In artist Emily Waters “Persistence/Insistence” exhibition at the Souterrain Gallery in West Cornwall, Connecticut, Grecian women and Egyptian-style Birdmen face off: sometimes connecting, sometimes stalled in a baffling war of the wills. The female figures clad in chitons of the Hellenic world, foreground a woman’s gifts and aura. In her different guises, she is flexible, plentiful, nurturing, open and questing.
The figures appear with various sets of props from the bow of Artemis to Homer’s lyre to the shield and helmet of Athena, but man has no accessories other than his feathered suit coat. “She persists in creativity, even while the Birdman insists that all is his for the taking,” says Waters. Mankind appears as a ring-necked pheasant, the Egyptian cock of the heap. He is attentive and alert to opportunity. Although he is not a warrior, his beady eye devours the scene with his assertive gaze.
Waters paints simplified figures set upon a ground of star flower “wallpaper.” The works on paper offer a lean and mesmerizing take on power and creativity, staged as dialogue with age-old roots. The artist has invented an iconic language of her own to talk about history and politics. Drawing inspiration from many sources, she ranges from red painted Greek vases to the iconic ciphers of the Egyptians, visuals which suggest the vast political discourse of ancient Empires and democracies. The face-to-face conversation of woman and man ushers us to a deep reflection on civilization. You might even surmise that early gender training models the abuse of power. (I’m wishing it didn’t, and I don’t mean that process is inevitable).
When we encounter figures from Graeco-Roman civilization, it tends to evoke the origins of the representative republic, the structures of democratic governance influencing the ideas of the founding of the USA. On the other hand, the Egyptian shadow of the Pharaoh, occupies the other end of the spectrum, suggesting autocracy, centralized power and hierarchy. Of course in today’s blended and increasingly authoritarian world of post-democratic capitalist oligarchy these systems aren’t always distinctive.
But in any case, when Waters sets two figures in conversation, we can immediately read metaphors in which personal gender relations also encompass the friction of authoritarian impulses. Our politics cannot help us move forward and even begin to grapple with the current ecocidal path, if we are unable to probe and understand the individual basis of our acquiescence in distorted power relations. With a few lines, a restricted palette and an astute sensibility, Waters takes us to the heart of the matter.