Battle of the Sequins

What do an aboriginal nose piercing, baby dolls, a beaded moose head and fluffy feather skirts have in common? It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but Sherry Markovitch begs this very question with all seriousness in her Shimmer exhibit, shown at the WSU Museum of Art. Her kaleidoscopic and seemingly random patterns of beads and shells fill the exhibition room with cacophonic visual noise that, at first, threatens to overwhelm the viewer. Fortunately wispy feathers and airy silk canvases here and there provide a welcome respite from the beaded frenzy. One feels that the overarching theme is chaos; but on closer appraisal the works assume a deliberate purpose. One piece in particular, at least to this critic’s eye, encapsulates the major artistic rhetoric that comprises this exhibit.

Hunting Dress (2002), contrary to its name, is a tremendously impractical garment. The bodice is tight and rather sheer, though (of course) excessively beaded. It falls to a characteristically poofy skirt that twinkles with red, green, and yellow feathers. It is quite clear that only one sort of huntress would sport such a dress, and she is exactly the sort of woman that Markovitch pokes fun at throughout the exhibit’s artistic commentary on modern gender roles.

Shimmer puts certain aspects of femininity on display like a circus freak show. Markovitch’s baby dolls are cute and lifelike with eerily large, naïve eyes. Mary Todd (1997) herself is reduced to a beaded dress with a flower for a head. The lion’s share of the exhibit is bejeweled, beribboned and be-buttoned to death, as though Markovitch herself is somehow cathartically releasing a long-held loathing for traditional women’s work. Her frilly and hollow-looking female characters, like the petal-headed Mary Todd, caricature the type of femininity that Markovitch rejects. Like the New Guinea Clown Bear (1984), a bear’s head that is rather distressingly festooned with beads and ringed with a stiff Victorian collar like a hideous carnival pet, such a model of femininity has “sacrificed comfort for looks,” in Markovitch’s own words. In this sense the almost ridiculously decorated Hunting Dress decries the notion of femininity in which beauty, fragility and artifice are the measure of a woman.

What Markovitch presents instead is a strikingly feminine yet tremendously independent model of womanhood, which we will call “feminism” for lack of a less clichéd term. One of the most arresting facets of her artwork is the luminous pair of eyes on every face, animate or inanimate. Everything from baby doll heads to the deer heads mounted on the walls sports a pair of great gentle black eyes that lend an element of delicate softness to the whole face. Her artwork never belittles delicacy or beauty in and of themselves, and abounds instead with soft fabrics, velvety feathers, silky canvasses and other soothing and pleasant media. At the same time, however, she takes on gender roles, war and peace, etc. with brazen abandon, and aggressively purports her views on these subjects. A “Markovitchian” woman would not wear the Hunting Dress because she has to look pretty; but she very well might wear it because she wants to look nice and feels ten feet tall inside of it. As psychotic as Markovitch’s frenzied bead patterns and beribboned doll heads may seem, her message is quite pertinent. She asks why a woman cannot be both gentle and stalwart at the same time, as her pieces evidently are.

Markovitch rounds out her anathema against restrictive gender roles with a well-aimed kick at a traditional holdout of masculinity: hunting. Fabricated from an eclectic blend of materials, the exhibit sports a menagerie of deer, llama, donkey, pig and bear heads that have been wall mounted and then beaded, sequined, and baubled to death. One feels rather tired just looking at them. But Hunting Dress now becomes a gleeful tease, a well-played juxtaposition of two gender-bound words. Hunting is for girls, too, it says. Indeed, Markovitch has taken the epitome of masculinity, a hunting lodge wall piece, and turned it into a cross-stitch project with a pair of great big puppy eyes. Like her frivolous animal spectacles, she suggests, gender roles are really just a synthetic artifice designed to be visually, physically, or aesthetically palatable.

Our recalcitrant Hunting Dress, after probing its way through these charged issues, leaves us with a number of questions yet unanswered. One of these is the issue of artifice. If, as her cumbersome New Guinea Clown Bear suggests, she condemns the frivolity of affectations and contrived appearances, then where does that leave art? Are not “looks” the very essence of art, the necessary means by which it touches its viewer? One is led to believe that she is not as hypocritical as she sounds, that she is only condemning the social artifices that confine people rather than the artwork that facilitates human communication. But Markovitch leaves this question up to the viewer, preferring instead to present us with the Dress and the Bear and let us wrestle it out for ourselves. But that is the essence of the Shimmer exhibit, a frenetically glitzy affair that leads the viewer on a topsy-turvy introspective adventure.



By Emily Cox

Major: Exercise Physiology and Metabolism
Expected graduation date: May 2010 (Registered Dietician certification May 2011)
Hometown: Seabeck, WA

I suffer from a chronic lack of great inspirations and intuitions; all I have are lots of opinions that sometimes rally themselves into a cohesive research paper. This semester has been a tremendously fun escape from technical writing, which will eat my creative tendencies alive as soon as I go to Spokane to finish my undergraduate degree. I hope to salvage some communicative abilities throughout grad school and this paper gives me hope in that regard.