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“The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error… Small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate.” The specific family described by Don DeLillo in his novel  White Noise is that of the narrator, but it could just as well be the Family of Man.

Kimberly Austin’s Aunt Mary left a legacy of religious icons and vintage photographs recording the history of her Catholic family. Many of the photographs show the women in white dresses, garbed as virgins for baptism, confirmation or matrimony. Austin recalls, “I was fascinated with these images that revealed femaleness as pure, innocent, beautiful and untainted. The white costume transformed women and girls into variations of the Madonna: placed them securely within the boundaries of femininity.”

At age 14, Austin developed a pain in her left knee. She was diagnosed with bone cancer and the leg was amputated. Chemotherapy triggered the loss of hair and body fat. The heavy prosthesis she was encouraged to adopt frightened her. In the midst of puberty, having been well tutored by the women in her family about what did and did not constitute ideal womanhood, Austin weighed 65 pounds, was bald, and had only one leg. “I felt sexless and different. Strangers could not decide whether I was a boy or a girl.”

Thus began Austin’s investigation into the icons and issues of sexual identity. Through subtle deconstruction of the Western archetype of the bride (white-clad, virginal, submissive), and of the classical depiction of the nude (anatomically perfect), her work has methodically destabilized those characteristics defined as masculine and feminine. In “Learning Normalcy,” Austin takes the issue of gender distinction literally back to the ABC’s.

Her sized-for-adults replicas of children’s building blocks present letters of the alphabet and body image specifics on the same rung of the ladder of awareness. In this work she says that opinions may form out of the elemental components of the language we share. These essential symbols comprise the gender code for our culture.

A is for apple and airplane and alligator. B is for boy, brush and boat. C is for corset, clown and condom. Austin’s blocks refer to the development of personal identity and knowledge of the body. Their messages come from health manuals, children’s hygiene instruction, and sex and marriage guides dating back to the turn of the century. Their topics relate to what was then regarded as normal, appropriate behavior.

The textual excerpts resonate with the authority of absolute knowledge that we, as contemporary readers, recognize as outdated, more moralistic than rational, and perhaps dangerously patriarchal. Austin’s work is effective because it instructs not through confrontation but through subterfuge. Her blocks are inviting playthings, offered to viewers in a spirit of generosity. Surfaced with saturated color and images printed in a soft focus, nostalgia-triggering format, they were made to be touched, handled, rearranged. “These elements of play and discovery are crucial. They suggest the powerful role seemingly innocent toys assume in shaping attitudes of young minds,” says the artist.

Austin painted the paper on the sides of the blocks with a mixture of bichromate (which is light-sensitive), color medium, and gum arabic. She surfaced the paper with a photographic emulsion and exposed her negatives twice—first with watercolor, then with gouache. For the second exposure, the negative image was registered to the first image, resulting in slightly blurred edges that enhance the vintage look of the photographs. This double-surfacing and double exposure produced the depth of rich color associated with elementary images created for children.

There is an exceptional quality of sweetness to “Learning Normalcy” — a gentleness and a delicacy. Austin’s opinion regarding the damage that a rigid definition of gender may inflict upon those who don’t fit the mold is not used as a weapon. She has made lovely, compelling objects that harbor questions. For adults, she has created the exploratory atmosphere of a children’s science museum. Look and touch, play and learn.

If we register shock at the juxtaposition of a dildo and a doll, what does that say about the way our brains compartmentalize and assign value to information? Austin suggests that we might benefit from being weaned away from our inherent reflex to categorize, specifically with regard to gender characteristics. Why are some images— the submissiveness of women, the aggressiveness of men— so easy to accept, yet others—especially those related to bodily and sexual functions— can still make us uneasy.

Austin cites Sir Kenneth Clark on the subject of idealized male and female forms: “According to Clark’s model, the feminine and the masculine were isolated and mutually exclusive. The mind represented the elevated realm of reason and the body resided in the physical domain of earthly pleasures.” Now there is a need for a whole new language of sexuality, gender identity and body-mind connections. In this context, Austin’s deconstructive segue, from issues of gender identity back to the alphabet, seems a good beginning.

—Roberta Lord
text courtesy Grand Arts,
Kansas City

 


Click image for enlargement

 

“Learning Normalcy,” Installation
Alphabet blocks 20” x 20” each
Gum Bichromate prints, wood and steel


“Learning Normalcy,” Installation
Alphabet blocks 20” x 20” each
Gum Bichromate prints, wood and steel


“Learning Normalcy,” Installation
Alphabet blocks 20” x 20” each
Gum Bichromate prints, wood and steel


“Learning Normalcy,” Installation
Alphabet blocks 20” x 20” each
Gum Bichromate prints, wood and steel


“Learning Normalcy,” Installation
Alphabet blocks 20” x 20” each
Gum Bichromate prints, wood and steel


“Learning Normalcy,” Installation
Alphabet blocks 20” x 20” each
Gum Bichromate prints, wood and steel


“Learning Normalcy,” Installation
Alphabet blocks 20” x 20” each
Gum Bichromate prints, wood and steel

 

Photos courtesy Braunstein/Quay Gallery, San Francisco.

 


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