I was swallowed up by it. It’s size and shape like that of a small movie screen. Elliott Hundley’s collage “Agave of the Bacchae” is oceanic, made of thousands of bits of paper, hovering one over another, attached by long beaded pins or glued to the subtle rise and fall of the collage’s seemingly moving surface. Each cut out piece is its own discrete image: a sea shell, the withholding face of a beautiful woman, an exotic flower, a piece of fruit; yet these individual images are orchestrated, layered over larger images that fold them into swirls of stormy atmosphere. As a whole, the piece is a hurricane of female sexuality that’s just swept through a mardi grass celebration — glossy strings and beads dangle from the pins holding the images down.
The effect really is dazzling at first. Although, on closer look a bit comical, all the cut pieces are either womens’ heads, fertility totems, or the above mentioned stand-ins for female genitalia – flowers, fruit, ect. Granted, there were a few surprises. I saw a walnut and something that looked like the chopped end of a celery stick, rimmed in red. Hmmm…
Here and there within the collage, to contrast with the minutia are large looming heads of more mature women, mother figures, one can only guess, and then the repeated motif of a smaller figure — a weeping woman holding a severed male head between her bare legs and thighs. This is when I have my “Aha,” moment. And realize I’m enveloped in a huge beautifully, and meticulously constructed, vagina dentata. Could all those tiny white bits of seashell on the ends of pins be teeth?
I begin to get a whiff of a bad break up.
Huge swallowing, swirling, vagina imagery, is not necessarily misogynist anymore. Though De Kooning, Picasso, and many of the surrealists did their best to preserve it as a symbol of the powerful hence castrating woman, recent artists such as, Allyson Mitchell, and Gretchen Schemerhorn have been using it as a way to celebrate female power.
“Agave of the Bacchae,” reads more like old school vagina symbolism. It’s inspiration, the play The Bacchae, by Euripides, features a troop of easily corruptible women, driven into wild ecstatic frenzy with just a flick of the wrist by the rock star Dionysus. The collage is a vivid representation of their sexual frenzy, and also a before and after portrait of Agave. Before: she is the icy untouchable mother figure, reflected in the many beautiful but distant heads of women that peer ominously out of the collage. After: she is the weeping woman with the severed head between her thighs, at the moment she realizes that her trophy head, won after a night of bachic revelry, is in fact her son’s.
“Oops.” Big mistake.
Now granted, mothers do have a lot of power and some mothers are of the scary, castrating type. But I think the more interesting question is “What turns a mother into a monster in the first place?” Could it have to do with living in a culture that still distrusts women in leadership positions? Who is making art right now, about the delimas, power struggles and complications of mother hood?
I’ll also grant that girls have been known to go a little bachic crazy at say, Beatles concerts. Or, for me it was Duran Duran. But that was more about individuating from my parents, bonding with the other girls, choosing to idolize the band member I thought I had most in common with. For me it was Nick, because he looked nice, and a little like a girl. The frenzy and the fanhood was more about testing out our identities than loosing our identities and becoming wild mutilating beasts.
Finally, I should add, that this is only one of several pieces in Hundley’s series inspired by Euripides. I’m sure there are other narratives and themes at play in the other pieces, as there are other narratives and themes at play “The Bacchea.” But this piece was disappointing in the predictability of its misogyny. And I was left wishing the artist had worked out these issues in art school – and hadn’t been granted and entire wall at the SF MOMA. I’m still going keep an eye out for his work though, because, formally, the piece was amazing.