Humor and Masquerade: The Transformative Art of Mary Beth Edelson

Alissa Rame Friedman, New York, 2001

I was first introduced to the work of Mary Beth Edelson in 1991 as an early initiate to the collaborative, artist-run gallery, the AC Project Room of which we both were a part. I was immediately struck by the enormous breadth of her work: her unorthodox embrace of vastly different artistic media as well as her unbridled yet profound handling of a wide range of source material, ideas, styles and imagery. As I became increasingly familiar with her work, I discovered that my initial perception was not wrong. In fact, I began to view the boundless and unconventional quality of her work and working process as a deliberate strategy which defies easy categorization. Or rather, I understood that my inability to accurately and comfortably define her work was part and parcel to Edelson’s practice. To call it political is to merely touch upon its underlying impetus as a catalyst for change. To call it spiritual is to allude to its role as a metaphor for human enlightenment and the transformation of consciousness. To call it feminist is to focus on Edelson’s experimental art making practice and her commitment to creating works of art which resist the prescribed social and political norms as writ in our culture at large. While each of these theoretical frameworks may accurately describe an aspect of Edelson’s practice, her artwork does not conform to any particular genre or set of genres but functions as a highly personal and deeply hybridized visual and textual language. This language necessarily references the dominant culture from which it originated while clearly undermining its authority through an often humorous and maverick process of deconstruction, hybridization, juxtaposition and re-contextualization.

From her private rituals and collaborative performances of the 1970’s to her paintings, photographs, posters, collages, drawings and chiffons, Mary Beth Edelson’s oeuvre conjoins a panoply of thematics which find their symbolic equivalent in the form of the archetypal figure, the Trickster. For Edelson, the Trickster is a dynamic metaphor for the destructive and constructive forces of chaos, transformation and the shattering of prevailing taboos, be they personal, socio-political or artistic. In her 1970’s work based on traditions surrounding the Great Goddess, Edelson appropriated the Trickster persona as a means to challenge contemporary stereotypes regarding the “essential” nature of woman and her role in politics, society and culture. In addition, Trickster provided Edelson with alternative ways to explore non-traditional representations of women in contemporary culture, more specifically, the female body as an active producer of meaning, resistant to the voyeuristic and fetishistic male gaze. Assumption of the Trickster role also endowed Edelson with a weapon of great power —humor—enabling her “to take on the playfulness and mischievousness which is usually associated with maleness” , thereby creating a metalinguistic tool which through its very attributes disrupts the patriarchal order, constructing from within it a new, revolutionary language.

The Trickster modus operates within Edelson’s feminist artistic discourse in much of the ways prescribed by Hélène Cixous in her influential text, “The Laugh of the Medusa”:

If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this “within”, to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.

For Cixous, as for Edelson, humor represents a certain kind of radicality within language which, while potentially explosive, is also “indirect” and “ambiguous”. Due to its inherent artifice and trickery, humor becomes a powerful backdoor strategy with which to expose the hidden or denied cultural assumptions underlying the phallocentric production of a singular “truth”. As a manifestation of humor, the Trickser persona allows Edelson a diversity of form to destabilize the “truth” while creating an autonomous, self-constructed identity, outside of and at odds with the one-sided strictures of patriarchal order.

No body of work better illustrates Mary Beth Edelson’s embrace of the Trickster and masquerade than her hybridized, layered drawings made between 1970 and the present which incorporate fragmented images of the ancient Greek trickster Baubo, the Irish trickster Sheela-na-gig and the modern-day trickster, the Hollywood femme fatale. This disparate cast of characters—while geographically, historically and culturally dissimilar—converge in Edelson’s work as discursive sites for the critical examination of feminist art practice and women’s agency in religion, popular culture and politics today.

In one series of drawings from 1996, Edelson combines the image of Gena Rowlands in the film, Gloria, with the hourglass figure of Baubo. In Greek mythology Baubo was a character associated with the goddess of fertility, Demeter. When Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted, raped and taken to the underworld by Hades, Demeter fell into a deep depression and wandered the world for years in search of her. One day as Demeter rested under a tree, Baubo appeared and offered her a glass of barley water which Demeter refused in her grief. In response, Baubo lifted her skirt to reveal her pudenda on which was drawn the face of a boy. Using her hand, Baubo seemed to make the boy’s face grimace, provoking Demeter to laugh and break her mourning. Baubo’s playful exhibitionism to Demeter has been interpreted by some as a “potential alternative to the castrating display of the Medusa”. Unlike the “Medusa Head” which Freud saw as an incarnation of male castration fears, Baubo becomes a catalyst through which a woman (rather than a man) is freed (instead of castrated/turned to stone). Her laugh recalls Cixous’ “Laugh of the Medusa” in its break with the reign of female repression and the discourse of phallocentric grammar which keeps Woman in her place.

In combining the figure of Baubo with the de-contextualized image of Gena Rowlands in full vixen regalia, Mary Beth Edelson achieves several different and seemingly contradictory results. On the one hand, she depicts her heroine as a classic sexual object of desire; on the other hand, she subverts the projection of this desire by allowing her to brandish a gun, return the gaze and unveil her transformed pudenda. The drawings are further problematized by the inclusion of excerpts from a psychoanalytic text explicating the role of women as inherently “other”, voiceless, the object of the gaze. As the eye moves from one drawing to the next, the relationship between the Rowlands/Baubo figure and the language within the text becomes increasingly more disjointed, ambiguous and surprisingly, humorous. In the end, Rowlands/Baubo appears to have gained mastery over the text, even inviting the final quote by Nietzsche, “I hope that at this artificial inflation of a small species into the absolute measure of things, one is still permitted to laugh.”

The figure of Sheela-na-gig, an Irish female archetype which appeared in folk and church art as early as 1080 AD (although she likely had pre-Christian origins), similarly plays an important role within Edelson’s pantheon of images. Although her precise meaning remains unknown, particularly within Christian doctrine, there is ample evidence that Sheela-na-gig was popularly viewed in 18th and 19th century Ireland as a powerful feminine symbol to ward off evil. Edelson features Sheela-na-gig in a number of drawings both in her traditional stance, smiling face and legs immodestly splayed to expose her vulva, and as a coquettish, cross-gendered bride (i.e., “More Surprises for the Groom”) whose uplifted wedding gown reveals Baubo and what appears to be male genitalia. Like the Baubo/Rowlands figure, this incarnation of Sheela-na-gig/Baubo employs a cross-hybridization of appropriated imagery, newly constructed to create alternative, ambiguous narratives. Does Sheela invite the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the male gaze by flaunting her femininity and her sexuality through the signs of female innocence and seduction? Or does she repel it through the deceptive illusion of ambisexuality and through the presentation of the “truth” as a possible joke? By dramatizing both femininity and masculinity as equally untenable, caricatured, a type of masquerade, Edelson reveals the indeterminacy of the signs of gender as a cultural, rather than a biological construct.

In recent years, images of the femme fatale and her contemporary counterpart, the female Shooter (female film characters who take a gun into their own hands), have played an increasingly important role in Edelson’s oeuvre, particularly in her drawings and in her large-scale, transfer images on panels of chiffon fabric. These film stills, drawn directly from the lexicon of popular culture, feature such strong Hollywood film heroines as Peggy Cummings in Gun Crazy, Gloria Graham in The Big Heat, Susan Sarandon and Gina Davis in Thelma & Louise and her perennial favorite, Gena Rowlands in Gloria. Each of these film characters represents the conventional model of the dangerous, powerful and vengeful woman (the Medusa) who in the course of the original film narrative, is typically violated or killed for her transgression into the male-dominated territory of violence and self-determination. Her weapon is traditionally the gun, paired with her wily and often secretive powers of beguilement and feminine seduction (thematized by Edelson in the use of chiffon fabric). This combination of gun (the ultimate American symbol of power), seduction (the performance of hyper-feminine desirability), deception and concealment conjoin within the film to create a distorted, spectacularized vision of femininity which ultimately is contained within the film narrative, as noted by Mary Ann Doane in her essay, Deadly Women.

The power accorded to the femme fatale is a function of fears linked to the notions of uncontrollable drives, the fading of subjectivity, and the loss of conscious agency—all themes of emergent psychoanalysis. But the femme fatale is situated as evil and is frequently punished or killed. Her textual eradication involves a desperate, reassertion of control on the part of the threatened male subject. Hence, it would be a mistake to see her as some kind of heroine of modernity. She is not the subject of feminism but a symptom of male fears about feminism. Nevertheless, the representation—like any representation—is not totally under the control of its producers and, once disseminated, comes to take on a life of its own.

It is thus in the realm of “taking on a life of its own” through re-presentation that Edelson is able to hijack the femme fatale/Shooter from the patriarchal structure of the film narrative and recast her as an active agent in her own story. In understanding film to be a distorted, fictional and ultimately unfixed representation of reality, Edelson finds an opening through which to disrupt the film’s message and unmask its underlying fiction: the fiction that it records some kind of objective, immutable “truth” about women.

In a drawing from her “Pink Peggy” series of the mid-1990s entitled, “A Life of Its Own”, Edelson depicts Peggy Cummings in a long black peignoir and stiletto heals, cigarette in mouth, gun drawn in hand. In this as in other drawings from the “Pink Peggy” series, Peggy faces a multiplied though reversed simulacrum of herself, seemingly pointing the gun at her own image. In another drawing from the same series, two identical versions of Peggy stand face to face with guns aimed at their mirrored image. An extraneous pink fringe falls over their faces, thereby blocking their identity and subjectivity while providing them with a masquerade, an impediment to the male gaze. These works beg the question whether they are humorous projections of irrational male fears about female sexuality and power and/or attempts at self-annihilation—a willful destruction of a caricatured manifestation of patriarchal manipulation and control. Like the modern-day film heroines Thelma & Louise, perhaps Peggy’s only escape from the world of male domination is to actively remove herself from the clutches of her oppressors through violence and self-destruction. Or perhaps, by presenting Peggy as a multiplied, repeated character whose very attributes are those of the trappings of femininity (peignoir, high heels, make-up), these drawings function to denaturalize the notion of “woman” as a biological, fixed identity instead presenting her as an artificial, narrative construct—a performer or masquerade of gender.

In a similar play with the thematics of duplicity, doubling and masquerade, Edelson’s chiffon works present images of the femme fatale/shooter floating on semi-transparent sheets of chiffon fabric. In these works, as in those featuring the patchwork, hybridized forms of Baubo and Sheela-na-gig, Edelson transgresses prescribed notions of gender and power by artfully presenting the femme fatale as a repeated, visible yet immaterial identity—seductive yet resistant to the male scopophilic gaze. Her resistance takes the form of the veil through which she both tantalizes the viewer by suggesting what lies underneath—a challenge to the concept of unknowability—and repels him by introducing her feminine “truth” as a transparent illusion. Like Edelson’s cross-gendered bride in “More Surprises for the Groom”, the femme fatale/Shooter takes on the form of the Trickster in her combined display of the exaggerated signs of feminine seduction and the stereotyped signs of masculine power. In equating the femme fatale with the Trickster, the veil and masquerade, Edelson exposes gender as a caricature, a hyperbolization, a “representation” which functions somewhere outside of and in opposition to the dominant discourse. In a larger sense, it is this play within the margins—in the ambiguous, uncharted, hybridized area of the in-between—that Mary Beth Edelson is most active and effectual. For it is precisely in the territory of appropriated re-presentation/the masquerade that Mary Beth Edelson seeks to rescue the femme fatale/shooter from the patriarchal structure of the film narrative and endow her with an open narrative which is not previously inscribed. In isolating her imagery and highlighting her specificity, Edelson introduces the possibility of decoding and denaturalizing the hierarchy of sexual difference while recasting these characters as active agents in their own narrative.