Winston-Salem Journal

The loss of innocence

Contrasting hues color artist's statements in provocative Wake Forest exhibit

By Tom Patterson
Journal Columnist
Sunday, February 27, 2005

Pink is a color that's often symbolically associated with birth and florescence, while black is most often used to connote death and the destructive forces associated with warfare and the passage of time. In the works that she has created in recent years, Judith Page has repeatedly juxtaposed those sharply contrasting hues in order to highlight the tension between innocence and grim experience that is thematically central to her art.

Page is an artist who lived in Florida for 20 years before she moved to New York in 1993. Pieces from four separate but thematically related bodies of work that she has created since then are on view at Wake Forest University's Hanes Art Gallery in an exhibition that takes its title from one of those series, "Memoirs of a Beast." The show is scheduled to remain on view in the gallery's mezzanine through March 24.

The four large, suspended panels that serve in lieu of walls along the two adjoining sides of the mezzanine opening onto the Main Gallery below have been daubed with a loosely gridded arrangement of tar-gel polka dots in a luridly glossy Pepto-Bismol-pink - a color that Page uses in all of the series represented here. In the center of each of these panels is a pink-nosed, black relief sculpture representing an animal - an elephant in one case and rabbits of various sizes in the other three.

At a glance, these relief sculptures - or at least the ones depicting rabbits - suggest oversized versions of chocolate Easter bunny candies. But they're partially flattened like roadkill and mounted on the wall like flayed animal skins nailed to the side of a barn.

The fact that these effigies are largely made of tar gel brings to mind the "tarbaby" in the African folk-tale from which Joel Chandler Harris appropriated the most widely known of his "Uncle Remus Stories" - an innocent-looking effigy of a child created by the enemies of the rabbit trickster-hero, for whom they intended it as a trap.

These works are from Page's series "The March of Time," whose title alludes to art history, referenced in the titles and parenthetical subtitles of these works. For example, one of the three rabbit sculptures is titled "1432" (Eve, from the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck).

In a statement she wrote about this series, Page explained the none-too-direct relationships between these sculptures and their titles by asserting that the works "speak for the propagation of ideas, the seemingly unstoppable visions of artists - a dark and divine contagion that has no boundaries and defies rationality."

The show's two other, similarly zoomorphic sculptures are from Page's series "365 Dumb Days," which she has characterized as "a diary of objects assembled from a life's accumulation of miscellany" and "a testament to the comedy and tragedy of life." Each of these is evidently a stuffed-animal toy that she has modified, then dipped in pink tar gel and suspended from a string above a dried pink puddle, so that the sculptures appear to have been hung up to drip-dry on the spot.

The pink-drenched, stuffed rabbit that is October 15 (Bunny and Bones) incorporates the jawbones and sharp teeth from a small animal skull. Meanwhile, the pink-drenched, stuffed mouse that is July 1 (Rat and Artichoke) has an artichoke jammed halfway up its rectum and is suspended upside down. These pieces come off as simultaneously goofy and disturbing.

To create "Memoirs of a Beast," the series from which the show takes its title, Page recycled the small pages and binding of a diary that she kept when she was in elementary school during the late 1950s. She used the pages of these diaries as backgrounds for visual components that she added, including simple figures rendered in pink tar gel, collaged fragments of old photographs and expanses of black ink, often obscuring the handwritten diary entries in whole or in part.

Page's use of the term "beast" refers to herself as both a child and an adult, while referencing the biological fact that humans are just another species of mammal, like the rabbits, elephants and mice referenced in this and her other works in the show.

Here the diary pages are mounted directly on the wall in a symmetrical, two-part grid subdivided down the middle by a space in the center of which she has mounted the diary's detached cover and binding, which - like the two previously mentioned small sculptures - Page has dipped in pink tar gel.

The diaristic component of the latter series and some of its tar-gel imagery relates it directly to the show's three relatively large, striking works on paper, from Page's series "The Mouseketeers in Iraq."

These evolved from a previous series of larger-than-life portraits of children who appeared regularly on The Mickey Mouse Club television show in the late 1950s, when Page was a child. Each Mouseketeer wears the standard uniform, including a black mouse-ear cap and white sweater emblazoned with his or her name.

In hindsight, Page and others of her generation clearly can see the Mouseketeers as corporate media emblems of childhood innocence, bearing only the most tenuous relationship to the realities of American life during the Cold War era. Accordingly, she has rendered their faces as anonymous masks of pink tar gel or white gesso, almost featureless except for their uniformly black polka-dot eyes and grinning, gap-toothed mouths.

They're set off against backgrounds of almost illegibly dense text handwritten on black paper surfaces - excerpts from "memoirs" of former Mouseketeers stationed as soldiers in Iraq, as imagined by Page, according to her statement about the series. The juxtaposition further highlights the tension reflected in Page's use of pink and black as the dominant colors in this and the other serial works that make up this distinctive, thought-provoking show.

Lest viewers misunderstand her intentions, Page concluded her statement on the "Mouseketeers in Iraq" series by noting that it "is not cynical nor negative." And she added, "Our dreams, our aspirations, are fluid....We constantly remake ourselves, we melt and solidify, we die and are reborn."