The Three Athenas and A Royal Flush at 516 Magnífico Artspace
By Steven Robert Allen
There's something serenely calming about the three towers Rachel Stevens has installed in the front chamber of 516 Magnífico Artspace. Suspended from long, white hooks, The Three Athenas stretch 24 feet from ceiling to floor, but they never quite make it all the way down, hovering just slightly, an inch or so above the floor. If you ask nicely, the gallery's administrators will even lift up the metal and fabric hoops and let you step inside so you can stare up into Athena's hollow interior, or out through the white mesh like a bird trapped in a cage.
Stevens' says The Three Athenas were inspired by the caryatid, a weight-bearing column in the shape of a woman, originating in Greek and Roman architecture. Since Stevens' columns are freed from any weight-bearing function, they're designed to symbolize "liberated women." Actually, they do have a liberating effect. They seem light, ethereal, as virginal, pure and dangerous as the goddess of war and wisdom herself. Just walking among them induces a strangely meditative state. Just glancing at them will still a furious mind.
Beyond the white mesh curtain is another show and another world. In A Royal Flush, Charmaine G. Brown creates an elaborate visual maze in which viewers can explore some of the realities that attend being disabled in our society. Ordinarily this kind of single-issue advocacy art would bore the pants off me, but Brown, who became disabled as a young adult, transmits her message with so much style and humor that it's impossible to avoid being charmed by it.
Essentially, she has enlarged and manipulated a traditional deck of playing cards to provide a surprisingly powerful commentary on disability. In terms of sheer artistry, Brown's cards are immaculately crafted satiny quilts suspended against solid black backgrounds. Hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds have been replaced with the blue handicap symbol in every instance, while jacks, queens and kings sit in wheel chairs.
Several three-dimensional elements grace the exhibit as well. Near the entrance two plaster arms in braces protrude from a Joker card. One reaches up to grasp a wheel chair wheel. The other clicks a playing card against a second wheel, this one spinning horizontally at knee level.
Further on, an elaborate Joker doll spins in a wheel chair parked on a dais. Near the end of the exhibit, the "Queen of Raised Toilet Seats" holds a plunger in one hand and a toilet paper roll in the other. On tables throughout the exhibit, viewers can pick up glossy cardboard flyers with instructions on how to create everything from miniature handicap ramps to miniature toilet seat Queens.
Throughout the show, Brown asks her audience to play a serious game. Viewers are invited to enjoy themselves, but they're also expected to stretch their perceptions. At its most fundamental level, A Royal Flush examines the fickleness of fortune. Any of us could be born deaf or suffer from some terrible accident that leaves us confined to a wheelchair. Only blind luck separates us into those who are disabled and those who are not.
Despite their radical differences, the two installations work quite well together, the calm demeanor of Stevens' goddesses providing a welcoming entrance into the carnival of Brown's very able imagination.
The Three Athenas, an installation by Rachel Stevens, and A Royal Flush, an installation by Charmaine G. Brown, are on display at 516 Magnífico Artspace through Feb. 21. 242-8244.
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