the puny efforts of science to fit a wild and mysterious world into its controlling rubric. Alchymia No. 3 is one such commentary, featuring a cartoon thought-bubble containing a man who pulls a strange, serious mechanical lever while all around him a biological cyclone of spores and cells and sea creatures rendered in shades of marrow and meat confuse the line between internal and external. Using color to almost subconscious effect, her organic, milky and amber tones recall Hippocrates' antiquated medical philosophy of the body broken up into four mood-defining humors: blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile.
Did man make this world with his little lever, Henderson seems to query, or did he just colonize it? A criss-cross of sinewy channels in shades of rust and rose seem to connect and order this bizarre constellation of creatures, though Henderson's pointed use of the man and his machine suggests there is only the illusion of order in our mad and frantic universe.

 

VI.

"THE THOUSAND EYES WIDE OPEN IN MY EYED BLOOD
VLADIMIR NABOKOV LOLITA

In Henderson's series of quaintly horrifying, fantastic planet toner drawings, human faces are imprinted with otherworldly deformations, as their medical histories and scientific fixations seem to float around them like a troubled dream. The toner drawings use a unique printing process whose evanescence and manipulations of science echo Henderson's themes of scientific shapeshifting. The artist layers image upon image by removing paper from a photocopier before it comes into contact with the fuser unit, thus allowing Henderson to intrude upon the internal workings of science and machinery and reconstitute the photocopier's image. Henderson's prints imitate the grand layered dramas of cells and synapses, corpuscles and muscles unfolding inside our own bodies.

By referencing and meddling with arcane medical and scientific lore, Henderson and Stirratt assert the flexibility and capriciousness of the "facts." The artists show how intimately our conception of the world is bound up in the controlling lattice-work of science which trains our very identities to its rules and seldom opens itself up to questioning.

 

Felicia Feaster

From catalog for the exhibition WIERD SCIENCE: WORK BY BESTY STIRRATT AND ADELE HENDERSON
City Gallery at Chastain, October 29 - December 17, 1999

This exhibition was curated by Debra Wilbur, Gallery Director, City Gallery at Chastain, Atlanta, GA