Considering that the Washington Post‘s freelance art critic Jessica Dawson wrote, “I regret to report that almost all of the six solo shows filling Arlington Arts Center are underwhelming” when she visited the Arlington Arts Center recently, I wasn’t really expecting an artistic epiphany during my recent visit to see Nestor Hernandez’s portraits of Cuban-Americans currently on exhibition on the lower level of the center.
The visit to the Arlington Arts Center unexpectedly revealed one of the most memorable art installations that I have ever seen, and even though critics often have different opinions, I am honestly puzzled that Dawson didn’t mention the amazing installation in the main floor gallery.
I am referring to Cristin Millett’s astounding solo show at the Center.
Not being familiar with Millett’s work, I asked the Center’s hardworking director Claire Huschle to tell me a bit about both the artist and the installation. I then stepped back and listened as Claire smartly dissected and explained the installation and commented on it, and then I realized why Jessica missed it completely — listening being the operative word here.
“She grew in a medical household,” explained Huschle as we walked into the installation. This revelation (I believe) is the key to understanding (and appreciating) Millett’s work; forgive my using the critic’s crutch and let me describe it for you.
The installation consists of a maze-like circular corridor titled “Teatro Anatomico”, which uses Andre Levret’s 18th-century schematic representations of the female reproductive system at the time of conception.
Millett has reproduced them into chiffon sheets that hang from aluminum tubing, which form the maze and deliver a very convincing impression of both a hospital setting and a surgical theater, set up in uterine forms that lead to a central point.
There’s a certain strange Victorian parlor elegance to this first part of the installation, and the technical skill is admirable, both in the hand stitching of the ladylike chiffon and the construction of the aluminum tubing.
Millett has constructed a convincing anatomical theatre with a subtle nuance of the female reproductive system (even the Victorian lighting seems like a vagina when viewed from the outside); we are entering a medical theatre, where anatomy students, erotica voyeurs, and art observers all meld into one.
Inside the maze, a cleverly constructed medical exam table depicts the living digital image of a young woman’s body, except its face, which is replaced by a living digital plasm.
Titled “Abdominal Mystery: Dissection of the Observer,” this is a living, breathing video, where we see the anonymous body breathing, being dissected, wrapped in plastic (I think), explored and manipulated.
Here the voyeur is fascinated, titillated, and sometimes repulsed. The Eros of the nude body is coupled with the grossness of the exploration of its insides and the magic of its fragility. The body has become a bridge of sorts between the interior and exterior spaces of the architectural entryway provided by the uterine maze: are we entering the theatre, or penetrating it?
The metaphorical relationship can be overwhelmingly sexual, or perhaps an intelligent attempt to place the female body as a comment on its visual power in a Sexual Personae Camille Paglia sort of way?
And therein lies the unexpected success of this piece, which belongs in a museum where it can be admired, explored, and discussed: It brings the viewer into a silent interaction with a work of art that employs the most powerful of human icons: the body.
Millett is a young artist on the faculty at Penn State, and if this installation is a sign of things to come, then keep an eye on this promising artist.
And were our museum curators like their counterparts in New York or L.A. or Seattle or San Francisco, this piece would find a champion (and a home) in one of our area’s great museums.
This is my call for Anne Ellegood or Kerry Brougher from the Hirshhorn or Jonathan Binstock from the Corcoran to pay a visit to Arlington and see the newborn this young brilliant artist has delivered for us.
The exhibition runs through June 10, 2006.