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.
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.
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