Black Magic Women

Claire Withycombe

Eerie, watery chants sung by a chorus of female voices echo out onto the street in a quiet residential block. The ebb and flow of the music pulls the curious pedestrian into the set of open doors and through to the back of a modest gallery, where black-and-white vintage footage of young female gymnasts flits on a small screen. Their bodies glide, somersault, leap, and twirl forwards, backwards, and around in a series of roughly cut and rewound frames to the haunting movements of the music. “Collective Magnetism,” by Sara Mosk, is an appropriate introduction to “Black Arts,” both for the magnetic pull of its sounds and images, and for its place in the collective spirit of this group exhibit at Pilsen’s Roxaboxen Minicastle.

At first, the feeling in the gallery suggests the sensation of hearing lonely footsteps on an empty Pilsen street: a few viewers mosey around the two open rooms, and the disjointed creepiness of the individual works dictates the mood. A striking duo of sketches of prone women’s bodies by Jenny Kendler hangs on the front right. The top image, entitled “Oh, Give Me a Home,” features buffalo thundering across a woman’s back. In the sketch below, entitled “Sibling Rivalry (Love Bites),” another woman is mounted by a furry animal. Glance to the left, and a drawing depicts soft grey lines wriggling across sketch paper like the shadowy traces of charcoal worms. A shroud covering an elliptical form resting in a metal frame points across the space toward a giant paisley plume, rendered in black upholstery with touches of orange and sapphire.

As the night goes on, the tiny space fills with a crowd of exuberant folk, and lively conversations bubble to the surface. A woman in a pink wig and heavy makeup saunters up to a college kid in black cargo pants. They hit it off and start chatting about the work in front of them: a piece by Alex Chitty, a burnt six-foot ladder situated between a sketch of dismantled cougar skin and a photograph of a mouthless mask superimposed on a satin curtain.

In assembling the exhibit, curator Liz McCarthy drew from her personal network of female artists, looking for “icons of the individual [artist]” she had in mind. Some pieces were created for the exhibit, but most were personally selected by McCarthy from each artist’s extant oeuvre. All but one of the fourteen artists are based in Chicago. McCarthy sought to gather different individuals’ takes on an archetype widely explored and exploited in human history through folklore–that of the “strong, independent female outcast from…daily life,” she says.

Walking through the exhibit, McCarthy explains the structure of the exhibition space as a transition between two major manifestations of artistic work: formal “approaches to making images,” such as watercolors and photographs situated in frames, and less formal work that reflects ideas of environment and embodiment in more abstract or unconventional media. Traces of the two themes present themselves in different regions of the space, but the human body is of central concern at the front (with the Kendler pieces, and other works that use the image of the human body), while moving through the exhibit, “the body becoming environment” comes to the fore. This second idea is exemplified in a sculpture that manipulates objects of interior environments and challenges notions of females as vessels of content domesticity: Chitty’s ladder, despite reaching to some higher goal, is burnt to a crisp; a work by Melissa Damasauskas entitled “Powers That Be”–a chair snaked in masses of velveteen black ribbons–is shoved up against a doorknob. McCarthy describes the progression of the exhibit as a “buildup” which seems to culminate in the hypnotic footage “Collective Magnetism.”

The choice to run the exhibit during the spring, according to McCarthy, dovetails with the traditional associations of fertility with the season–and by extension, of the fertile with the feminine. A nearly exclusive use of black and white in each of the pieces references the notion that this fertility springs from the “dark, rich soil” built up during the burial of organic matter during the winter.

Ultimately, “Black Arts” is worth a visit. The exhibit is united not just by form or by meaning but also organically and communally, by the biological femaleness shared by the artists themselves and by the supportive structure of the exhibit’s origins. While each piece certainly provokes thought individually, the exhibit’s greatest charm is to be experienced in the way those individual pieces act in concert with the others.

Roxaboxen Exhibitions, 2130 W. 21st St. Through June 2. Hours by appointment through Free.