essays

Why do girls fall in love? What makes a man take a stand? Are we prisoners of gender, slaves to a primal map which describes our genetic code? In Adele Henderson's installation Normal Male /Normal Female, these questions become part of an elusive dialogue linking biological tendencies, sociological stereotypes, and humorous pathologies.

This ongoing piece presently consists of 64 individually framed works, each sharing the same base image - a complete set of male chromosomes on the left with a corresponding set of female chromosomes on the right. A thin wax coating partially obscures, yet symbolically preserves the microscopic genetic bodies. Labeled pairs of painted, engraved, and printed images lie on top or fused to the plexiglass sheet above.

Though the presentation is reminiscent of a display found in a natural history museum, Henderson's combination of images and information moves beyond objectivity, inviting us to consider a variety of subjective responses. Particular pairings speak to both biological rationales and biased generalizations - the normal male Pinocchio figure with phrase No Strings Attached walks away from the grounded normal female image of sprouts, roots and seed. Is this why men leave and women stay? Other pairs such as right and left ears, Rorschach ink blots, and genitalia address polarized gender differences, as well as individuation and interdependence.

In another pairing, a medieval knight wields a mace in the direction of a recently fertilized human egg.  An existential irony i ssuggested by the shape relationship between mace and egg. Normal female creates egg which in turn becomes normal make knight who destroys future females/eggs/knights.  Henderson's yse of old nostalgic illustration suggests that the propagation of past social demands, tendancies and gender identities can often dictate the character of future eggs. The purposeful comic tone of her images also underlines the inappropriateness of certain outdated medieval attitudes.

Whiles there are certain traits specific to males and females, there is also physiological and psyhchological evidence which states that within every man there is a woman, and in every woman a man (see Carl G. Jung's "Approaching the Unconscious"). I there is a normal male in every  normal female, and vice versa, then we cna logically veiew gender rolese and thus Henderson's images as interchangeable. Though experience suggests a reasoned portioning of such speculative possibilities, it is not difficult to imagine a shifting hierarchy of male and femaleness within normal male and female perameters.

Of course the whole concept of normal male and female parameters defies the logic of a democratic society. Henderson uses the term to create an argumentative base and inject a bit of levity into what could be construed as a ludicrous preoccupation. As if we coudl fathom or determine the nuances of how each individual or gender should or should not behave within his or her own evolving behavorial system.

Yet in defense of such pursuits, Henderson encourages us to examine and question those facets which define us as men and women. Are they an innate part of our individual personas, or are they byproducts of termporary societal or biological pressures.  As we enter this age of self-realization, cloning, and virtual reality, will we move beyond  natural selection toward an individual man-made recipe for wants and needs.  Will we give our gender its due, or sacrifice those unwanted traits for a more holistic identity which embraces the totality of our personas.  Given mankind's history and Henderson's comically suggestive installation, the experience will be anything but normal.

 

Ed Krantz, Gallery Curator
Elgin Community College

This essay is from the catalog for exhibition of ADELE HENDERSON and HOLLY RITTENHOUSE, June 24 - August 5, 1999, Safety-Kleen Gallery One, Elgin Community College, Elgin Illinois