Detail of Michelle Rawlings' mural at And Now.

Visual Arts

How Artist Michelle Rawlings Expands Personal Space

A note on her mural at And Now.

One need look back no further than Lady Bird’s bedroom to find wide reference to a young woman’s most private space as perpetual art installation. The Tolstoy quote “Boredom: The desire for desires” is scrawled on the wall amid a mindfully arranged spate of photographs and ephemera and then wistfully painted over as the title character leaves her room to grow up. This is a story long told about women and their walls. Domestic rooms, instead of cages, are simple physical manifestations of the spirit, the one space of which young women are fully in charge. Canadian artist Petra Collins bridged the idea of girl’s bedroom as safe space from the art world to mainstream imagery with her work depicting rooms as hyper-staged enclaves where young women are free to cry, lounge undressed with other young women outside of the male gaze, and, perhaps most subversively, choose to stay still in a theatre of her own agency. The focus isn’t on what the viewer can learn about the person from looking at the room, nor on the body itself inside the room. The action is in the relationship between the figure and the backdrop, a world where nothing additional — neither consumer nor appreciator nor ongoing historical narrative — is needed to complete the image.

The inverse of this trope – a young woman confined to her room – is dark. Francesca Woodman favored the interaction between women and walls as a subject, too, when she was working in New York City and Providence in the mid-to-late seventies. Her subjects, herself or other women, disappeared into these walls in long exposures, or sometimes literally, bodies pinned between plaster and fireplace. She was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design when she began delving more into the portraiture for which she’s known, shot against walls so marred by age and distress they could never be a canvas. They were, instead, material.

Dallas artist Michelle Rawlings is an RISD alum, too, who has been using stark-white gallery wall space as a kind of material within ephemeral collages at And Now. Saturday a show comes down that includes her work. It’s the second time the artist has broken down her vision, known to the larger market in elegant pixel paintings, for the gallery, which hosted a solo exhibition in February of last year. The current show was curated by And Now’s proprietor James Cope around the idea of The Black Dolphin, a maximum security prison in Russia on the Kazakstan border. Work by Brian Fridge, Jeff Zilm, and Pierre Krause uses deconstruction to communicate a kind of resourcefulness (or desperation) within limit. Michelle’s mural, which stretches across an entire wall of the gallery, feels like a thesis for the show. (Her previous exhibition featured such murals on every wall of the gallery, with a plush, puppet-like model of a little girl wearing a backpack in the corner).

Pages from magazines, French textbooks, old drawing notebooks, stickers, silk and lace are pinned to the wall with ample space between them, arranged more like  hieroglyphs than a teen-spirited bulletin board. There’s a breakable quality to the thin paper roughly cut – sometimes ripped – from where it came. A presence of the Collins-esque grammar of claimed space, like lace from Rawlings’ personal garments, is present, but an imposition of the world outside complicates the idea of an inner monologue exposed. There’s an ambiguity to the whereabouts of students pictured reading on grassy campuses. As Rawlings pointed out when I surveyed the mural in pieces with her, one can’t quite be sure the students are American. In this context, and because the images are only connected in aesthetic and compositional quality, a very small world seems to expand. The artist’s reaching for that world can be seen in a flag of France painted directly on the wall — a tiny moment audacious within the scale of the work, which builds its own language outside frames.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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