Terry Braunstein – “Who Is She?” — Long Beach Museum of Art

SUBTLE TRIUMPH: The Fortitude of Who Is She?

The book cover image of feminist collage artist Terry Braunstein’s Who Is She? is of a female gymnast with her hands joined together over her head, which is largely hidden within a slightly tilted bucket. The woman is fully clothed: shoes, stockings, knicker-style pants ballooned by some mysteriously yeasty fabric, are all complemented by a full-size, pull-over jersey that extends from her hips to just shy of her wrists. Her neck, too, is covered. The only visible skin is the lower third of the face: chin, lips and part of the cheeks; and the wrists and hands. The uplifted arms do not seem to signify some ultimate triumph as such, but hint more of a contumacious refusal to accept the negation of the bucket. Obliteration of identity is unacceptable in Braunstein’s cosmos. Resistance is on-going, the image suggests, and the apex of the joined hands is a quiet warning to anyone who would suppose otherwise.

The covered face, however, might also suggest another metamorphosis. Women in particular are judged by their faces, and in this case the bucket might be more of a disguise than it first appears to be. A bucket is a work item that is usually associated with subservience; it carries water, and is passive in that task. It merely contains. In contrast, what the viewer doesn’t know are thoughts contained in the hidden head. Indeed, the image is more renitent than might first appear: if the figure can’t see out, it only intensifies what is seen within, and to that extent there is an overtone of a sibyl, in which the bucket operates as a metonym for the cave of her vatic habitation. The process of appropriation in collage art engenders reversals such as this, and the upside down bucket, therefore, might also suggest the upended expectations of a woman’s visionary powers.

The challenge in apprehending Braunstein’s message is not so much in the reception as in the translation of one’s understanding of it into an adequate paraphrase; for that is all one can hope to achieve: a paraphrase. Braunstein’s images give commands to the Impossible, and have no patience with anything less than instantaneous obedience. A woman hoisting one of Rene Magritte’s rocks (“The Castle of the Pyrenees”) above her head and totting “onward” is made to seem a matter of willpower alone. It’s not a question of existence precedes essence, in Braunstein’s cosmology. In an existential paradox, there is an essence of willpower that supersedes all opposition, and the quiet magnificence of Braunstein’s heroines is hypnotic.

The stalwart capacity of Braunstein’s anonymous protagonists is especially striking, given the harrowing circumstances they often find themselves embedded in. The “Nuclear Summer” series, in particular, serves as a reminder that we are hardly in a much better position in regard to the intercontinental missiles than we were back in the mid-1980s; and Braunstein’s “Women in a columned room with a terrorist” (dated 2012) recoils with a humbling urgency: somehow one must dare to live as if one’s paradise were inviolate, even as the daily trauma only accelerates. If this is a form of self-denial, then one indeed knows what it would mean to escape from the spiked coffin of social conformity. Braunstein’s heroines are prepared to flee, but their calm composure whispers, “Not unless you come with me. I will not leave you here alone.”

Although the show’s catalogue book, published by Thistle and Weed Press in South Pasadena, California, contains many of the show’s best images and contains two fine essays on Braunstein’s work, it falls short of capturing the best of her work. “Buddha in drawer,” for instance, is not reproduced in the show’s catalogue nor is her collaboration with Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, “Dancing with Kerouac,” given sufficient attention. The “Buddha” collage, in particular is haunting in its quest: the woman slides between the slightly separated jointed ends of a large drawer; the Buddha figure meditates in a corner. There is no special pleading; the protagonist knows and risk and accepts the possibility to being pinned forever in a liminal state. So, too, does the artist cut that precisely between the entrance of the image and the final sep of its choreography of juxtapositions.

Braunstein’s technical deftness verges on the casualness of a windshield wiper in a heavy storm. The road is so visible that we are almost grateful for the storm in allowing us to see it washed free of anything that would cause us to skid. As the decades have gone by and Braunstein has continued to summon the imperceptible and blend it with the incongruous, her work has contributed to the critical dialogue between what needs to be done and how much that need to alter the world might prove to be beyond our affirmation’s strength. In that sundering weakness, Braunstein’s images renew our fortitude.

If you make the trip to Long Beach to catch this show, you’ll get a rare treat: another show is also up that is worth the time spent driving here. Barbara Strasen’s “Layer by Layer” has some of the most appealing and delightful imagery I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with recently. Perhaps the highest tribute I could pay to Strasen’s exhibit is that it would easily qualify as part of the “Magical Mystery Tours” that Josine Ianco-Starrels used to organize back in the 1980s for the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. It’s not that one shouldn’t relax in front of a work of art. It’s almost a given that one is supposed to be in a heightened state of alertness: the whole point is to question the ratio of feeling cantilevered across the work of art to the base line of its own audacious trajectory. On the other hand, if it doesn’t at some point invite you to relax and absorb – slowly absorb – its permeated secrets, then it is also playing a game with one-sided rules. Strasen’s lenticular panels exude a contagious spectrum of shifting perspectives. The afterglow will carry you to your next destination, without even being asked.

DETAILS: Terry Braunstein’s Who Is She? opened on November 20, 2015, and will continue to be on exhibit until February 14 (2016). Long Beach Museum of Art. The show’s catalogue is published by Thistle & Weed Press in South Pasadena.A long-time resident of Long Beach, Braunstein has frequently shown her collages at LBMA; she is hardly a “local” artist, however. She has had solo exhibitions in Spain and Italy as well as in New York City and Washington, D.C., and been included in several important group shows at the LA County Museum of Art and the Armand Hammer. Her honors include a Visual Artist’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985.

Bill Mohr’s prose, commentary, and poems have appeared in dozens of magazines, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, Antioch Review, Blue Mesa Review, Caliban (On-line), Santa Monica Review, and ZYZZYVA. Individual collections of his poetry include Hidden Proofs (1982) and Bittersweet Kaleidoscope (2006). Bonobos Editores in Mexico published a bilingual edition of his poetry, Pruebas Ocultas, in 2015. His account of West Coast poetry, Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011. Mohr has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and is currently an Associate Professor at CSU Long Beach.