by Duncan Gibbs
The timing could not be more relevant for the current show at King Street Station. Political forces across the U.S. are criminalizing reproductive health care and gender-affirming support for trans youth. This year already, according to NBC News in March, state legislators around the U.S. have introduced a record 238 bills limiting the rights of LGBTQI people and 500 measures restricting abortion have been introduced in 40 states. In times like this, art can inspire the hope and community we need.
The art exhibition, now open through July 7 on Jackson Street in the Chinatown/International District, near Pioneer Square, hosts four bodies of work by two women artists: Hanako O’Leary and Molly Vaughan, on themes of feminine identity, reproductive and transgender anatomy, and personal autonomy.
First, you will encounter a wall of miniature ceramic masks — a hundred faces with mystical eyes, that challenges and invites you to leave your thoughts at the entrance and proceed with your bare subconscious. Hanako O’Leary draws from a fascinating mix of sources, including prehistoric fertility icons and the traditional Japanese form of Noh theatre where characters are represented on stage wearing symbolic masks, to create this gateway into the art show.
In her work, Izanami, O’Leary applies, in both content and form, deep Japanese cultural traditions and a chthonic feminist perspective on bodily sovereignty. Expressing ancient ideas with elegant modernist skill, her art takes an earthy view on the mysteries of matriarchal powers of life and death.
Vaughan, in her share of the exhibition, plumbs a domain of radical self-knowledge, with a side of historical analysis, shining a brightly colored light on commonly marginalized, stigmatized images of trans femininity and self expression.
Between these two artists, this show has range! A variety of different forms work together to create a unified message: paintings, drawings, sculpture (ceramic, textile and fiber), audio/video and immersive/spatial experience. Continue moving through the gallery, and let the superb technical execution and intriguing concepts gently guide you into deeper waters.
In this current moment, it’s helpful and important to think about history in its shifting power dynamics. Vaughan’s reflection on queer aesthetics via 18th-century Europe demonstrates what we mean by “social constructs.” She presents a set of drawings and lithographs reinterpreting the works of French artist François Boucher with a 21st-century sense of humour and cultural critique. The display is crowned by a three-dimensional semiotic commentary in textile: a pink dress in the rococo style of the 1700s, hand painted by Vaughan with sexually explicit and fanciful figures.
Vaughan’s Her Body is a journey map of transformation. The artist offers us her personal experience of gender transition and the feminine form through portraits, nudes, and other studies such as My Transsexual Vagina. * The intentional restructuring of one’s body being described by the hand of that same body could not be more intimate.
A drawing by hand of her own body in the process of reconstruction is remarkably intimate, when you think about it. Molly Vaughan’s paintings and color pencil drawings delicately insist on being understood in their own terms, and grant us a rare empathic privilege.
When I have seen photographic documentation of gender reconstructive surgery in other formats, I have found the representation to be cold and clinical, objectifying and othering. To the opposite effect, these renderings are humbling and tender, compassionate and personal. Vaughan’s more conventional figure studies, as well, are powerful in their simple honesty.
In part, Vaughan’s artist statement reads as follows:
“Transsexual is a complex word. Contentious in trans, queer, and conservative communities for different reasons, transsexual is where I feel most at home.”
As Molly alludes in her artist statement, which is displayed in the gallery, much mainstream media representation of trans bodies has been sensationalized, emphasizing an appeal to bias and fetish, as on The Jerry Springer Show. With the images in her art, Vaughan is replacing that commercially exploitative view with the authentic experience of the subject speaking with her own agency.
Asked for her thoughts on her work presented in this show, Molly replied, “Often my work deals with the results of systems of oppression on the lives and bodies of trans people. The works at King Street Station are more triumphant and more celebratory than most work of my work from the past decade.”
Spiralling parallel to Vaughan’s paintings and drawings are O’Leary’s Izanami vessels of earth and energy. The cosmic variety of meaningful imaginary shape, gesture, and organic dimensionality O’Leary draws out of ceramic clay with humor and reverence for an ancestral gendered state of being will blow your mind. She grounds these vessels in anatomy that is universally recognizable and unique and strange and beautiful. The creative detail in these pieces extends all the way through, with visibility into the interior of some of the vessels. We encounter form after unique form of defiant, radical uterine power.
In her artist statement, O’Leary tells us, “Izanami started as a work about the right to abortion. Next, it became about the distorted narratives and lack of female heroes in my ancestors’ cosmology. Then, it became about the politics of penetration, women’s right to pleasure, and the patriarchal fear of being penetrated.”
Across the far wall of the gallery, another set of masks, with dramatic and complex expressions, guards the perimeter of this somber but active landscape. All of this imagery earns your contemplation and adds to the overall feeling of ancient truths passed through countless generations.
O’Leary’s Yomi, based on the tale of a Japanese deity, is a three-dimensional installation that evokes the mythological “underworld” in abstract physical space. The fiber structure forms an intimate alcove through fine layers of light and shadow. The evening of the First Thursday opening at King Street Station, a few visitors sat on the floor within the shelter — a spontaneous response to the place created. Viewed from a few steps away, as an onlooker — it was like witnessing a communion on another plane. On a later visit, I explored the interior myself, as interesting and evocative from within as it is viewed from the outside.
The Yomi video loop next to the structure in the gallery documents an event where the fiber piece was used as a shelter on Chief Sealth trail to create a collaborative “pop-up prayer circle.” The effect is a hit of that force field generated by people gathered in a womb-oriented space for the sacrament of creative community.
When asked what she wants visitors to know about her work, O’Leary responded, “My work is a spiritual practice. Each moment I spend in the studio is a moment of prayer for women and those living their lives in yonic bodies. Sometimes it’s not easy to be who we are. Sometimes larger forces actively try to limit the access we have to our selves and our identities. In the hours, months, and years spent making this work, I build my own world of feminine myth, power, and legacy. I find power to be myself. ”
Overall, this exhibition creates women’s space. Woman-centered, woman-focused, woman-motivated. You can feel the difference between this atmosphere and most everyday reality in our broader society. This is a visceral experience that promises that there’s more to the universe than the dysfunction of our struggles with social inequity and violence. The space created by this exhibition offers a sanctuary where we can find hope and inspiration and new understandings.
Elevating these topics (reproductive rights, trans rights, women’s health and autonomy) to the platform of aesthetic enquiry blasts the logic and word games of political rhetoric to pieces. Art demonstrates the material reality of personal experience in a way that can’t be argued or legislated. This exhibition in particular uses art to communicate directly what these issues mean — potentially to all or any of us — through empathy, imagination, and masterful personal expression.
Hanako O’Leary, Izanami and Yomi
Molly Vaughan, Her Body and After Boucher
Through July 7, 2022
Seattle Office of Arts & Culture — ARTS at King Street Station,
303 Jackson Street, Top Floor, Seattle, WA 98104
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m., open until 8 p.m. on First Thursdays
Free admission, no RSVP required.
Accessible via elevator or stairs.
Near Chinatown-International District Light Rail.
Duncan Gibbs (he/him/they) is an artist and activist, and a member of the community Advisors to ARTS at King Street Station. As a white, trans man, he is committed to racial equity and collective liberation. Originally from Ohio, he has lived in Seattle since 2004. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @duncangibbs.
📸 Featured Image: Molly Vaughan’s “Her Body” and “After Boucher” and Hanako O’Leary’s “Izanami” and “Yomi” are on display at ARTS at King Street Station through July 7, 2022. Photo courtesy of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.
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