Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Amanda Dillingham at Sarratt

Amanda Dillingham is showing work at Sarratt right now. The set of pieces constitutes incremental development from work she’s shown previously, although this may be the best chance I’ve had to see the range of ideas she is playing with. The show also includes Ben Matthew’s paintings of faux 19th century posters and advertisements for improbable products like Mick’s Vacation Helmets, which transport you to a Wyoming mountainside thanks to what looks like a WWI vintage gas mask. His pieces go pretty well with Amanda’s but it’s her work I want to talk about.

Start with Amanda’s basic vocabulary: communion wafers, flowers, images of women (their bodies), bees/honey/honey combs. The elements in this limited set bring in several big phenomena and the relations between them—the church, women, the body, eating, making and producing food, self-sacrifice and self-denial, fruition, beauty. Self-sacrifice, the celestial dinner, these things mean one thing to the Church but something completely different when you bring women’s bodies into the picture. And make it clear that they are part of the story all along, even when erased.

This show has pieces or parts of pieces seen elsewhere, but I think there’s some new stuff too. To start on one wall, there’s a honey comb pattern made from communion wafers—the white, thin, tasteless lozenges—that Amanda has drawn flowers on in red ink. She’s used these wafers several times now, tattooing decoration and variability into something nearly featureless and almost perfectly uniform. On either side of the wafers are arrays of holy cards of female saints, everything except the flesh scraped away, meaning the cards are mostly blank except for faces, sometimes the hair, hands, and occasional feet or toes. This erasure on the cards goes to show how thoroughly the female body has to be kept under wraps. So many female serve as models of objects of devotion, but their bodies have to be sequestered for fear of breaking the spell.

Next there’s a sculpture of a shrouded female figure, called Mistress of Bees as if it were a non-canonical saint. It is made from beeswax molded into a large honeycomb pattern. The honeycomb pattern rules out detailed modeling of the figure or face, making it that much more ghostly. The statue has been drenched in honey, and dead bees and roses lie at its feet. It’s unappetizing, but still gives the idea of an overripe lusciousness.

On the next pedestal is a piece called Impregnated Host, which is a pretty literal description of what’s going on. It’s a pile of bread balls apparently made by treating communion wafers with yeast and baking them—un-unleavening them. The yeast makes the flat wafer rise and swell up, and in the baking process they got a toasty color. The point of communion wafers seems to be to make something to be eaten with no sensory pleasure. Turning the wafers into little buns makes them almost seem like something you would want to eat. Also, as they puff up the cruciform indentations on the wafers become more pronounced. They’ve been despoiled, taken out of their pristine, unleavened, virginal, perfect state into a state of fecundity. But it’s also the state bread is meant to have.

Finally, there’s the video of Lesley Patterson-Mark, Heather Spriggs Thompson, and I think Amanda’s sister each in turn eating a flower. This was the focal point of Amanda’s installation for the Judy Chicago project at Vandy last year. The footage is reversed, so they are actually shown issuing forth a flower, bit by bit, from their mouths. The women all go through the process differently. Lesley grimaces and lifts her eyebrows, mostly pulls the rose petals out of her mouth one or a few at a time. Heather is more deadpan, but she attacks the carnation stem directly with her mouth. Amanda’s sister (if I’ve got that right) also plucks petals from her mouth to make a tulip. It’s a process of generating beauty by reverse consumption, consumption with the pleasure element removed.

The common elements – women, flowers, bees, honeycombs, communion wafers – create a dense symbolic space which invokes all sorts of words and images. The Lord’s Supper. Take, eat, this is my body. Hail Mary, full of grace. The queen bee, entombed in the hive to be fed and reproduce. The cells of a honeycomb.

The other presence here is Will ClenDening. Amanda’s erased holy cards seem to me a tribute to her dear friend, who died less than a year ago in a motocycle accident in Dickson County. One of Will’s major pieces involved scratching off the printing from playing cards, leaving ghost cards and a pile of shavings. Amanda’s using the same technique here. It’s the best sort of tribute—look Will, here’s something I learned from you, but here’s what I’m going to do with it. I’m listening but not mimicking.

I wonder if she held onto the shavings for some future use.

Amanda’s in graduate school right now, and I wondered if this show would present more of break with her previous work. I don’t think it does, although it may be a fuller picture. I bet the results of her grad school growth aren’t ready yet (I could just ask). There can be a surprising lag between what you see and what the artist who made it is currently thinking about.

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