Wander, woman, 2018
A solo show at Zaristky House , Tel Aviv, Israel
Installation shots and panel discussion/performance
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The Women are Present: Seen/Not Seen
Deborah Wasserman’s latest exhibition continues her ongoing investigation of women’s roles and identities, filtered through her own complex sense of “unbelonging” growing up with several identities. It must certainly be one source for her particular empathy with the wanderer, the refugee, with whom she identifies, mirroring a Jewish heritage that historically is one of displacement and wandering.
Her personal reactions are set against a particularly disruptive—some say perilous—time in world history. Catastrophic political events cascade daily across the globe, setting off waves of forced migration, precipitating widespread humanitarian crises. Unprecedented millions of people have fled their native habitats in search of more viable locations; these are desperately traumatic voyages with no guarantee of finding shelter or a better life. Women and children are subjects close to her heart, touched by their vulnerability; they have all too frequently been headlined as tragic examples of how the political impinges on the personal, the personal involuntarily shocked into the political. We have no idea how many do not survive such ferocious sowing and transplanting.
Wasserman has divided her show into three sections, each focusing on different aspects of displacement and migration as they affect women. One is a striking portrait series, “Plurabelle,” (the title taken from James Joyce’s character Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegan’s Wake) that presents women as fragmentized collages, their faces stylized masks of many ethnicities that camouflage, even corrupt identity. These are constructed out of multiple points of view into multiracial, interconnected visages—all the daughters of Eve—superficially visible but, ultimately, not truly seen. Composed of cut-outs from glossy publications, they have lipsticked mouths, cosmeticized eyes, polished nails, jeweled rings and other contrived, generic emblems of female beautification and disguise, the natural woman made over into creatures of artifice and male desire. Transformed into an object of consumption, the jagged tears of the paper imply violence and abuse, prevalent in societies that undervalue and objectify women. These composite dissimulations are based on an “existential anxiety,” Wasserman says, and “provide a way for women, like chameleons,” to navigate their way through oppressive cultures. Her women, however, do not appear subdued but instead regard the world with a steady gaze, one that seems full of unvoiced judgment and defiance, despite their apprehension.
Wasserman, who still delights in colors and materials with the spontaneity, immediacy and wonder of childhood and which adds lightness to the gravity of her projects, drips paint deftly down the surfaces of these portraits, conjuring barbed and fibrous roots, staining areas and brushing on images of indigenous flora to create a more specific landscape and sense of place, contrasting natural elements with that cultivated by humans. She often includes the prickly pear in her iconography, also known as a sabra, a name given to native-born Israelis, self-characterized as spiny on the outside, but succulent and sweet on the inside, like the fruit.
The second section is called “Bindle,” the Yiddish word for bundle. Consisting of a quilt, it is an item usually made by women and considered a handicraft, not a work of art although that is shifting. Wasserman pieced it together out of scraps of recovered women and children’s clothing, stained, distressed, their personal histories unknown. Wasserman’s quilt emphasizes the very topical plight of women and children as they search for sanctuary and a new home with very few belongings, except, perhaps, for this merest of coverings, if even that. Wasserman uses the quilt in numerous ways, as an “artifact,” an object to be hung, and as a “document and a prop” to be included in her performances. Not only an essential possession, it can be bundled, used as a carrier of possessions, as nomadic peoples have done since time immemorial. It is also a micro-shelter, an intimate primal tent to be wrapped in, like swaddling cloths. Wasserman compares her quilt to the “security” blanket of a child and as such, a psychological “transitional object” that represents the mother, signaling comfort, safety, and love. Her quilt, however, is figuratively reversible; we know that it is a flimsy safeguard against the harshness of certain realities that can easily shred them to pieces, against which they are ultimately, poignantly impotent.
A number of works on paper, including watercolors and collages, comprise the last section of the presentation. They, too, feature the female figure in many of them as Wasserman continues her exploration of the loss of home and shelter. Completely executed by hand and sensitively rendered, these landscapes of devastation are all the more eloquent for the tremulous or slashing strokes and markings that make them appear the most grief-stricken and subjective of the three groupings. Blank facades of houses, some on fire, can be seen in the background, the foreground at times occupied by the dead bodies of women floating in murky waters, like refuse, collateral damage of senseless wars and environmental disasters caused by criminally heedless mismanagement of the earth. One particularly moving image is of a woman with pale skin, dark tangled hair and wine-colored lips who seems both contemporary and biblical. Her eyes are closed as if she is asleep, surrounded by wreckage, a beautiful azure blue body of water tauntingly stretched out behind her in heartbreaking indifference to her death.
Wasserman has a nomadic sensibility that informs many of her projects, which are often site-specific, made of throwaway materials that are easy to transport or acquired on location. These installations are also easily assembled and packed up or left behind, corresponding to and underscoring the themes of migration and displacement that engross her. Compelling visualizations of some of the countless thoughts on her mind that keep her—and us—awake at night, they pointedly, emotionally address issues that are in urgent need of resolutions.
Lilly Wei, NY, 2018