A penchant for paradox
Video artist circles back to WWU
Kie Relyea, The Bellingham Herald
Progress means moving forward.
Maybe that's why it's disquieting to walk into a dark room at Western Washington University lit by three floor-to-ceiling images locked in endless repetition -- an elderly woman rocking with a blank expression on her face flanked by two tightly cropped shots of the same muscular horse, neck curved in submission, cantering in a tight circle.
The only sounds: a constant clop-clop broken by the horse's snorts of exertion.
Called "BuSpar," the piece is one of two video installations by Janet Biggs that opened Monday at WWU's Western Gallery. The other is "Flight."
"BuSpar is a pill for anxiety. Trust me, by the time you get out of here, you need one," says Sarah Clark-Langager, gallery director.
The prescription drug, which flattens the taker's personality, is given to horses and people, including Biggs' autistic aunt Anne Hansen, who is the woman in the rocking chair.
If you're uncomfortable staring at these images, that's because the New York City-based artist has arranged them to make you anxious.
"I'm assuming they'll start to think in terms of psychotropic drugs, what happens when society or our culture prescribes so readily these drugs to change one's state of being," Biggs explains of her intent behind "BuSpar."
It's not the first time she's been featured at the Western Gallery.
Biggs, in Bellingham last week to set up her video installations, was a featured artist at Western Gallery a few years ago in "Embedded Methaphor," a mixed-media exhibition that involved beds. Biggs' presentation of a baby crib high on stilts and surrounded by toy horses was the exhibition centerpiece.
"It was a sense of protection and also a feeling of something very uneasy," Clark-Langager says of the image of the toy horses circling the crib.
Biggs, who has been a sculptor and a painter, switched to video installations six years ago because she "liked completely surrounding the viewer in my vision."
"Flight" and "BuSpar" cover the two arching themes in her work. The first is a sunnier look at sports-related physical activity, the latter a darker commentary on prescription drugs as a form of control -- BuSpar, Ritalin (the name of one of her pieces) and Haldol, which is given to those with Tourette's Syndrome and is also the name of an installation she's creating.
Within those themes, Biggs, who studied at Moore College of Art and Rhode Island School of Design, questions ideas about women and power, freedom and societal expectations of behavior and turns them on their head.
"I tend to do that a lot," Biggs says. "I take the literal, as well as the figurative, and play with the two of them."
Consider "Flight," which uses images of astronaut John Glenn (the first American to orbit the Earth), horses and synchronized swimmers. It is, Biggs says, a look at flights -- and transcendence -- of all sorts.
In flipping the images of the swimmers performing under water, Biggs made them appear weightless. And the vision of older women in bathing suits, muscles taut and limber, challenges other deeply held beliefs.
"When you look at them they certainly have a sexual presence and, yet, they're in their 60s and 70s," Biggs says.
"I want to present that kind of positive image. Or, maybe, the not necessarily expected image."
Biggs' penchant for playing with paradox continues in "BuSpar," in which she tackles the idea that an autistic's repetitive behavior, in this case her aunt's, is restrictive.
"And, yet, you know that when she's locked in one of those repetitive behaviors, it's freeing for her on another level," Biggs says. "It's a way for her to escape some of her limitations."
She juxtaposes that image with horses, "where there's often an association of power and freedom."
Yet, how many horses run wild and free these days?
"It's usually a very controlled situation," says Biggs, a skilled dressage rider.
Hence, the image of a sleekly muscled creature held in tight check, neck bowed, going in circles.
Reach Kie Relyea at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-2234.
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