painting of 1979-89 is typical of first-wave feminism which
explores essentialist constructions of an innate feminine sensibility.
She defies convention by recontextualizing the pastel colors
and biomorphic shapes commonly dismissed by male critics with
the pejorative "feminine." Orleman develops an iconography
of central core imagery in which she organizes her compositions
around a central cavity that becomes a metaphor for the female
body. She references the Jungian lexicon of fertility symbols,
particularly the archetype of the Great Goddess. The myth of
the Great Goddess appealed to first-wave feminists such as Hanna
Wilke and Miriam Shapiro because it leant an intellectual legitimacy
to their treatment of powerful female figures. It offered Orleman
an opportunity to consider what it might have been like to be
a woman in a matrifocal ancient culture. She employs the Great
Goddess to redress the devaluation of the female body in patriarchal
culture and in the familial culture of her childhood as well.
Her allegories of the Great Goddess in conception, pregnancy,
and birth express Orleman's longing for domestic comfort and
safety. Like the earlier interiors, the womb here becomes an
allegory of home. Orleman looks to the Goddess for the protective
mothering she was denied as a girl and for psychic metamorphosis.
By 1990, Orleman abandons the Great Goddess archetype to address
her childhood trauma with the immediacy of narrative; and in
the new paintings, colored by second-wave feminism, she identifies
gender as socially constructed rather than biologically determined.
Like Sue Williams and Ida Applebroog, she foregrounds the experience
of rape to overturn canonical codes of representation that construct
femininity through objectification. The death of her mother
in 1989 freed Orleman to break the family's conspiracy of silence.
The guidance of a psychotherapist helped her to express her
emotions of fear, shame, isolation, and rage, and to reclaim
her body. Recasting the doll house-like space of her early interiors,
she creates suffocating, horrific family "portraits."
Working on an intimate scale with fine sable brushes, she accesses
the insights of her girlhood. And painting on a monumental scale
with a butcher knife, she discovers a transgressive, defiant
self. Orleman invents a complex personal iconography to represent
her abuse in graphic detail and to convey her process of self-empowerment.
Table becomes bed which becomes coffin which becomes canvas;
knife becomes phallus which becomes paintbrush. Orleman's aesthetic
of urgency distinguishes her work from the glossy often seductive
images of female victims ubiquitous in popular culture. As she
hystericizes the female body, she refutes the male gaze and
reorients her self-identity from that of victim to survivor.
Dick and Jane's Spot is Orleman's antidote to the painful process
of self-scrutiny. This ever-changing sculpture garden she and
her husband, artist Dick Elliott, began building in 1982 at
their home in Ellensburg infuses her analysis of domesticity
with humor and utopian sentiment. Celebrating their partnership
of mutual emotional and artistic support, Dick and Jane's Spot
is an edenic vision in which Orleman and Elliott break free
from academic practice to assert their own rules. Dick and Jane's
Spot is a kinesthetic, sensory experience, a dazzling labyrinth
of course materials from bicycle reflectors to milk bottles,
incongruously combined and heavily encrusted, to create a disorienting
but transformative experience. To Orleman, the garden is a place
of refuge and an act of self-actualization. Through her carnivalesque
totems that proclaim "Art is Life," she reconfigures
her idea of home from one which heaps abuse to that which offers
spiritual and artistic regeneration.
Janet Marstine teaches at Central Washington University.
Her book "New
Museum Theory: An Introduction" will be published by Blackwell
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