There's no denying it. From the beginning of time, men have been looking at women. Whether in a "high" manner - the male viewer admiring the enigmatic smile of the "Mona Lisa" - or "low" - construction workers on their lunch hour ogling passing women, the female has been the focus of the masculine gaze. In the last 30 years, feminists have examined this phenomenon in art and explored and exploited its possibilities. Although she doesn't state outright her feminist leanings, the Richmond artist Amie Oliver certainly probes this concept of the objectified image of the female body.
"Heads or Tales," Oliver's current show at Coincidence Gallery, consists of more than 40 mixed-media works. The multivalent title, "Heads or Tales," seems particularly evocative because it can be interpreted on so many levels. As a description of the exhibit relates, "It can refer to the human body, games of chance, and the recognition of the influence that choice and chance have on life." Further, by using "tales" instead of "tails," Oliver suggests the fictive mode these images inhabit.
A majority of the works are large rectangular slabs that appear to be ancient stone yet on closer inspection are actually Styrofoam. Each work has a female face or body part painted or drawn on a canvas that is attached to the Styrofoam chunk. The works oscillate between painting in their flatness and placement on the wall, and sculpture in their three- dimensionality. The pieces are further elaborated with other media such as mica, concrete, stones and found objects that formally lend a more-nuanced surface texture. The result is a very classical, canonical art that references Greek temple friezes and archaeological fragments. Oliver tricks the viewer, however, into thinking these are solid, architectonic artifacts, when in reality, they are weightless, generic Styrofoam objects, as common as one's 7-Eleven coffee cup. Yet in our throw-away culture of fast food, disposable diapers and burgeoning landfills, what's more permanent than polystyrene plastic? The artist has created a new classical artifact in her use of such a resilient medium of the 20th century.
Mythological females, in particular, are prominent characters in Oliver's body of work. "Sources Say" is a classic example of the artist's style. A large rectangular block mounted vertically, the work depicts a beautiful, fluid * view of a female face. "Source" perhaps connotes the beginning of all human life, the female womb, but also refers to the characteristic manner that news stories are couched in, "he said, she said" allegations and rhetoric. The work points out the aggressive, active nature of looking and the passive, silent stance of the object, aware of the raking gaze yet unable to speak or even look back.
Many of Oliver's works appropriate classical images of Greek statuary such as "Venus de Milo" and the Three Graces. Her newest pieces, however, rely on cookie-cutter sculptures of the popular 1940s pinup girl. Some are painted, others have a shell or nut for a face, and still others have disintegrated to nothing but a leg. Precariously hung from delicate strings, the repetition and decay of these Playboy bunnies seems to equate the rise and fall of the pinup girl.
What isn't always clear in Oliver's art is whether by using the female motif as a central theme, she is critiquing societal values of women, both of the past and the present, or only reconfirming their role as objects? Either way, Oliver is successful in providing a voice, sometimes only in a whisper, to the solemn, stoic and silent form of she who is