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Women and Oneness : New exhibit at Cal State Northridge galleries puts sharp focus on feminist involvement in community.

August 28, 1992|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times

As the claptrap about family values rages on, it seems especially important to recognize individuals who have made sincere efforts to foster dialogue on the meanings of family and community.

Beginning Monday, when a new exhibit opens, Cal State Northridge's Art Galleries will highlight several women artists who have spent a significant portion of their lives doing just that. The show's title, "communitas: the feminist art of community building," makes its point by avoiding capital letters.

CSUN professors Betty Ann Brown and Elizabeth Say, of the art general studies and religious studies departments, respectively, organized the show. Brown had written an article for Visions magazine a few years ago that focused on women who use their art as a form of building community. She consulted with Say then, who had written a doctoral dissertation that became the book, "Evidence on Her Own Behalf." Its last chapter explores the notion of community, and how concepts of it can be redefined from a feminist perspective.

"I decided to take the idea of the article, get together local artists who were using art as a form of community building, and invite them to develop work," Brown said. "I wanted a show to be a collaboration not only among the artists, but also in the curating of it. I invited Beth to be the co-curator." Together they wrote the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit.

Four unusual art enterprises fill the gallery space. Since 1989, Dean Dresser has written to various religious figures, scholars and persons active in social causes, asking them for a sign, symbol or words they would inscribe on a wall in the 1990s for the generations of the future.

She incorporates each reply into a painting, using it as the genesis for her robust, abstract, mixed media interpretations of the ideas of her "co-participants." She calls her landscape-like images of earth, sky and beyond "Creation Myths for an Age of Despair."

Czech documentary photographer Zuzanna Swansea sent the phrase, "Freedom is at its purest when we long for it." America Sosa, leader of El Salvador's Mothers of the Disappeared, replied with a drawing of a flower wrapped in barbed wire.

Activist Arlene Carmen of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, who has a long history of providing health care and other services to the women of the city, sent the message, "Empowerment of Persons Doesn't Trickle Down, It Travels Up."

"Hopefully, my paintings will become part of a dialogue," Dresser said. "My goal is to get everybody to ask the question, 'What would I leave for generations to come?' "

Cheri Gaulke and Sue Maberry's installation, "Thicker Than Blood," motivates viewers to expand their definition of family. As a lesbian couple, their notion of it does not fit the standard model of mom, dad and the kids that has been immortalized through that cultural icon, the family portrait.

Gaulke and Maberry decided they wanted to take part in that ritual. They went to Sears and had their portrait taken. And they sent their friends--homosexual couples, heterosexual couples, single parents with children, good friends who wanted to pose together--to their local Sears stores to do the same thing.

Twenty 10-by-13-inch color portraits of the people who make up Gaulke and Maberry's family are proudly displayed on one long wall of the gallery, which blares the word, "Family." Accompanying the portraits are 30 snapshots that illuminate their relationships with their friends, and texts that provoke thought about the nature of family life in the United States.

"Sue and I felt it was important that we do this ritual," Gaulke said. "We're lesbian, but we are part of so many Americans who define their families in different ways for various reasons."

Ruth Ann Anderson collaborated with three artists to create "Source," "a space in which somebody would walk in and immediately feel they are in a sacred space," she said. It also "honors the feminine."

Anderson's art reflects her commitment to the spiritual path known as Wicca. An Old English word, it is the root of the modern word, witch. However, unlike common notions of witches, Wicca participants gather together as a community to focus on the inter-relationship of earth and women, and to celebrate the sacred earth and the cyclical nature of life.

"Source" presents homages to four elements--earth, fire, air and water--that are considered sacred in earth-based religions around the world. Poetry by Starr Goode and Anpetu Winyan (a.k.a. Muriel Antoine) ushers viewers into the installation.

Rosalie Ortega has reflected her own body in her depiction of earth because she feels a strong sense of connection to it. Jill d'Agnenica depicts fire with a circle of 13 orange lights, suspended from the ceiling, in front of a black backdrop. The piece commemorates women who were burned as witches.

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