Bodies of Work: 1984-1993
September 2 – 30, 1993
James Howe Gallery
Kean College of New Jersey
Eugenie Tsai, Director
The female form has been the focus of Susan Daboll’s camera for nearly a decade. Bodies of Work: 1984-1993 presents an overview of the artist’s photographs, which despite various techniques, consistently reveal a thoughtful reconsideration of the female body in the Western pictorial tradition.
Daboll’s most recent series of photographs restage familiar art historical themes drawn from the Old and New Testaments, including the narrative cycles of the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin Mary. Within this circumscribed set of subjects, Daboll has clearly chosen those that feature powerful protagonists: Judith, Susanna, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. We should not be surprised to learn that a trip to Italy in 1991 provided the impetus for this series. Living in Rome, and traveling to other cities provided Daboll with an opportunity to study the work of Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters. Some of her favorite artists from these periods include Giotto, Pontormo, Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi. However, Daboll’s photographs from this series do not attempt to imitate the appearance of specific paintings. Instead, they recreate aspects of paintings which the artist finds especially intriguing. Gestures, drapery, settings, and lighting, all of the formal elements that heighten the compelling narratives of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, are employed by Daboll’s photographs. For example, Visitation I, 1991, the scene from the Life of Christ in which the pregnant Virgin and St. Elizabeth meet, depicts only the softly rounded bellies and embracing arms of the mothers-to-be. Dramatic lighting underscores their eloquent gestures and satin-clad torsos s does the deep black background. Typical of this series, the models overtly pose for the camera. Belly-to-belly, their bodies and intertwined arms encapsulate the awe, wonder, and spirituality of the entire scene. Daboll’s photographic reformulation of the traditional narrative in black-and-white creates a contemporary analogue that is both personal and true to the emotional tenor of say, Giotto’s Visitation in the Arena Chapel.
This series based on biblical themes represents a decided shift in the direction of Daboll’s work. Although her earlier photographs were also preoccupied with the subject of women, they reflected more personal concerns. Daboll’s own body first appeared in her work in the mid-eighties. As a graduate student she photographed fragments of landscape and assembled the images to form a grid. She then began to insert photographs of parts of her body—head, leg, shoulder—into the grid, juxtaposed with the landscape fragments. Around the same time, Daboll started another grid series using a Polaroid camera and hand-written text. Unlike the landscapes, this series explored private fantasies. I Didn’t Play with Dolls, 1984, was inspired by her sister’s Barbie dolls found at that time by her mother. Deciding to act out a role, the artist dressed up like a Barbie and then photographed herself with the doll placed against various parts of her body. The resulting work suggests the distance between the artificial ideals of femininity represented by the plastic doll and the reality of an actual woman of flesh and blood. To Wait and To Act, two other works from this series, examine various meanings of each word, and explore behavior the artist feels she perpetuated as a passive agent waiting for a force to act on her.
Daboll’s photographs of the following two years, 1985 and 1986, continued to investigate various ideals of femininity and sexuality. In a series entitled Stand Facing, 1985, Daboll once again decided to assume a role that made her uncomfortable but which she felt was expected of her. She purchased “sexy” lingerie from a department store, tried everything on in front of the camera and pressed the shutter. But unlike the scantily-clad but seemingly self-assured models on the pages of “men’s magazines,” Daboll’s torso filling the entire frame conveys a distinct sense of awkwardness. Some of the close-ups reveal how ill-fitting these articles of lingerie can be. This physical discomfort suggests Daboll’s psychological disquiet with reenacting this cultural stereotype of feminine sexuality. The formal beauty of the resulting photographs, gold-toned silver prints, is at odds with the subject; this tension serves to underscore the uneasy quality of the masquerade found in these works.
The Body Knowledge series of 1986 also points to the gulf that separates actual women from feminine ideals. In this series Daboll turned to women portrayed in the history of art. Each photograph in this series contrasts the image of a female statue with the image of a contemporary woman, either the artist or one of her friends. For example, Body Knowledge II shows a classical Greek sculpture in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum flanked by smaller images of the artist clad in a long pleated gown. The artist’s outstretched arm mimics the gesture of her marble counterpart. Although the costumes and poses of the contemporary women look as though they were carefully planned to correspond to a specific historical sculpture, this is not at all the case. Each photograph was assembled from an existing body of images shot randomly by the artist.
The series, entitled Armor, 1988, introduced men into Daboll’s work. Armor was accompanied by Sexualized Bodies, a series of women. With these two series, Daboll experimented with the technique of tearing up and reassembling her photographs. Although her photographs prior to these frequently frame partial views of their subjects, here the fragmentation of the body is enhanced through the technique of collage. Both series draw our attention to details of costume that silently declare the wearer’s gender, class, and self-declared social group. Men “arm” themselves with a variety of costumes: white shirts, baseball caps, black leather jackets, and muscles. The series of women focuses more narrowly on anatomy and conventionally feminine costumes. The cultural construction of sexual identity is suggested by the process of constructing the photographic images.
Mother’s Closet, 1989-90, is the last of Daboll’s series to explore herself in relation to an “ideal” woman. In this case, the ideal is close to home. The image that dominates these dramatic lead-backed mural prints is the body of a tall full-figured woman wearing a shimmering, close-fitting gown. Isolated against a black ground, the figure towers over the viewer, the gown evoking the elegance of Marilyn Monroe. This reference to the 1950’s is entirely appropriate, for Daboll grew up during this era. The image resonates with girlhood memories of her mother: the monumentality of the images in the series suggests both the artist looking up at her mother, who was very tall, as well as the way all adults appear through the eyes of small children. The narrow vertical format of the photomurals suggests the glamorous figure as glimpsed through a crack of an open door, recreating the artist’s memory of surreptitiously watching her mother dress up to go out on Saturday nights. The model in Mother’s Closet is Daboll herself, clothed in her mother’s “honeymoon” nightgown.
Situated on both sides of the camera, both artist and subject, Daboll(like Cindy Sherman) is in complete control of the way she is represented and way she represents herself. Deeply personal, her work also raises questions of concern to a wider audience. What is the difference between a male artist depicting a female subject(which has a long history in Western art) and a female artist depicting herself? How have women been visually represented throughout Western history? How and by whom have ideals of femininity been constructed? And perhaps most importantly, how can ideals of femininity be reconstructed? Daboll’s Bodies of Work: 1984-1993 doesn’t answer these questions but initiates a provocative dialogue which invites us to participate.