Art Review: Kortman Gallery offers tight series 'Full Circle'

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112914842226162.jpg’, ‘Photo by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘Artist Roin McCauley and her shoes made out of human teeth at the Kortman Gallery.’);

Robin McCauley returns to Rockford from Los Angeles with a mature body of intriguing and provocative art. This small show is a tight series of work that explores the nature of women as represented by their clothing. These clothes are not wearable or functional in any traditional way, though. They are metaphors and ideas that, as such, become works of art.

Coming up the stairs at the Kortman Gallery, the first piece you see is a gray, felt suit. If it looks familiar to you, it is because she created it “after Joseph Beuys.”

McCauley is greatly in debt to Beuys, so let me digress here and tell you about him and his legend. Beuys was born in Germany in 1921. A young man during World War II, he shared his nation’s guilt and later used his experiences to generate his art. Story has it he was rescued at the end of the war, wrapped in felt and fat to keep warm. Thus, both these materials (yes, fat, too) became signature materials in his art.

McCauley’s gray felt suit is simply constructed like the ones Beuys made—but with one difference: it has a skirt. This suit sets the stage for the rest of the show. The clothing in this show explores women’s relationships with their bodies.

Two small creations (assemblages?) introduce you to one of McCauley’s signature materials—hair. They are very small, natural canvases on which she has sewn horse hair. In the first piece, it is sewn in a circle. The long hair flows out and curves under its own weight, creating shadows in the gallery lights. The second covers the whole tiny canvas, and is tied into a pony tail, creating value patterns from black to many shades of gray. This is a 1950’s pony tail that would swing and strut—if it were real.

The most provocative piece in the show is a dress covered with baby bottle nipples. Sewn onto the dress with crude stitches, they are everywhere—“top to bottom, side to side.” Men at the show’s opening kept telling me I could touch the art, and then would go up and pinch a nipple. Having breast-fed two babies, though, I had a visceral reaction to the size 10 dress, one completely different from the guys’. To me, this represented the 24-hour-a-day reality of motherhood.

A pile of molded, wax shoes in the middle of the gallery looked like my closet floor, but also brought my thoughts back to Joseph Beuys. He sculpted things in lard, surely meaning for them to molder and melt away. But instead, conservators have been cursing him and trying to preserve the works for decades.

McCauley chose colors and types of wax that closely resembled Beuys’ fat. Luscious taupe and pumpkin-colored pumps are piled against brown ones and golden ones. Yes, they have melted a bit and are now sticking together ever so slightly. Can an inanimate object become a performance piece on a hot day?

Her shirt of hair made me itch, and the lady’s pumps covered with what looked like human teeth, but with no cavities, made my skin crawl. Such visceral reactions to art, while not rare, are profound. Robin McCauley, in her artist’s statement, sees “garments as concealers of things which we deem vulgar or repulsive.” But some of her thought-provoking art/clothing is as vulgar and repulsive as any body part we might want to hide. This clothing makes our bodies, in contrast, look beautiful and functional.

The exhibition, “Full Circle,” will be on display at Kortman Gallery, upstairs at J.R. Kortman Center for Design, at 107 N. Main St. in the downtown River District. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Phone: 968-0123.

Susan Webb Tregay can be reached by e-mail at

From the Oct. 12-18, 2005, issue

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