This House is Not a Home
No Rule of Thumb at the Downtown Contemporary Art Center
By Steven Robert Allen
English common law allowed a husband to legally beat his wife with a rod the width of his own thumb. That barbaric law is long gone, yet the rule of thumb serves as an appropriate entry point for Stephanie Lerma's current one-woman show at the Downtown Contemporary Art Center. The rule reminds us how past acceptance of domestic violence has been soaked up into the roots of our culture, growing a fresh harvest of bitter fruit with each new generation.
A lot of people have been talking about Lerma's exhibit, which is strange because domestic violence is a subject our culture habitually ignores. Her show consists mainly of multimedia collages—belligerent, rarely subtle commentaries on the shameful prevalence of these secret, unspoken crimes.
Lerma doesn't pull any punches. This is didactic, in-your-face, message art, but it really couldn't be any other way. Someone needs to scream bloody murder about this, and all of us need to hear that scream.
The show is fueled with information. Placed throughout the exhibit, Lerma's "Red Tally" pieces, set in identical small black frames, contain statistics about domestic violence in different states. Not only is the gallery littered with plaques, displays and countertops covered with informational brochures, but most of this work also incorporates news reports and typed factoids about domestic violence.
This glut of raw information would be numbing if Lerma hadn't discovered an ideal visual language to explore this subject in a way words simply can't. Many images are of houses, weathered and broken structures on the verge of collapse. Eyes peer out of several pieces, perhaps watching scenes no one should ever have to see, brutal crimes seen and never discussed. Medical crosses are everywhere, signaling a state of emergency. So are thumb prints, marks on a crime scene that also suggest the ways domestic violence can be seared into our genes and passed to our children.
Baby girl paper dresses hang throughout the gallery emphasizing the fragility of childhood. Hatch marks scratched into several pieces present an abstract accounting of the damage done, as well as the days, months and years victims must endure existence in an intolerable environment.
Some pieces are almost nauseating. An example is "State of Alienation," which consists of girl's underwear emblazoned with the bloody red words "between 4-10 million children witness violence at home." Other pieces are more hopeful, like "Domestic Recovery," a sculptural piece depicting a mass of pure white hands climbing a ladder to safety.
No Rule of Thumb has been extended through Monday, so you still have a few days to take in this thoughtful, disturbing show. It's a bitter pill, but we'd all do well to face up to the facts and swallow it whole.
No Rule of Thumb, an exhibit featuring work by Stephanie Lerma, runs through Dec. 20 at the Downtown Contemporary Art Center (105 Fourth Street SW). 242-1983.
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