Between the artists who articulate beauty (a pretty woman in a yellow hat, two gulls on wing caught by the fading light) and those whose text is “reality” or not-beauty (a bouquet of dead fish, an obese man with pierced genitals) there are a few artists who explore the ironies of these simplistic dichotomies.
Here the model isn’t a Nubian princess who has bleached her skin to a brown-bronzed pelt. Or a Viking beauty-queen who has browned her pasty flesh with tanning gels.
It is this little woman who was born brown, forever brown, the color of the earth she tills as the wife of a sharecropper, villein, cotter, thrall, helot or serf. A woman with less rights under the law than a donkey and less value than a slave.
In this picture she has been made the star, the museum center piece, the object of our attention. Not only is she brown. She’s plain right up to the edge of ugly with her horsey face and squeezed brown eyes beneath an overhanging brow. What frat boys call a “put a bag over her head and turn out the lights” piece. So she has no man. That is a point here. This family is fatherless, not exactly thriving but getting by. The artist is asking us to decide what matters most about having her for a mother. Is it the “not exactly thriving” or is it the “getting by?”
Then there is the text inside the text, the major move that the artist makes in her game of doors and boards. These children each look exactly like their mother. For all the disadvantages she has in the day-to-day play of aesthetics this woman holds four aces in the life-by-life play of genetics. One male or four may have made a contribution to her procreation but something powerful in this woman’s DNA can switch off his entire side of the equation except for the barest of essentials like a tiny, rolled up tight and well-defended Y-chromosome.
In a few generations the patriarchs, the overlords, and frat boys might slip from the gene pool but the odds are good that this woman’s stamp will still be present– sturdy and inviolable.