Ceremonies and Transition
From birth to death, christening to funeral, no individual escapes being the object of ceremony. Kinship and contracts, in addition to all our important biological events, have been forever ritualized and celebrated. The force of nature and grip of nostalgia guarantee a process of change and reliving of obligatory ceremonies with great emotional investment.
In the last 150 years photography and photographers have become the ubiquitous witness to social ritual. Beyond its service to recollection, photography has also the power to inform the conduct of tradition to freeze-dried perfection. Just as ceremonies function to preserve moment so change in a lifetime, they initiate movement. The making of art is also a ritual act, a process of repetition and transformation.
Though artists, Judith Steinhauser and Linn Underhill, have never met there is a strong correspondence in their history as artists working with photography. Both women have borrowed freely from family albums and write directly on their work to produce a framework for visual analysis. The manipulation, sequencing, and multiple reproduction of family photographs is a composite of time, influence, and memory. The personal drawing of connections translates into a vision of human experience.
Linn Underhill’s photographs of brides and grooms smiles with accompanying text and Judith Steinhauser’s large photographs and photograms examine the psychology of ritual from a feminist perspective. In the joint exhibition of their work, CEREMONIES AND TRANSITION, the contradiction of manners and emotion that women experience as objects of tradition is portrayed in forceful though distinct styles. Underhill’s series of straightforward facial expressions, enlarged to 30 inches square, are a magnified protest against the crisis of identity for the bride and assumed authority of the new husband. Figures of women in Steinhauser’s work proceed from passive flirtation to a focus on feminine power and sexual awareness.
Linn Underhill zooms in on the masks of happiness we all wear at weddings to compare the levels of emotion exhibited by women and men. Though the contrast is sometimes subtle, Underhill’s treatment of the subject is as bold as the bride’s grin are self-conscious. The monumental scale of the assembled work creates a dizzy and powerful impact. There are forty pieces, each almost three feet square: 24 months interspersed with 16 texts. The framed texts are excerpts from love songs and lists that interconnect a glossary of housekeeping items common to all couples but divided by gender. The texts underline the separate experiences for men and women in marriage.
Borrowed from her mother’s work as a wedding photographer, Underhill’s large black and white photographs are an authentic representation of romantic ideals in our society where marriage is often an end in itself. Women appear hysterically happy and men are self-controlled. The attention to the mouth triggers the language of wooing and wedlock, the ritual expressions of possession, authority, fertility, and costume that still exist to define a woman’s dependent role as a wife and mother. The smiles are caricatures of happiness and look more desperate when we consider the obligations for women that are laid down by tradition. Mutuality and autonomy do not co-exist with the social trappings of matrimony.
In contrast to Underhill’s use of public information, Judith Steinhauser illustrates women’s struggle for self-definition by directly expressive means. She mixes photographs and photograms with penlight and pencil drawing in large photographic mural paper to create images loaded with psychological meaning.
The pieces included in the exhibit are current works that evolve in chronological order as a narrative of self-discovery. Social disguises give way to physical turmoil as the figures of women develop out of their ornamental roles. The flattened and decorative, “Striped Skirt,” is the simple form of a woman whose dress is two striped triangles, with the imprint of gloves for hands and rick rack sewing trim for frizzy hair. Hands, flowers, party masks and houses are recurring symbols that depict the mysteries and constraints between women and men. “Two in the Garden” and “Man and Two Women” pose a secretive and ambiguous liaison. Here the profiles of nymph like figures appear with identical mask features and flowing hair. As feminine ideals their position is peripheral; in a gesture of whispering they are messengers of inspiration and flattery.
“Dark Triangle” is a departure from the former sublimation of women as debutante, soothsayer or housewife. As the mask of a woman recedes into greyness a black pubic triangle forces itself in front of the figures struggling hands. This stirring of sex and body as self is a point of reconciliation where Steinhauser moves into the realm of archetypes. The antagonizing roles of women, as either Virgin Mary or more experienced Eve, are now played by human models replacing the more playful and stylized cutouts of earlier photograms. In “Storm Women, I” one of the final images, a blonde woman draped in flowered fabric and a stoic figure in black compete for focus but are strikingly poised. In the process of self-definition, a new relationship begins.
The complementary result of CEREMONIES AND TRANSITION is more than a statement about the too familiar subjugation of women into traditional roles. Emancipation is not a simple process that can be defined and then depended upon for happy endings. With humor and insight, the artists’ work takes on an active voice, questioning the face value of social custom, and risking emotional response.
Both artists have participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program. Judith Steinhauser, who lives in Philadelphia, produced part of her exhibited work in Syracuse as a resident in 1986. Linn Underhill, as resident artist in 1983, worked, in part, on a series of visual journals, still life of what gets dumped on the dresser at the end of the day. She now lives in Lisle, New York.