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Nancy Pierson at Ovsey Gallery

Nancy Pierson has set herself a difficult job as a "realist" artist in an art world where "realism" is sometimes still considered passť, since it is presumed to lend itself to naive complicity with the social status quo. Not Pierson's, which seems to seek out subject matter at the psychologically oppressive margins of social life, which may not be so marginal as simply culturally repressed.

In an earlier series of paintings Pierson borrowed faces from depression-era photos of people who applied (no doubt desperately) for street vendor licenses in New York, and she invested these people with a sense of "quiet desperation." In one a fairly good-looking, middle-aged salesman type dressed in appropriate suited uniform faces the viewer in close-mouthed silence (the wrinkles around his mouth suggest much practice at verbal self-suppression) and points to a "stigmata" cut on the palm of one of his hands--a symbol clearly intended to evoke a sense of the pathos of quiet inward suffering and a diminished social and emotional life.

That sense of quiet desperation carries over into Pierson's new charcoal drawings at Ovsey Gallery of middle-aged or older women. But the subject of the diminished life gets attached to the restrictive role of woman as "traditional" wife or old maid. The drawings depict women commiserating with each other over some personal trauma, over no longer being "young and desirable," or over some sense of a lost past and a bleak future. In a couple drawings Pierson has cut off the woman on the right and placed her on the left, as if to protest by defacing the drawing the experiences she delineates.

In an advertising culture that validates a standard of idealized youth and good looks that very few people can achieve, Pierson's women seem to be worried about aging. In Weeds an older woman comforts a younger woman with a sidewise embrace while another middle-aged woman holds her arms strenuously up with elbows out and hands locked in front of her, as if engaged in some internal struggle. The younger woman and the woman with the locked hands stare off into the upper right, as if there were some vague "something" up there out of the drawing that is a threat. Pierson has placed a flower in the younger woman's hair and left her in an un-sketched-in white dress. It looks as if the older woman were allegorically enlisting the younger into sexless "old age," into a kingdom of undesirable "weeds" rather than "flowers."

But one wonders whether it is female aging alone that these drawings are about. "Wifehood" would seem to be a subject, too. In a couple drawings Pierson includes wallpaper as background and dresses one woman in a flower-print sun dress and another in a dumb, dowdy pleated skirt with repetitive circle patterns, as if the lives they've led as women and wives were as diminished as the pattered wallpaper--the "yellow wallpaper," to allude to a late nineteenth-century feminist story. The woman in the flower dress is posed with another (more assertive and in a more unisex blouse) who scrutinizes some little thing that she holds between her two fingers. Both stand against a background of nearly solid black charcoal roses (here the medium of burnt-out charcoal may reveal something of its message as Pierson has used it). The question seems to be whether it is worth it to become a mere "wife" or "mother"; whether the sacrifices of complete adaptation to that role merit the exclusions from broader social life that they incur.

Some of Pierson's women seem to have adapted too perfectly to the constraints of their roles. There is something grotesque about the four middle-aged women in The Good Wives. Hands linked in a circle, eyes closed, all looking up, and dressed alike in constricting conservative black dresses with high choking white collars, they look as if they are engaged in a prayer meeting or seance. The white windswept cloud forms in a black night in the background and the light that seems to shine on their faces from above highlight the "supernatural" aura of the scene. Whether these are "Christian" women or witches is open to question (Goodwife, by the way, was the Puritan form of address for any woman, including those accused of witchcraft). The drawing suggests a disturbing conclusion: these women are complicit in the very definition of wifehood (household drudge and mother) that oppresses them and that they have internalized; and they "sublimate" the frustrations they have learned to accept by trying to find pious "reasons" for them in a (no doubt patriarchal) deity.

Members of the Guild communicates some of the same disturbing ambiguity. Three old women stare blankly out of the drawing dressed in antiquated maids' uniforms that look vintage turn-of-the-century. The two who stand in front hold their hands together, knuckles and thumbs touching--a prayerlike gesture that also suggests frustration and repression. On their heads they wear black caps with frilly white "crowns" that look like halos of sanctification. One is tempted to ask what religious order these women belong to. The order seems to be the Victorian order of older unmarried women who work as maids in bourgeois households where any indication of their having "male companions" (or any sort of sex life) might cause them to be dismissed. The two women up front sport a maid-company logo that looks abstractly (nonfunctionally) vaginal. It's either early marriage or old-maid chastity.

"Enough is enough!" Pierson's drawings force one to respond. Certainly the attitudes and roles which force women into these frustrated lives continue to exist in segments of American society. Feminist intervention has changed things a bit (at least for most women, and for a lot of men). But in a time when the Christian right wing (female as well as male) harps about "traditional family values," Pierson's drawings stand as a reminder of what those values have meant for many women. The drawings are dark and bleak--as dark as Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, of which some of Pierson's drawings will remind some viewers.


© Peter Kosenko, unpublished (November 1991).


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