by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & arriet Sanderson's "Limbus" (through Dec. 12 at Gonzaga University's Jundt Art Museum) is a body of work by a self-described disabled artist that dances around the edge of brilliance. Although it is not being presented as a retrospective, much of the work recollects the past 10 years of exhibitions. "Self-Portrait," a woodcut, dates from 1987, back when Sanderson was earning a bachelor's of fine arts degree in printmaking from the University of Washington. It shows a seated figure, mostly emphasizing the head -- and with an ambiguous shape where the right arm would be. While none of the exhibit's supporting text makes it clear, Sanderson lost use of her right arm from childhood polio. That makes it difficult for viewers to understand the demands upon this particular artist of cutting, inking and finishing 2-foot-by-4-foot prints.
Maybe that's irrelevant; what is relevant is Sanderson's narrative, which includes social overtones. In her artist's statement, Sanderson describes how Western medicine "is slow to address the personhood, tending instead to medicalize aging and disability." She describes the institutional setting, dominated by machines, which to her become vehicles for subversion and transformation.
"Easy Chair" is a steel wheelchair from 1999's RE-Vamp exhibition in which Sanderson replaced the seat, back and leg supports with an expertly woven natural-fiber caning. "Tractor" is similarly outfitted with wooden walking canes. "Tractor" especially is doubly self-referential, a symbol of infirmity overlaid with symbols of infirmity, while "Easy Chair" suggests Sanderson's need to make sense of/transcend the notion of limitations.
"While my images originate in illness or deformity," she writes, "they are not representations of daily life" but rather "confabulations of daily life, the result of the brain actively engaged in making sense of long periods of imposed physical stillness."
The edge in Sanderson's work that was present in the 1990s, however, has softened. "Duet #2" is culled from an earlier series called Other Comforts that explored the "power politics between caregiver and care receiver." A mattress is covered with a bedpad on which is printed "Let Me Be." On top of the bed sits a chair with double-sided walking canes interwoven into its slats. This setup is mirrored by a similar setup, upon which "Come Back Stay Longer" is printed. The tension between the interlocked chairs is palpable. Yet assuming the chair is a metaphor for the body, does the chair express the conflicting needs of the care receiver? Or do they represent both the giver and the receiver? What's the symbolism of the bed? What do the pillows on the floor accomplish? Sometimes less is more.
Other installations also have extraneous details, including their accompanying text. "Crowd," for example, is a silent cacophony of chairs at the gallery entrance. Some chairs are seatless, others upholstered in Grandma's floral patterns. Two stately wooden chairs -- one is oak with casters, like a '50s office chair -- stand atop packing boxes, each crowned with a headdress of canes, stuck into the back slats of the chair. Sanderson underscores the drama with two spotlights partially hidden by boxes and a moving dolly. Chairs are loosely grouped, with some facing forward and some turned away. Most have a cane for a "leg," providing precarious balance. Sanderson describes the scene as "alluding to the physically and psychologically destabilizing nature of illness and disability."
For me, "Crowd" suggests more than that: patterns of social behavior or institutional quests for conformity (church, school, government, work, etc.). Some of us acquiesce to demands for conformity; others are resigned to it; but all of us need to seek a balance between conformity and independence.
The boxes don't make sense, especially comparing the anonymity of the "crowd" with the specificity of the packaging, which indicates that these boxes were the ones used to ship this exhibit to the Jundt. Moreover, Sanderson pigeonholes our interpretation with her text even as she eschews delimiting labels.
In other cases, though, further explanation would be appreciated. "Closet," for example, is a tight, narrow space with the overhead light hung at about waist-height (wheelchair-accessible?), its floor covered with a herringbone interlocking of canes. While aesthetically interesting, it only begins to make sense after reading Robert Mittenhal's assertion in the accompanying exhibition literature that Sanderson is manipulating the space into rooms. And if that's the case, why is "Greeter With Debris" not greeting at the entrance?
When considered separately, many of the pieces in "Limbus" are powerful. And Sanderson is an important artist whose keen vision offers unique insight into vital issues. As a whole, however, this body of work leaves viewers in limbo, unclear where the exhibition is supposed to take them.
"Harriet Sanderson: Limbus" is at Gonzaga's Jundt Art Museum through Dec. 12. Open weekdays from 10 am-4 pm and Saturdays from noon-4 pm. Free. Visit www.gonzaga.edu or call 323-6613.