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Marvels & Tales 17.1 (2003) 178-181
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PixerinaWITCHERINA. Exhibition. Curated by Bill Conger. Catalogue with essays by Bill Conger, Maria Tatar, and Jan Susina. University Galleries, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, 2002 (Exhibition dates not given).
A secret language invented by Virginia Woolf to talk to her niece gives the exhibition and catalogue its name. The choice of title is apt inasmuch as this secret language was between women, it was intergenerational, and it established a pair of personae that were undomesticated. In order to write, Woolf was forced to "kill" the domestic feminine ideal that haunted her—the Victorian "Angel in the House." The pixie and witch, on the other hand, live out of doors and in the woods.
The art in the exhibition is exclusively women's art, and it is also fairy tale art, broadly defined. The text of the catalogue consists of three essays, by Bill Conger ("What Big Teeth"), Maria Tatar ("Invocations of Fairy Tales"), and Jan Susina ("Straw into Gold: The Transformative Nature of Fairy Tales and Fairy Art"). Altogether these comprise an explanatory context for the exhibition's paintings, photographs, and sculptures, elucidating the confluence of women's culture and fairy tales.
Bill Conger, who is also the exhibition's curator, associates the title with "the shared subversive culture of women, old and young" (7). Conger presents the roles available in this subversive culture rather like a master of ceremonies jollying the (female) children along: "Pixie and Witch, like Virgin and Whore, can seem less like the imposed binaries of an overbearing patriarchy than like an intriguing group of possible future career choices for the enterprising little girl to consider" (7). Disturbingly, his choice of cover and [End Page 178] frontispiece art reinforces the idea of erotic role-playing fun with barely nubile, Lolita-esque photographs (cover: Meghan Boody, detail from Psyche's Tail; frontispiece: Margi Geerlinks, Untitled [Girl]). But to be fair, a reappropriation of the erotic is an aspect of women artists' subversive activities, and the gender of the curator doesn't nullify the enterprise itself.
Maria Tatar's essay points out the bifurcation of the fairy tale into two distinct realms—that of the nursery, where the traditional literary texts are ensconced, and that of the "collective cultural unconsciousness," where adults (particularly women) talk together about their lives and give voice to the tales in "a more elastic form." (25). This principle of malleability clarifies the connections between the visual art featured in the exhibition and fairy tale literature.
The art is quite varied in media, style, mood, and approach to motifs that often can only be identified very loosely with fairy tales. We have, for example, photographic representations of little girls and elderly women by Meghan Boody and Margi Geerlinks, a Bosch-like painting of an infernal slaughter-yard (Hilary Harkness, View of a Slaughter Yard), a self-portrait out of Velasquez (Julie Heffernan, Self-Portrait as Infanta Dreaming Madame de Sade), and a group of vinyl penis-trees (Julie Latane, Fairy Ring). We also find abstractions—or perhaps representations of elements so fundamental as to appear abstract from the human (and fairy?) perspective—Karen Arm's Untitled (Stars) and Smoke Drawing #5. The inclusion of Arm's works extends the bounds of the exhibition to contain any and all elements that might possibly exist in the fairy-tale realm: stars, smoke, trees, twins, mushrooms, and so forth. At the opposite pole from abstraction, the exhibition leads us to consider how our imaginations overlay and complicate recognizable fairy-tale images. In his introductory, "What Big Teeth," Conger begins with a reference to visual memory, his grandmother turning the illustrated pages of a Golden Book. Through our own recollection of images—the princess with golden hair and tiny, finely-arched feet; trees with faces on their gnarled trunks and branches like threatening arms; animals prancing in boots and velvet breeches—we appropriate and ourselves continue the transformation of the already-represented images.
Jan Susina's essay "Straw into Gold" notes the importance of transformation in many fairy tales and then moves to a discussion of how the...