- "Imaginary Friend #3," by Christa Donner, mixed media.
In the 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien, Sigourney Weaver plays the resourceful executive officer of a spaceship. At the dawn of the new millennium, artist Christa Donner is suggesting that a woman as strong as Weaver's Ripley character resides somewhere in the depths of every woman and is straining to get out.
However, according to the Northeast Ohio artist, this self-confident self is not given a chance to blossom. Tabloids and magazines shout headlines about how women might please men, how to diet, how to dress for success in the boardroom and in the bedroom, how to flatten their stomachs, thin their thighs, and quit smoking. The term "self-improvement," under these circumstances, opens up ugly subtextual doors: Since society defines what a successful woman looks like and sounds like, those women who dare to introduce their own definitions of success are up against stiff competition.
The well-crafted collages in Christa Donner: Pretty on the Insides, her debut exhibit now on view at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, add up to a harsh indictment of the messages conveyed by popular media. It's as though the artist is standing above the crowd and shouting: "I feel a lot more complex than the stereotypical representations of me in the media." If the artist concludes that fashion magazine images of women manipulate, it would seem to follow that such images must be destroyed before a new message can be attempted. Donner's work is strong because, instead of ridiculing the stereotypes (and, by extension, the women who are seduced by them), she welcomes them into her art and cajoles them into dancing to her different beat.
She begins her collages by drawing images of supermodels inspired by ads and layouts in fashion magazines. She then proceeds to re-dress these "ideal" bodies, not with the latest fashion trends, but rather with explosions coming from limbs, huge clumsy hands that grow in place of average ones, leg braces, and internal organs like kidneys, colons, and livers. By doing this, Donner appears to be suggesting that supermodels, though not invincible, are something even better: They're human. A conceptual problem arises here, though. There is nothing multifaceted about a liver or a colon. They help keep a body alive, but they have nothing to do with whether that body desires to add something positive to the world. In fact, these parts don't contain a woman's spirit any more than her breasts or buttocks do. If Donner is using such internal organs to symbolize the humanity of her models, isn't she also guilty, like the image makers, of exaggerating the value of parts at the expense of the whole?
Not quite. Unlike pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, who appropriated images from popular culture in order to emphasize what one writer has called their "timeless, impersonal, and mechanical qualities," Donner is interested in undermining those qualities: She seems to want to show the viewer that these images are not standardized but have unique characteristics. There are no distracting details in the typical fashion shoot. Angles and lenses are chosen to emphasize the most salient features of the clothes and the body parts that they are meant to flatter. Donner, by contrast, is not out to sell something, so she is free to add as much detail as she pleases. The point is that she chooses kidneys, colons, and livers for their texture and irregular shapes, not for their biological significance.
What matters to Donner is not whether the soul resides in this or that internal organ, but that the inside of the body has an intricacy that is barely suggested by its outside. Donner conveys an idea -- the notion that women's inner lives are richer and more complex than the media would have us believe -- by visually contrasting the irregular shapes and textures found inside the body with radically simplified outlines on the exterior. This visual contrast (a recurring feature of Donner's work) demonstrates that Donner, though still in her early 20s, recognizes that collages are good when they show and poor when they tell.
Curator Kristin Chambers's insightful essay (which is part of an illustrated catalog published in conjunction with the exhibit) suggests another reason for the success of these collages. Chambers writes: "A key to Donner's work lies in her personal iconography cards -- a series of 60 small drawings -- elements of which turn up in successive works." Some of these cards show objects like ice cream cones, razors, and hairstyles that explode. These images also show up in a grisly 1999 work called "Untitled (Connected)," in which two women are joined by a long piece of intestine that cuts through them at the waist. There are sections of jagged green and brown lines that suggest explosions, and the work seems to record a moment when two women are about to reach a new level of understanding about themselves. The face of the woman in the background is green, and the jagged green sunburst above the second woman's head suggests that her face will also become green at any moment. The green face and the corresponding green explosion suggest that these two figures might represent the same woman at different stages of self-discovery.
A work like the 1999 "Imaginary Friend #3" depicts a model staring off to one side and absent-mindedly holding a chandelier in one hand. The background from which she emerges features a drawing of a miniature alter ego, a disembodied leg, and an irregularly shaped solid blue mass that hints at the colons so prevalent in other works. The purple explosion at the model's head is echoed in a red explosion at a similar spot for the alter ego at top right. The main figure wears a salmon-colored dress and a light peach top, but these subdued colors clash with a bright red chandelier, which seems attached to her blouse, and another red chandelier that she holds with her left hand. The chandeliers seem to weigh down this woman. Perhaps a sensation of going through life carrying heavy baggage is reaching this model for the first time. One thing is for sure: Her shoulders seem slumped, so all those chandeliers have not had a very beneficial effect on her posture.
Work like this, in fact, combines a feeling of partisan political activism with a macabre sense of humor. Donner's models, with their exposed colons, green faces, and the cartoon-like explosions over their heads (are they having Excedrin headaches?), are defiantly different from the other women trumpeted by the popular media, and even when they seem to be in distress, Donner appears to say that they have the inner resources to tough it out and become better. Certainly this seems to be the case with the resilient women in "Untitled (Connected)" and the morose but alert model in "Imaginary Friend #3." Donner, incidentally, is ambiguous about which of the women in the latter is the friend. Is it the central figure or the miniature one? Is friendship like a chandelier because it is a heavy burden or because it can illuminate from many different sources? These are questions that viewers must ponder on their own, and Donner, to her credit, doesn't nudge viewers or whisper in their ears. She allows them to figure things out and to bring their own associations to the work.
Feminist film critic Molly Haskell, introducing a book she wrote in the mid-'70s called From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, stated that she was a film critic first and a feminist second. Viewing this exhibit, one can conclude that Donner is an artist first and a feminist second. She has much to say about the lot of young women in contemporary life, but she doesn't sacrifice formal and aesthetic questions at the altar of political ideology in order to say it.