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Portraits of a Lady
Two Artists Examine The Representations of Women in Art
Madonna Tickets: John Moran's "Mourning Becomes Electra."

Madonna Tickets: John Moran's "Mourning Becomes Electra."

Veils and Icons

Veils and Icons, Erin Cluley and John Moran's duet at Creative Alliance, converges the enigmatic and the figurative on behalf of feminine allegory, the perceived identity cloaking the true conditions of women through time. Moran's neo-Renaissance paintings generally recount the venerable images of lovely young women confined within their romanticized roles in art history. In the consciously claustrophobic environment of his paintings he emphasizes the portrayal, and betrayal, of the original portraitist's intentions and romantic ideals, as the familiar faces gaze outward from their secret worlds. Moran paints them with care, giving his subjects a minor face-lift and adding revelatory attributes that suggest a larger, more fermented picture. The applied finish of disclosure he includes might offer a paradoxical motif from another historical theme, a heretical element and/or unusual arrangement to activate change. Visually they may remain true to the pre-20th-century European aesthetic standards that capture his imagination; psychologically, they shadow the tradition of Greek tragedy, with the hero a heroine.

"Mourning Becomes Electra" mimics the title of a 1931 Eugene O'Neill play cycle on human moralities in wartime. Moran's version also considers war, but the battle is with time, social mores, childbirth, and the future of the earth. Botticelli's "Madonna of the Pomegranate" cradles a pale little 21st-century infant against her breast. Her saddened gaze has shifted upward to confront you, venturing from Botticelli's more demure and pacific Madonna. Peering out from behind her is the barely perceptible face of a contemporary red-headed female who is all but obliterated in the glowing red of an empty subway tube. This tube functions as the penumbra around Mary's holy head, but it also narrates the opportunity for peripeteia, the theatrical moment of significant change or reversal of fate. Moran's Madonna is both sacred and profane in her position, a living vanitas that holds within her body and intellect the life span of mortal existence. Is the baby, in fact, the future not yet conceived? Is the baby doomed or dead? Is it your child whose future can be read on her face? The little crouched men in the substratum beneath the portrait listen with great concern for the retort. They may be listening as well for the sound of the great underground trajectory whose platform Mary stands at the very edge of.

"Celtic Woman" is another articulation on the internal feminine struggle with sexuality, reproduction, and self-actualization. Amid an Escher-like tessellated backdrop of angels with devil bats, another fertile young woman solemnly withstands the capture of her portrait. She is not defiant, but a contemplative innocent whose timeless beauty sets up the terms and requirements that she will have to battle or accept.

While Moran's work is essentially iconic, Erin Cluley uses aniconism to express many of the same concerns regarding women and the imposed destiny, expectations, and sacrifices of their sex. Aniconism is the enigmatic replacement of the recognizable with boundless complex and repetitive design, ultimately intended to summon the notion of God, without attempting to reproduce "His" features. Principally considered Islamic, it harks back to ancient Greco-Roman architectural motifs inspired by the constellations. It is also survives in Christian ornamentation, employing cubes and polygons in a variety of patterns to create early cathedral floor plans, mosaic tile designs, and wall partitions.

Cluley's ephemeral vellum "veils" are haunting presences in the gallery. Her white translucent aniconic screens can be observed in each two- and three-dimensional work featuring one exclusively repeating pattern that she uses almost autobiographically. The design derives from the layering of a cube shape over four conjoined circles to reproduce, among other things, the rosette floor plan of St. Peter's Basilica. It is a harmonic proportion that alludes to the masculine square and the feminine circle-the intercourse of material earth and infinity-and when it is in nexus with itself in a repeating pattern, it articulates a cross in the negative space. What this pattern determines is the equality of masculine and feminine energy. You suspect that is what draws Cluley to use it as her own emblem.

"Veils of Indulgences" is a gathering of six translucent mylar hangings that ever so slightly trail the floor. In their number and because they lean slightly as though they are pacing, they suggest the six chaste Vestal Virgins of the Old Testament. These could be the priestesses of Vesta's ancient sacred flame enjoying their own social inviolability, drawing power from abstinence. But they also function as the exploded walls of a confessional, where failing and transgression are secretly laid bare. In Cluley's every work, the confessional's secret is always escaping.

In "Veiled Desires" her rosette and cross pattern is applied directly to the wall with silver vinyl as a triptych altarpiece. Beneath the tessellated design an iris is scrawled in crimson outline on the wall, watchful though the negative openings in the vinyl design. Cluley may use the iris as well as the rose to stand in for burgeoning feminine sexuality, to speak to the fertility, fragility, and temptation, if not the thorny punishment, the latter represents. Or it might relate to the eye, the restricted surveillance that occurs on both sides of the veil.


Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper