ArtHelix is pleased to announce The Unreliable Narrator, a group exhibition featuring works by Kathy Grove, Bonnie Rychlak, Ellen Brooks, Judith Linhares, Elaine Reichek, Rona Pondick, Susan Unterberg, Jeanne Silverthorne, Nancy Mladenoff, Jackie Cantwell, Maria Kreyn, Katelyn Alain, Angela Strassheim, Jessie Brugger, Meghan Boody, Mihyun Kang, Claire Watson, Cynthia Ruse, Christy Armendariz, Elizabeth Saveri, Joanne Ross, Hazel Santino, Sarah Smith, Katelin Hudson, and Yael Malka. Please join us for an opening reception to celebrate the exhibition on Friday, March 3rd from 6-9 PM. ArtHelix will also participate in the Bushwick Armory Week Late Night the following evening, and will have extended hours Saturday, March 4th from 6-9 PM.
This is an exhibition of some artists, all women, ranging in age from their early twenties to their seventies, who have endeavored, directly or indirectly, to “represent” themselves in their work. The title of the exhibition, “The Unreliable Narrator,” is a way to suggest that this effort is more complex than may at first seem.
The notion of the “unreliable narrator” comes initially from literature and then from film. An unreliable narrator is not simply a narrator who does not tell the truth—what fictional narrator ever tells the literal truth? Rather an unreliable narrator is one whose statements are untrue only by the standards of a particular audience who make certain assumptions about “norms and values.” As soon as the concept of the unreliable narrator was introduced into literary theory, there was an immediate and corresponding emphasis on the distinction between the narrator and the author. The visual arts have had no such history of separation. And perhaps that is what makes the application of this term—“the unreliable narrator”—so interesting at this moment. There has always been the assumption that the visual artist is presenting an unvarnished “truth.”
Unreliable narrators are almost by definition first-person narrators, and the work presented by the women here confronts issues of self-representation. They may do this in such a way as to highlight the contention that all representations—and perhaps specifically the representations of women and of the self—are a set of “unstable” meanings. Viewers want and possibly need to “trust their eyes,” to believe that the artists are trustworthy in their communications to us. The unreliable artist may therefore be a maverick, a trickster who questions the assertion that “seeing is believing.” These artists dispute claims to the verifiable, often taking what appears to be a fact of nature and unmasking it as the habit of ideology, or suggesting that every perception is also a distortion, simultaneously both true and untrue, that this paradox IS the configuration of a subject. Here we may have the artist presenting the persona of the “mad” person or “the clown,” for instance.
Other artists may feel forced into the role of the “braggart” unreliable narrator, beating the marketplace at its own game by presenting in their work images of women that are saleable, desirable, and glamorous, while reserving to themselves the less palatable self-images that are nobody’s business but their own. One might call this narrator unreliable by virtue of withholding vital information. The issue arising around such unreliability is this: why should any artist feel obligated to give the public potentially damaging information about their self-esteem? Who says an artist owes the public—a public now dominated by powerful collectors and their advisors—the truth, especially when this is in no way reciprocated?
There may be generational differences in these approaches—in fact that may be the best part of this exhibition—but a constant remains the sense of the necessity—ostensibly resisted or privately refused—to bow to the demands of a deforming majority viewpoint, be it that of “history” or the “marketplace” or fixed “gender identity,” or some other seemingly undeniable “reality,” some power that can feel impossible to displace. Meanwhile, women survive—by directly staring at themselves, by deceptive self-disparagement, by valiant confrontation or cunning simulation, perhaps by rejection of the very term “woman,” even by means that may elude our current understanding.
This is a modest attempt to engage an enormous issue. There are no ”answers” here. The exhibition attempts only to illustrate various artistic ideas that circulate around how women artist of different ages currently address this subject.