One windy day, artist Dorothy Powers asked a friend to model a burka at a beach in East Haven. The result: a series of spirited images that seem to say wearing a burka is a swinging thing to do.
The enigma of artist intent and artist result is on interesting display in Powers’ new one-person show “The Women.” It just opened in the upstairs gallery at Creative Arts Workshop (CAW) on Audubon Street. Downstairs, a separate show features images by Deirdre Schiffer of nude or regularly clothed Western women.
The first exhibitions of the 2013 season at CAW, the two shows were not meant for comparison, but rather as companions, according to CAW’s program director, Kate Paranteau.
But, she noted, all the talk of the shows’ many visitors has been about the upstairs-downstairs juxtaposition.
The women who have emerged from Powers’ manipulating, retouching, and repainting of her digital images are so alive, so full of expressiveness and propulsion, they fairly fly off the paper and become dance.
She even seems to up the ante in images 9, 10, 11, where the burka itself has flown off its wearer or wearers and now sits on the wall, like three great massed birds in flight.
In 2006 Powers received a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation that helped to launch a larger feminist artistic project , of which “The Women” is only one part.
In an interview, Powers said that the windy day in East Haven was a stroke of artistic fortune and she ran with it. “It was luck that the wind kicked up. Mother Nature did me a favor and it just clicked for me. It conveyed what I wanted, which was an image of struggle.”
How to square this and Powers’s artist statement—“I’ve used burka-clad figures as symbol or metaphor for the gender inequality that I try to convey in this series of artworks”—with the liveliness, the windy swingingness of the burka images?
Two large rectangular images also seem to be related, one tucked at the beginning and the other the end of the show. In them, the windy burka-clad figures race across an apocalyptic-red background.
In part the liveliness comes from the painterly quality of the pictures. Powers said that for her photography is a tool. She took the initial photo, which was from a simple point-and-shoot camera, and kept on enlarging it, adding paint and charcoal so that on the color and surface level the image seems to be breaking up. Those qualities interested her as a painter.
Nevertheless, these images, having been enlarged to almost human size, now feel anything but bound and weighted by time, thought, and freedom—the themes that emerge when when you unavoidably compare them with Schiffer’s women.
That larger, separate show just opened in CAW’s downstairs gallery. It’s entitled “Deirdre Schiffer: Retrospective.” The show features close-up portraits, some photographs, and many oils on canvas, including series of of both nude and normally clothed women.
Schiffer, who was an advanced student at CAW when she died last year, was a friend of many of CAW’s faculty members, including Powers, CAW’s longtime drawing teacher.
The show features photographs and many standard clavicle-and-up portraits of women’s heads, and and several nude and semi-nude men. The three series of women all but scream for comparison.
All are the same figure in three or more different positions: one in a classical nude model pose; another of a woman in a seated position looking straight at you out of deep shadows that all but obscure her face; and finally a series showing the same woman, presumably an artist, drawing the viewer.
These women are free to take their clothes off. They are free to pursue a career they choose. And then, in the large rectangular oils that stare at you in growing darkness, they are free to contemplate light and the very fact of their existence, in a kind of haunting triptych that dominates the light-filled gallery.
These western women have it all, But the ones upstairs, regardless of their fashion choice, are the ones who appear to be on the move, and maybe even on fire.
Both shows run through Feb. 8 and are open during CAW hours, Monday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays 9:00 a.m. to noon.