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Artists blend women, nature and hunting

Posted 8:23am on Thursday, Nov. 08, 2012

Hunting season opened at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center over the weekend with two complementary exhibitions that deal with female hunters and the relationship between the exterior environment and interior domestic space -- "Modern Day Diana," photographic portraits by Margaret E. LeJeune, and "vestige," sculptural furniture mounted as kills by Cozette Phillips.

Prior to the opening of their shows, the two artists talked about their work by phone -- LeJeune from Illinois, where she teaches at Bradley University in Peoria, and Phillips from Wichita Falls, where she teaches at Midwestern State University.

LeJeune's series of "Dianas" has had great traction over the past two years. This is her fourth gallery exhibit of her portraits, with a fifth scheduled for early next year.

"I think people are interested in these women who are not in a traditional role; it's a subculture, and it evokes a different way of looking at women," LeJeune says.

While the concept of women as huntresses may be exotic in Virginia, Tennessee and New Mexico, the locations of previous exhibitions, it is certainly not foreign in Texas. Not so long ago, Gov. Ann Richards was photographed on a number of occasions hoisting her shotgun over her shoulder.

If anything, women as hunters are so familiar here that a greater subtext is suspected when looking at these photographs of women in their homes, often surrounded with their trophy mounts. But subtext was not LeJeune's intent. She says growing up in the Northeast, she never knew a single female hunter and was fascinated by the thought of women in a traditionally male role. She suspected women drawn to hunting would fit a stereotype.

She was wrong. There wasn't one, but the revelation took awhile, as initially it was difficult to find willing sitters.

Women were hesitant to commit to the project, suspecting her of PETA pretensions or worse. Eventually LeJeune stumbled on the Diva network, an organization based in Dallas for women who enjoy outdoor and shooting sports.

After her pleas for subjects were put in the Diva newsletter, she began to get more volunteers. While the women agreed to be photographed, they didn't want undue exposure. There are societal pressures that plague women who hunt that would never be visited upon a man.

"They are worried about the ramifications of what the neighbors or their employers might think," so they were hesitant about using their last names, LeJeune says.

Some of LeJeune's sitters chose a location in their homes that was traditionally a female enclave. Kathi sat in front of her sewing machine, but hanging on the wall was her gun rack and a turkey fan, while her duck decoys hovered nearby.

Martha chose to pose on a velvet divan, stretched out in a pose almost identical to the one depicted in French impressionist Edouard Manet's Olympia. It was Martha's choice of pose, and her decision to add her zebra skin.

Robin and Rose, a mother-daughter pair, were unabashed; they posed with their guns on their laps in the living room of their home. But when they hunt, they do so without waste. They justify their kills, using every bit of the animal for food, clothing or tools.

"They sort of feel like they are getting the most of the sacrifice. They make sure they are honoring that," says LeJeune.

Not all of LeJeune's Dianas are as blatant as Robin and Rose. Some posed with only a slight suggestion of hunting in the frame, a gun leaning in the corner or bows hanging behind a desk stacked with papers. They acknowledged they hunt, but chose not to be known first and foremost as hunters.

LeJeune says, "Many of the women spoke to me of the act of hunting and the strange dichotomy of the role of woman as nurturer and caregiver and that of huntress. For them it was difficult to navigate these feelings."

As unnatural as this might seem in northern climes, it is a well-accepted fact in Texas that women hunt. It is not uncommon to see them posed in their homes in front of a wall full of trophies, usually beautifully dressed with a smile as practiced as that of a beauty queen; it's almost an expected photo in features about Texas ranch life.

What will strike viewers of LeJeune's portraits is how grim her hunters look, how stoically serious, as if they have to deliver the bad news that there are women who carry guns and willfully kill animals. That will come as no surprise to viewers of her show at the FWCAC. The shock value is long gone.

Interest in interiors

Phillips' sculptures of mangled furniture, some with anthropomorphic legs, are mounted like trophies and are both whimsical and macabre.

Her Skinned Recliner, a nasty old vinyl recliner patched with simulated duck tape, looks as if it has been butchered.

"It is representative of our present-day relationship with nature," Phillips says. "We only experience the outside world through the comfort of our chairs, interacting with nature through animal shows, the Internet or video games."

This separation of living and nature is at the heart of Phillips' art.

Remnant depicts the partial remains of a chair, with its vinyl faux ostrich skin stretched out and pinned to the display case like the wings of a butterfly, while a single leg protrudes from the wreckage.

Many of Phillips' pieces look like road kill. Cabriole furniture legs that end in cloven hoofs thrust at unnatural angles from twisted steel cushions frilled with bullion fringe that Phillips has re-created in metal.

Her part furniture/part dead thing reflects her interest in our interiors and our disconnect with the world outside. "Trophy animals seemed a good vehicle for that," she says.

Nowhere is it more incongruous and arresting than her Bear Skin Rug. Phillips has taken a velvet tapestry and stretched it over a skull so that her floral carpet mimics a bear skin rug, complete with a fringe of steel bear claws. Combining the man-made with carcasses accentuates their disparity.

Her most alarming series is of objects morphing into guns. She fabricates an antler made of steel, but the longest point terminates in the barrel of a rifle. A group of table legs, curved Queen Annes and more rustic straight legs, are conjoined with gun parts -- stocks, barrels and sights -- then mounted as a decorative assemblage in Re-Collection.

There is a fragility of life force emanating from Phillips' steel constructions that is threatened when gun parts emerge or the piece is squashed beyond recognition. Those things we bring into our homes and display are testament to our values, whether we kill them or construct them. Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113.

Twitter: @gailerobinson

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