Published on February 19th, 2013 | by Elizabeth Coleman0
Review: Dottie Attie at the Cantor Arts Center
Dottie Attie is a postmodern appropriation artist, borrowing from iconic figure paintings from Old Masters such as Caravaggio, Eakins and Ingres. Suggestive or ironic text is incorporated into the compositions, which now seem provocative and sexually charged, forcing the viewer to think critically about gender politics in the art. The ambiguous juxtapositions critique class, privilege, colonialism and nineteenth century Europeans’ fascination with Orientalism and the exotic.
Attie’s picture book, Sometimes a Traveler/There Lived in Egypt is one such work which examines nineteenth century Europeans’ obsession with the Orient, and is currently on display at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University through June 16, 2013.
Sometimes a Traveler/There Lived in Egypt is a small, square book of 16 black-and-white lithographs cased in two pieces of vellum with overlaid text, reminiscent of a children’s picture book. One overlay is printed with the artist’s commentary; the second overlay has excerpts from “The Husband and the Parrot” from The Arabian Nights. Each page in the book is displayed separately in a row along two walls of a small corner room on the second floor of the Cantor Arts Center, and could easily be overlooked in the museum’s halls.
Attie appropriated two iconic Orientalist paintings from French artist Jean-Auguste Dominque Ingres (1780-1867): Odalisque with Slave (1842) and The Turkish Bath (1862). In Odalisque with Slave, the odalisque, or female member of a harem, reclines nude while a slave girl plays on a lute and a black eunuch stands guard, presenting ambiguous erotic relationships. The Turkish Bath depicts dozens of nude women and eunuchs in an exotic bath scene. The figures’ closeness and touching of one another increases the eroticism of the scene. The painting is bordered by a circular frame, creating a voyeuristic peephole effect into their private world.
Both of Ingres’ paintings were inspired by the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 – 1762), an aristocrat and writer, who in 1717 accompanied her husband on a two-year trip to Turkey. At the time, many eighteenth century European men, denied access to private female quarters in the Orient, imagined highly sexualized lesbian fantasies, and Lady Montagu’s detailed descriptions of nude Oriental beauties caused her letters to be widely read and published. Lady Montagu attempted to correct these fantasies in her writing by desexualizing the scenes, but Ingres resexualized that world through his voyeuristic paintings.
Attie critiques Ingres’ sexualization of the Orient in Sometimes a Traveler/There Lived in Egypt by invoking the sense of voyeurism in her work. Instead of peering through a peephole, though, the viewer must piece together fragmented images. Each square is viewed gradually, slowing the process, making the viewer complicit in the voyeurism.
Attie couples these fragmented images with two seemingly unrelated narratives which require close analysis to understand the connection to the work. The first narrative is made up of excerpts from “The Husband and the Parrot” from The Arabian Nights, a story about how a wife tricks her husband into believing his parrot is lying about the wife’s infidelity.
The second narrative is Attie’s own, spaced out over the 16 lithographs: “Sometimes a traveler in a foreign land (where customs and mores are unfamiliar) will, while hurrying through the market or riding past the high windowed wall of palace gardens, glimpse at the periphery of vision something so unexpected, so unimagined, or hear a sound so low, so poignant, the impression never fades.”
The seemingly unrelated images and excerpts on each of the lithographs requires the viewer to fill in her own meaning and connect the dots as to why Attie placed that particular bit of text with that image. As the exhibit notes, “This process ultimately reveals more about viewers’ inner worlds and beliefs than does the exterior world observed.” The addition, the vellum creates opacity to the pieces, nicely adding to the sense of ambiguity and necessity for interpretation.
Attie also seems to be commenting on the nature of perception and memory. Her work suggests that we attach certain meaning to the unexpected and misunderstood, just as nineteenth century Europeans did with the Orient. We take for granted the ordinary things we encounter daily, but a slight variation from routine causes us to attach special and deeper meaning in our memories. However, like the parrot, our perception of what happened has the potential to be false. Thus arises a paradox of perception with this piece: Attie invites the viewer to fill in her own meaning, but warns against the potential fallacy of the meaning provided.
Sometimes a Traveler/There Lived in Egypt runs through June 16, 2013 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. To learn more, visit museum.stanford.edu