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Women, divorce and art that turns shame into celebration at Gavlak gallery

Women, divorce and art that turns shame into celebration at Gavlak gallery
An installation view shows Amy Bessone's "In the Century of Women," at Gavlak gallery in Los Angeles. (Jeff McLane / Gavlak)

In a smart, irreverent exhibition at Gavlak gallery in Los Angeles, Amy Bessone takes us back to a time when divorce was shameful for women, so much so that it might land one's picture in the newspaper.

Bessone found and collected these images — in effect, modern-day scarlet letters — from newspaper archives of the 1930s through the 1970s. Blown up to respectable portrait size, they are exhibited alongside powerful sculptures of female torsos and comically curvaceous tobacco pipes. Together, they are a cheeky celebration of women living outside the lines.

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The moods captured in the black-and-white photographs, some taken in the courtroom, run the gamut from shame to defiance to glee. One woman turns away from the camera, her face obscured by a veil. Another glares back dramatically over her shoulder, ensconced in a thick, leopard-print coat and enormous matching hairband. Still others smile broadly, casually crossing their legs or smoking a cigarette. Although these images were intended to humiliate, they radiate self-possession, giving the lie to the idea of the fallen, discarded woman.

The most enigmatic portrait, "Number 15: Betty," depicts a woman holding two animal claws, one in each hand. It might evoke the stereotype of the wild, out-of-control vixen, but the expression on Betty's face is so placid and contemplative, and she holds the claws so gingerly, that to cast her as a homewrecker seems comical.

This picture also appears in limited edition artist's book "The League of Divorced Women," where we get additional images and snippets of the women's stories. As it turns out, the claws belonged to a pet lion that Betty's ex-husband chose over her. After their divorce, the lion died. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Eight larger-than-life sculptures of female torsos also play with stereotypes — in this case the objectification of women's bodies. Each is truncated just above the breasts and at the top of the thighs, reduced to just the "essentials" from a chauvinist's point of view. Executed in ceramic or bronze, they also evoke classical statuary, in particular "broken" but revered pieces like the Venus de Milo or the Nike of Samothrace.

Against these sexist and art historical reverberations, Bessone has mucked with the form even further. One torso is split in half and bound with ropes. Another appears to have been smashed and only partially glued back together. Some are covered with fingerprints or contagious-looking bumps. Still others are painted with thick, dark brushstrokes that suggest bondage gear. In breaking open this classic form, Bessone unleashes the fears, violence and fantasies of mastery that undergird the tradition of the female nude.

Her manipulations also give the works a surreal charge, an impression reinforced by their counterparts: five comically large ceramic sculptures of smoking pipes, arrayed around the galleries. While the torsos are elevated on pedestals, the pipes appear only on the floor, their curving mouthpieces more sinuous than assertive, more decorous than forceful. They may be the least emphatic phallic symbols ever. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, but not this time.

Gavlak, 1034 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 467-5700, through March 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.gavlakgallery.com

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