Patty Carroll: Anonymous Women
Guest Writer: Melissa Gumbs
Running Now through September 23 at the Chicago Cultural Center
Upon entering the exhibition space, guests immediately begin to feel a sense of femininity, privacy, and certainly domesticity. The doorway has been embellished with a curtain, drawn to the side with a decorative rope and the center of the room has two brocade benches placed for comfortable sitting. These home-style accents inform viewers that they are being welcomed into somewhere special albeit an unsettling scene. On the walls hang sixteen ‘portraits’ that are large, bright, color photographic prints. Yet, Chicagoan Patty Carroll’s photographs composed for her Anonymous Women series are not your typical portrait images. No faces or bodies are visible. Here, the women are hidden, ensconced in material that either identically matches or is carefully color-coordinated with the background fabric, connoting carefully controlled, constructed and designed domestic environments.
While all the prints contain women whose appearance is veiled beneath material, the treatment of the figures is on a continuum: some of the women’s bodies are wrapped closely with fabric which reveals more of their form, while others are draped in a way as to go unnoticed if not for the context of the exhibit. Mad features gloved hands, which turns out to be the most shocking element of human presence. The background drapery often camouflages the subject entirely. In Carroll’s 2003 print, Shade, a large Roman lamp shade hides the entire model’s form. The only traces of her presence are the shadows of her feet that appear below the light colored cover.
The lack of visible facial features and body parts immediately draws to mind thoughts of Muslim women and their dress, the burka, and the public discourse around it. However, it appears the artist’s statement is not so much about styles of dress but rather women’s connection to the home. Carroll’s work is addressing the potential of a woman’s identity being engulfed in her desire to embellish, beautify, and control her home. The photos are about how women, and anyone for that matter, may form a bond with the controlled home environment and sometimes get lost within it. While the images bring up these challenging concepts, there is no judgment made, rather just a presentation of ideas.
Because the faces and bodies of the women are shrouded, formal qualities in the art take on a much higher purpose. Texture, color, pattern, and movement all play major roles in Carroll’s compositions. Descriptive adjectives relating to the textile’s appearance are used as titles, including Squiggly, Dotty, and Flowerly. There is a playfulness in these titles that pairs well with the bright colors and lively patterns of the textiles, adding a humorous element to an otherwise serious subject.
The imagery in this exhibition has multiple dimensions that make it worth seeing in person. The works are visually dynamic with their strong patterns, sense of movement, and bright colors. Each is powerfully composed, unique, and interesting. The series also raises questions, without providing easy answers, about a woman’s ties to the home and the possibility of getting lost in them. Finally, there is a sense of humor. Despite the subject matter, they do not take themselves too seriously.