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A queasy look back: Page’s Memoirs of a Beast.

Past Imperfect (and Pink)

By Nadine Wasserman

Judith Page: Holes of Truth

Esther Massry Gallery, the College of Saint Rose, through Feb. 1

The memoir has been a popular art form for as long as there have been interesting people with good stories to tell. Autobiographical details, whether sensational or mundane, not only help us to understand one another but also to put our lives in perspective. The best memoirs accurately convey a time and place while also exposing the foibles and vulnerabilities of the raconteur.

The exhibition Judith Page: Holes of Truth is described as a multimedia memoir. Taken as a whole, the exhibition functions more like an installation. A mix of sculpture, painting, photography, and audio permeates the gallery space. Uniting the work visually is the syrupy, gooey, medium pink acrylic substance Tar Gel. It covers object surfaces and drips onto pedestals and the floor. Rather than being cheery and feminine, it has a dyspeptic, irksome quality, reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol.

The majority of Page’s work is figurative. Her three-dimensional pieces, many of them dangling from the gallery ceiling, are from a series begun in 1996 that she describes as a sculptural diary. Entitled 365 Dumb Days, these objects incorporate items accumulated over her lifetime. Described by the artist as composites made of “treasures” and “trash,” the pieces are intended to evoke the tragicomedy of living. Two particularly compelling examples are July 2 (Psychic Baby) and January 23 (Monster Bunny). The former is a dainty porcelain doll with pointy hair balancing on a ball covered in pink dots. The latter is a saccharine stuffed bunny head attached to a grotesque action figure body that’s been dipped in the ubiquitous pink Tar Gel. Bunnies and angels often appear in the exhibition, as do Mickey Mouse ears, but rather than hopeful or redemptive, these icons appear monstrous and deformed. One bunny sports a skeletal grin, while a cherub displays beastly black eyes, and a Mickey is transformed into a diabolical rat.

The exhibition has a distinctively Southern gothic sensibility. The exhibition’s dark mood is underscored by Page’s use of black to complement the gooey pinkness. She explains that the aberrant, profane, and divine are her principal interests and that she seeks to explore the human condition by juxtaposing her own “personal history with the political, cultural and social history of our time.”

But despite her use of personal artifacts—a diary, a baby spoon, family photographs—the artist never really lets us in on her personal story. She is too guarded. In Memoirs of a Beast Page has taken her own grade school diary from 1956, posted the pages on the wall, and obscured most of the text by covering it with paint and collage. Page explains that for this piece she has “rewritten” it by layering “scraps” and “fragments” from her life. But in essence it is indecipherable. She seems to spend more time obfuscating than revealing anything personal. Even her installation, Holes of Truth, made specifically for this exhibition, was no more revealing despite the fact that it is composed of portraits of family, friends, and mentors. I was reminded of a recent New York Times Magazine article about personal genomics in which the author observed that “none of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story.” A good memoir, whether based on what we actually know or were forced to make up, had better have a good story to tell. Otherwise, we’re left with more holes than truths.

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