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Beverly Semmes tackles her own art

Beverly Semmes – John Brady
Beverly Semmes - John Brady
Beverly Semmes and the audience delved into Semmes’ work from her career beginnings. Photo by John Brady.

Karan Dhingra

Beverly Semmes’ “Feminist Responsibility Project (FRP)” in Faulconer Gallery has been fomenting discussion on art, sociology and sexuality for weeks now. This week the artist herself visited Grinnell in order to contribute her own perspective to this conversation.

Last Tuesday, March 8, Faulconer Gallery hosted a talk by Semmes, a New York-based artist known for her multifaceted and provocative works. The talk was introduced by Daniel Strong, the Associate Director of Faulconer Gallery and curator of the exhibition.

Strong revealed that Semmes was accepted to Grinnell College, although she chose to attend Earlham College in Indiana. This amusing anecdote not only pointed to Semmes’ past Grinnell connection but also set up the rest of the talk, during which Semmes invited audience members to survey her entire career of work beginning in her college days.

The talk itself contained a slideshow of images, starting with Semmes’ early work as a college graduate and landing in the present, accompanied by her commentary. This survey demonstrated that throughout her career, Semmes has undertaken a myriad of different mediums in creating her artwork.

“One thing leads to another. I did not consciously choose this order,” Semmes said regarding how she chooses which project to undertake. “FRP” is centered on a series of creatively altered pictures from the pornographic magazines “Hustler” and “Penthouse.” In these works, Semmes has painted over explicit nude images in a style that resembles surrealist photomontage and thus revealed perspectives not ordinarily associated with pornography.

“I believe these pieces are very literal. I literally covered over the magazines,” Semmes said of the pornographic images in “FRP.” The images provide us, the exhibition placard notes, with an entirely new perspective on what censorship means in the context of feminism.

Besides the exhibit’s primary emphasis on artistically censored pornographic images, Semmes’ collection in Faulconer Gallery also focuses on ceramics and three of her signature larger-than-life dresses. Semmes’ attraction to clothing and fabrics was visible from the very beginning of her career, when she made elaborate, puffy and feathered dresses and walked around in them in the garden of the upstate New York hospital in which she worked after graduate school.

The dresses on display in Faulconer are gargantuan in size. A particular example, “Buried Treasure,” first displayed in London in 1994, features a lengthy black dress, the body of which coils on the floor of Faulconer Gallery in a 30-foot long maze.

“It resembles a map, but a map to nowhere, a map that serves no purpose,” Semmes said of “Buried Treasure.”

Anti-utilitarianism serves as a unifying theme for the ceramics, dresses and pornographic images featured in “FRP.” The dresses are too large and too cumbersome to wear. The ceramics feature protrusions that resemble mangled human bodies more than they resemble handles. The images, originally pornographic, cannot serve the purpose for which they were initially intended. Each artwork displays a fierce resistance to its assumed use. Semmes left conclusion of how this anti-utilitarianism relates to feminism, mass culture and society open to interpretation. However, Semmes was able to speak to the connection among these mediums of artwork that at first glance may seem unrelated.

“They are both traditional crafts,” Semmes said of her use of fabrics and ceramics and their relation to feminist issues. “I think of [potential artworks] as problems I need to solve.”

Further in the talk, Semmes discussed the work “Rogue Censor” or “RC,” a tall velvet red dress which spreads on the Faulconer Gallery floor like a vast carpet. This particular work, as elegant as it is abstract, spoke to the suggestion of Semmes as a fashion designer, a question brought up during the Tuesday afternoon talk. Semmes admitted that although she has been approached by fashion companies and disparagingly asked if she considers herself a fashion designer, she considers her work to be very anti-fashion. As Semmes said, just look at the clunky dresses.

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