Women & Their Work, Austin
Through November 12
by Lee Webster
There is a figure in the history of the circus side-show who embodied the freak and the familiar and is often overlooked. Supposedly saved from a life of sexual slavery in the Harems of Turkish nobility by entrepreneurial showbiz men like P.T. Barnum, the Circassian beauties were said to be the most beautiful women in the world. With an exotic sounding name and hair teased high in an afro-like halo, the Circassian beauty’s alabaster skin reflected both a familiar and idealized beauty to bourgeois Victorian audiences as well as an otherized specter on which to lay their fantasies and sympathies.
Margaret Meehan digs deep into the registers of 19th century history for facts and mythologies to explore, explode and reassemble. Her work often investigates the quality of viewership, what it means to be a spectator—a gawker, a consumer of art and entertainment. In Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm, on view at Women and Their Work, Meehan applies the metaphoric structure of the boxing ring to the tale of the Circassian beauty evoking a theater of structured violence by which exploitation and atrocity is made entertainment.
Contemporary and archaic boxing terminology make up the titles of Meehan’s works. A glossary is printed on the back of the list of works to help decipher the meanings, though terms like “rope a dope,” “skinning the gloves” and “glass jaw” are evocative even when left undefined. At the entrance to the gallery, we’re greeted by The Journeyman (2011), a full-body photographic portrait of Meehan’s stand-in for the Circassian beauty. The Journeyman is part woman and part albino werewolf, with white fur covering her face, hands, lips and eyelids each a tender shade of pink. Dressed in a white gown with one boxing glove-clad hand draped over a chair in the style of Victorian portraits, she walks the line of familiarity and otherness in the same manner of the Circassian beauty. The figure’s blank stare perfectly captures the trepidation of a fighter before a fight or the uncanny gaze of a subject in an antique albumen print.
This, and two other portraits of the same figure, carry the show, bearing most of the narrative weight in the tableau Meehan constructs. Lacing (2011) is a close-up of the same figure bloodied with a black eye, looking defiantly askance at the viewer. In Jab (2011), she appears to be mid-fight, readying herself to throw another punch. This strange creature, some combination of a bearded lady and savage, dressed up as the proper specimen of Victorian woman-hood, embodies the various histories Meehan is working with in one compelling figure.
Meehan places The Journeyman figure in a larger sororal order of female werewolf boxers with The Barnburners (2009-2011), a collection of modified vintage cabinet cards arranged in a large grid on the wall. The portrait of the The Journeyman echoes the style of these antique portraits, and in turn Meehan brings these ladies into the sisterhood by giving them the trademark “mossy” hairdo of the Circassian beauty or a mask that conjures those of lucha libre wrestlers.
The sculptural works in the show establish the dramatic framing for the figure in The Journeyman, but lack some of the same layering of meaning present in much of the other work. Glass Jaw (2011), a punching bag that shines with black glitter, occupies a corner in the gallery painted black and strung with bare bulbs. The Circled Square (2011) pulls together the center of the gallery with a circle drawn in glitter around a pair of aluminum cast boxing gloves. These pieces are essential in defining the sporting arena as a theater of violence and the performance of hysteria that Meehan conjures, but rely more heavily on time-worn juxtapositions that don’t serve the oddness and complexity of the figures present in her two-dimensional pieces.
The visually striking and cohesive installation works best when seen as a whole, and as such is an enthralling take on the history of race, sex and spectatorship. Meehan’s resurrection and manipulation of forgotten histories is a surprisingly fresh investigation into the psychology of contemporary entertainment. The fascination of Victorian viewers with the Circassian beauty isn’t much different than the contemporary popularity of shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or even the nightly news. Meehan makes you the viewer and the voyeur, but instead of just presenting the prime-time bits, she makes you wait in the wings and then shows you the whole bloody mess.
Lee Webster is an artist living and working in Austin, Texas.