ART REVIEW By D. Eric Bookhardt 07 22 03

The Consolation of Discomfort

WHAT: Southern Discomfort: Work by New Orleans Women Artists
WHEN: Through Oct. 3
WHERE: Loyola University, Monroe Library, Collin C. Diboll Gallery, 861-5456

The art world used to be a gentlemen's club. It used to be that women were -- well, you know, they might have tons of talent, but gee, they were always doing weird, distracting things like having babies, and, well, real artists were steely eyed, hard-edged guys like Pollock or Picasso, or else otherworldly kooks like Mondrian. Either way, there wasn't much room for girlie girls; only tough, crazy broads like Georgia O'Keefe or Dorothea Lange could make the guys accept them on their own terms, and they were few and far between.

But by 1970 all that began to change as it became clear that more and more women were "acting crazy," making vaginal dinnerware like Judy Chicago, or mock-erotic totems like Louise Bourgeois, as their liberated "sisters" were burning their bras in the streets. It was shock therapy, but it did tend to open up the art world to more women. And just as women by the 1990s had rediscovered the power of the feminine in a variety of guises and contexts, so women artists and women's art have become more nuanced as well.

That much is evident in this Southern Discomfort show, which features various viewpoints in often witty works that question the nature of gender and life in general. For instance, Andrea Loest transcends traditional feminism with paradoxical dolls and dresses with a message. Actually, many messages, as we see in Greedy Bitch, a mannequin in a knee-length dress featuring colorful, stitched-on statements like "Everything I wear is Chanel" or "Mr. Right has a 14K proposal." But Complacent She-Ra is a doll -- a hysterical punk doll in a skin-tight outfit sporting phrases such as "Oh God, it hurts" and "Help Me!"

Kathy Sizeler, on the other hand, puts her own wry spin on the notion of butch feminism with some whimsical high-heeled shoes -- actually men's wingtips, military and saddle oxfords outfitted with massive platform heels. They may be butch-femme icons of sorts, but shoes like that can't help but conjure visions of a Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld in drag. Whoa! But weirdness only gets weirder with Jessica Goldfinch's Enhanced Lingerie for Your Special Girl, some ladies' slips modified to accommodate four breasts instead of the usual two -- some with two front and back, others with four up front. (It's the hot new thing in breast enhancement: more is better!)

No less nihilistic is Daphney Loney's Cut Off Your Arms to Spite Your Damnation, a pair of cast glass arms and hands with clear glass fingers tipped with opaque, flame-red fingernails. With their moving joints, they could almost be prostheses -- a surreal yet intriguing idea. A tad more contemplative are Raegan Robinson's box assemblages, concoctions of dark wood, bleached vertebrae, bits of old locks and pictures of the futuristic trains of yesterday. Strategically placed among them are some old sepia photographs of sleek Creoles at play or relaxing by the sea -- a privileged look at some private moments in works that function as reliquaries for symbolic memories. Robinson has been making these boxes for some time, and this group is especially eloquent.

More Creoles appear in Rashida Ferdinand's I'm Not Tragically Colored: I'm Too Busy Sharpening My Oyster Knives, an unruly maze of wire, oyster and other shells that looks like it might have washed up at Shell Beach or Irish Bayou. A closer look reveals female African-American faces sequestered amid the shells, all in a tangle like an underwater version of B'rer Rabbit's briar patch. Hard to do it justice here, but it's a strong piece, as is her Arewethereyetarewethereyet: Ideology of Boob, a kind of industrial ramp laden with what look like large, cracked ostrich eggs. Look again, and omigod they're breasts; big, chipped and cracked knockers, like products of a defective assembly line. A metal sign reads: "Caution: Boobs Under Construction," and yeah, it's a commentary on America's mammary fixation, which many women seem to share, yet deeply resent.

A softer take on gender appears in Laura Richens' elongated woodcut prints featuring the simple forms of stones or waves accompanied with the lyrics of old English sea chanteys -- lyrics imbued with longing and romance. Unexpected sentiments in an exhibition of emerging women artists, but this provocative if uneven show is full of interesting little surprises.