Lucas Weals & Isabelle Sakelaris-
If there is a primal scene behind Jen Ray’s Surrounded by Wolves, currently on display in the VAC’s Van Every gallery, it’s at a circus in Glasgow. A woman, skin painted brown with ochre and hair covered by a black wig, lies reclined in a glass enclosure. She is called “Lelani,” a mysterious beauty from “the Tropics”; throngs of circus-goers will crowd her enclosure, waiting for the moment when her handler, “the Professor,” will release her from her “trance” and allow her to prove her reality to the inquisitive guests. After several hours, another woman will take her place. It may sound arduous, but it’s a living—and Pat Cuneo, the tragic and glamorous woman at the heart of Ray’s “large-scale biographical project,” would be even more impoverished without it.
Pat is not the subject of every piece in the exhibition, but the small galaxy of symbols with which she’s associated—cigarettes, leopards (and their skulls), stiletto heels, and wigs, to name only a small few—show up in nearly all of Ray’s displayed works. The persistence of these signs demands a reading, and we think a fair evaluation of the work requires our putting forward a theory of the grammar, assumptions, and ideology undergirding Ray’s striking visuals. (These paper-works and sculptures are, at the level of technique, very clearly arresting and highly achieved.)
What’s clear from the jump is Ray’s focus on women. The Davidson Art Galleries’ web page calls Surrounded by Wolves an exploration of “female rebellion and the shifting nature of a woman’s identity, including what it means to be a feminist in the South”; in video interviews displayed in the gallery, Ray explains her interest in telling women’s stories, especially the “transgressive acts” that constitute a kind of intentionally performative feminism central to Ray’s aesthetic; and in a recent review of the VAC’s exhibit for the Charlotte Observer, critic Barbara Schreiber writes that Ray’s scenes are “filled with women who cannot be controlled.” So it seems only fair to meet Surrounded by Wolves, and the words and videos that accompany its installations, on the grounds of feminist criticism. It’s in this grammar that Ray’s work becomes simultaneously illuminating and deeply frustrating.
We might start from the problematic pieces and work our way toward the most complex and successful. In a video installation, Ray stages two musical performances, which the Observer’s Schreiber describes as “insistent, propulsive works,” in which “overwhelming women, backed by battalion-like choruses, perform and ultimately claim ownership of misogynistic songs” (The Guess Who’s “American Woman” and Black Flag’s “Annihilate the Week”). We feel that in the case of the second song in particular, Schreiber is withholding some important critical rigor.
The video features a thin, able-bodied white woman, clad in fishnets, singing “Annihilate” to a gallery of spectators (many of whom are recording the performance on their cell phones). Behind her, a chorus of roughly twenty women—the great majority of whom are white—bob rhythmically along, singing a few words every line. They are uniformly beautiful, wearing black heels and shirts printed with shimmering tigers. And despite the vocalist’s guttural rendition of a classic punk tune, it’s unclear precisely what about these performers “cannot be controlled” (to quote again from Schreiber).
In fact, the exact same tension obtains between these figures and their audience as obtains between Ray’s drawings of women and their hyper-aestheticized canvases. Schreiber aptly positions those drawings as being “at war with Ray’s meticulous execution,” but she neither extends the argument to Ray’s live performers, nor does she really take that conflict as pointing to a deeper tension in Ray’s aesthetic vision. But the problem, we contend, arises when the tension operates more fundamentally than the artist even seems aware of.
Ray’s positioning of “transgressive acts” alongside these curated musical performances—the aesthetics of which are really closer to a fashion shoot than to a punk show (not to denigrate either one)—invites the question of what she means by “transgressive.” In Ray’s estimation, music is a salient site of cultural resistance for women worldwide. (Yr. reviewers agree, and are here reminded of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot and their ongoing battle with their own repressive government.) And she suggests further that these performances are a kind of “mask,” a way of putting forth a persona. But the video cuts to a new interview before the point can be adequately addressed. Masks are a recurring motif across the series; they also feature prominently in the live performance, staged in the Van Every gallery on January 25, during which members of Gamut ritualistically circled a set of masks on a carpet, spreading glitter and paint over themselves and each other, while a voice chanted, “Is she alive? Is she real?” This seems to us a more interesting interrogation of femininity as spectacle than the video installation itself.
The case of the video highlights our general critique: It’s not so much what’s in the exhibition as what’s lurking just beneath the surface, or just off the screen, that both intrigues and alarms us. That critics like Schreiber can write about Ray’s “attempts to direct the movements of masses of women who have no interest in being directed” without asking some fundamental questions—like for example what it means to “direct” women who don’t want direction; which women, precisely, Ray’s taken it upon herself to direct; the status of those women once they become art-objects, and the various and nuanced issues of agency and representation that flow from that conundrum; not to mention whether the attempt is even really successful—parallels a sort of theoretical fuzziness beneath some of the works’ more aestheticized feminism.
But it’s impossible to talk about these problems without addressing Pat Cumeo, whose riveting biography informs the bulk of Surrounded by Wolves’ works. To say that Cumeo’s story is both harrowing and remarkable is an understatement: in a bizarre (and at times nightmarish) picaresque, Cumeo rose from her childhood looting stores with her father in England, through the circus (where she worked in events as diverse as the aforementioned Lelani gag and big cat performances, during one of which a leopard actually bit a chunk out of her leg); she eventually married a Chicago millionaire, only to have the marriage disintegrate, after which she wound up in North Carolina with her partner, Myra Crabtree.
And so the most obvious question: If it’s Pat who’s lived her life “surrounded by wolves,” who or what are the wolves? While there’s an obvious pun in her work with animals, there’s certainly a sense of the predatory hanging over each phase of her journey. Some of the predators are men, like the professor who shepherds guests past the supine and near-nude figures of his “entranced” Lelanis. Some are animals, like the leopard that maimed her. Some, though, are economic. In recorded interviews, Pat relays the story of when she tried to save herself the hassle of a wig and nightly paintings by simply dying her skin and hair—but she bungled the dye job (in part because she had no hot water), and her attempts to clean her skin with pure Clorox only made matters worse. She was immediately fired. This is dangerous precarity at its clearest, and it asks for a more thorough investigation of the ways in which workers (and women in particular) risk their lives and bodies just to get by.
We’d wager that the exhibition’s greatest shortcomings—and also its most poignant lessons—lie somewhere in the considerations Ray takes (or doesn’t take) in representing the economics of working women.
Take, as a case study, “Untitled (Double Warriors),” one of the largest and most visually rich paintings in the series. In the piece, two large, reclined bodies serve as the background for several detailed vignettes of women—clothed variously in exotic headdresses and 80’s rave regalia—inhabiting different spaces, here imagined as female: offices, beds, television rooms, perhaps even some sort of protest. (It’s difficult to say because the signs are facing away from the viewer, which maybe there’s a metaphor in there.) But in its hieroglyphic refusal of dimension and its highly costumed figures (all of whom, it bears repeating, are beautiful in ways that would hardly violate the expectations of a viewer who’s watched a runway show in the last few years), the piece resists economic analysis of these women at work.
If you feel that’s expecting too much of a piece that may be aiming for something completely different, we’d draw your attention to “Untitled (Trap),” which is in many ways a reflection of “Untitled (Double Warriors),” and which might also be the exhibition’s most successful work. It’s more explicitly nightmarish than its companion—acid-green islands covered in carved meat and mushroom-like bones, connected by spider-webbed chains, house a colony of women who appear, according to their title, trapped in this strange and rotting landscape. The shores are festooned with two signs (this time legible)—“NO DUMPING” and “I HATE MONDAYS.” The latter is the kind of cutesy slogan familiar to any millennial, the sort of reliably profitable saying you can buy on coffee mugs, throw pillows, decorative blocks of wood. It’s a way of forgetting the exploitation of daily work, the crushing and petty banality of managed time (which has always been a patriarchal construction). Ray here magnificently skewers these pithy distractions by placing them on the edge of some hellish postapocalypse: what difference do these womens’ weapons make if they have already lost whatever great war stranded them here?
When she shoots for questions like these, Ray shows an acerbic gift for grotesque satire, which her Boschian detail and composition only make more relevant and disturbing. All of which raises our expectations of some of the other pieces, which expectations are often somewhat let down.
And while a lot of students we spoke to voiced similar concerns, as well as critiques that the works were more or less silent on the topic of trans women as subjects and objects, it’s worth noting that every one of them took something different and sort of powerful from the show—be it the reclamation of Pat’s complicated history, or the incorporation of female students into the professional art show, or the radically accessible style in which Ray paints and sculpts.
This may be the point, finally: Surrounded by Wolves is a discussion piece, a demand to look around you and name the wolves of your own life. If it falls short of certain of its own ambitions, all the better; its problems are our problems, and we’ve nowhere to go but up.
Lucas Weals ‘19 is an English major from Bethesda, MD; Isabelle Sakelaris ‘19 is an English/Art History double major from Detroit, MI. They can be reached for comment at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.