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Art Review: “Power Positions: A Dismantling of Phallacies” at Elisabeth Jones Art Center

Elisabeth Jones Art Center reopens as a non-profit focused on social and environmental justice. The inaugural group exhibition centers women's voices and experiences.

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Like a ghost of a past life, Jen LaMastra’s short film Halve seems to rise from the deep to haunt both viewer and subject alike. Only barely visible in the midday sun, the film oscillates between scenes of a woman in a grand, regal-looking dress walking slowly into a lake and then floating to the bottom. The film plays on a loop and frames “Power Positions: A Dismantling of Phallacies,” on view at the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, as a funeral that follows a death but equally ushers in something new.  

Jen LaMastra, still from Halve (2021). Image courtesy of Elisabeth Jones Art Center.

On December 23, 2020, Elisabeth Jones Art Center voted to move from an LLC to a non-profit organization. On July 1 of the following year, Chandra Glaeseman was hired as Executive Director to mark that shift. Their current exhibition, on display now through March 18th, represents the inaugural show of this newly reimagined organization, following the completion of their transition to a non-profit space. A 2500 sq.ft. gallery in the heart of Portland’s Pearl District, Elisabeth Jones is “committed to sharing contemporary art that offers a challenging perspective around social and environmental issues,” according to their website. 

Glaeseman explained that Elisabeth Jones’ mission, following their reopening after a year-long hiatus, mid-pandemic, is to set a bar both for conceptual integrity and for the craft of art curation. “We want to bring a new message to Portland that isn’t about the money but about the concept,”  Glaeseman said. “Our mission is to bring the community art about social and environmental justice – which we all feel really passionate about – including the board members.”

Along these lines, “Power Positions” represents this step in a new direction, for Elisabeth Jones. A collaboration between every team member on staff, the acts of curating the show, writing the abstract and reopening the gallery powerfully embody the renewed mission of the organization.

“We’re elevating voices in ways that Portland hasn’t seen before,” Glaeseman said. “We started off with this idea of wanting to celebrate women, wanting to bring these visual conversations about vulnerability, connection, emotion, empathy and strength into this space.” 

From my point of view, this project landed exactly where it was meant to. The show’s abstract itself—which begins “This exhibition is a response to the myriad of complex challenges that women-identifying people face in our current environmental and social climates”—speaks to the timeliness of a conversation around body politics, sex and sexuality and systems of oppression. It also frames Elisabeth Jones’ current exhibition as something of a manifesto.

At every turn, “Power Positions” presses into and against the viewer’s visual experience, so that the collective invitation to dismantle delusions about “the role of women, their bodies, sex organs, reproduction, marriage, power dynamics, systems of oppression, etc.” is less a suggestion and more a kind of immersion. The urgency of deconstructing and reimagining society for women resonates in the body long after leaving the show. 

Its bold exploration into the idea of political phallacies—the definition of which, “a false or mistaken idea, constructed and perpetuated by patriarchal systems,” is printed in bold, black letters at the start of the show—is well balanced by the masterfully subtle work exhibited in the show by artists Jen LaMastra, Natalie Kelton, Juvana Soliven, Essie Somma and Sarah Stolar. 

Jen LaMastra, They Said It Would Just Take Time (2021). Image courtesy of Elisabeth Jones Art Center.

LaMastra’s installations in particular, which drew my gaze as soon as I entered the gallery, seem to be the beating heart of the show. In They said it would just take time (2021), a figure lays asleep on her side on a bed, which sways side-to-side as it floats above the ground and is made entirely of eggshell the artist collected and pieced together over multiple years. The quilt the woman lays on was also hand stitched. And the miniature bottles, which dangle above her and sparkle in the light, contain origami stars of folded paper wishes LaMastra collected from friends. The detail and care put into her work is breathtaking—it also openly rejects any capitalist impulse to make art quickly. Nothing, in fact, about LaMastra’s art nods to commodification.

Juvana Soliven, Utilities (2021). Image courtesy of Elisabeth Jones Art Center.

If LaMastra dismantles “phallacy” by breaking all the rules of production, Juvana Soliven’s work follows the rules of phallic centrism to the point of absurdity. Looking at her series, Utilities (2021)—a collection of tool-like objects arranged on a table, the purposes for which hover somewhere between gynocology and sex toy—I was convinced I’d seen some of these things before, perhaps in a museum or a textbook. I was also convinced they were the kinds of things I shouldn’t look at. Neither, of course, are true, as none of these objects “are” anything at all. The taboo may be medical or sexual, it doesn’t matter both associations play with the assumption that the female body is something to be poked, proded, altered, objectified. They expose just how clumsy and archaic man-made tools can be. 

Speaking of man-made, no artist in “Power Positions” more directly repurposes a trope within high art than Sarah Stolar. Her series of portraits, composed specially for the exhibition, respond to the expectation that a portrait presents the sitter with a kind of regal gravity and distance. If European portraiture in the 1800s catered to whatever “current taste” a painter’s wealthy sitter found fashionable—Stolar’s portraiture takes the same question and approaches it in a much different way. When Stolar asks, Who do you want to be? her sitters don’t nod to depictions of wealth or status but to essence, self-understanding. 

Sarah Stolar, Boudoir (2021). Image courtesy of Elisabeth Jones Art Center.

Stolar’s portraits don’t allude to the male gaze, nor do her subjects seem to be interested in what other people think of them. The orientation of these works center around the subject’s truest self. In Boudoir, for example—which I did not find particularly progressive, as far as fourth wave feminism is concerned—the subject of the painting is depicted exactly as they wanted. Without any photoshop glorification, airbrushing or otherwise, the subject assumes a familiar pose. But she does so on her own terms. Nothing in the show more succinctly embodies the dissonance between feminist movements. On one hand, we might as well see this kind of piece in a pornographic magazine. On the other hand, we aren’t. We’re viewing it in an exhibition of art. 

Natalie Kelton’s series of photos, printed on wonderfully saturated tin sheets, make a similar gesture. In each of her untitled photos, goosebumps, stretch marks and body hair are no longer distractions from larger features but topographies all their own. For Kelton, love handles aren’t defects—they are landscapes to be lovingly explored, wondered at, respected as living and human and touchable. 

At the same time that these photos draw me in closer, about as close as a lover, each subject’s skin is also abstracted into a sort of canvas or material on which a life is lived—subject not to the male but the female gaze. Each piece seems to ask: What is the body? Where has it been? What is it for? 

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Natalie Kelton, Untitled (2021). Image courtesy of Elisabeth Jones Art Center.

Through her photography, Kelton returns the power of storytelling to the subject, so that all questions are directed away from the viewer and back to the woman.

This act of turning tables, which reorients both the subject and object of art and hints at a new way of viewing it, seems to be the gist of Elisabeth Jones’ reawakening. Without a doubt, this project was born at just the right time. The work it sets out to do in imagining a brighter, more inclusive future for women-identifying folks everywhere feels just as exciting as the future of Elisabeth Jones.

Justin Duyao is a creative writer and editor. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is pursing an MA in Critical Studies from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. He holds degrees in English Literature, French and Religious Thought from Harding University, and his research interests include studies of consciousness, sociolinguistics, and semiology.

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