Visual Arts

Woman on the Verge

Some women enjoy being a girl, but Elizabeth Bretharte Lyon isn't so sure.

The Phoenix artist vents her doubts about sugar and spice and everything nice in a powerful exhibition of photographs at the Paulina Miller Gallery. Beware, Lyon's images say, there's poison in being pretty.

At first glance, Lyon's photos -- printed on clear plastic film and sewn delicately onto squares of white linen -- seem to be about nothing more than being pretty. Most are sepia-toned images of women wearing flowing dresses or wrapped in cloth drapes, all soft edges and curves, gauzy as if seen in a dream.

But look closer, and you realize this dream is a nightmare. The women in Lyon's photos are suffocating beneath the traditional trappings of womanhood. Those dresses and drapes are stifling them softly. Not all of the pieces in the show work, but the ones that do speak eloquently of female anxiety at the dawn of the 21st century. They're the fine-art version of Desperate Housewives.

In Dissolve, a woman in a floor-length dress bows deeply in what appears to be a curtsy in the first of three images sewn together with big, loose stitches. As the images progress like the frames in a strip of movie film, a story emerges. In the second panel, the woman bends deeper and begins to blur and fade. By panel three, she is a black smear, her form unrecognizable. Her curtsy seems to be less about grace and manners than submission and compliance, and the image suggests that a willingness to please made this woman disappear.

Unspoken presents another three-panel series, this time of a woman's face, eyes closed with fabric obscuring the lower part of her face. It's a grim image, and there is little change from one panel to the next, as if the woman has been restrained from any movement or change. The woman looks like one of those sad, weary hostages we've seen in an Al-Jazeera videotape, silenced by forces beyond her control and resigned to her fate.

Lyon makes her photos with film and chemicals instead of a computer and Photoshop, and she even prints some of them with a primitive, 19th-century technique that uses sunlight to develop the film. Then there are those stitches, which immediately conjure conventional gender roles for women. The retro techniques make the women in her photos seem trapped in an earlier age when photography and feminism were new.

Lyon suggests there is an escape from girly imprisonment in The Book of Esther, a series of photos that show a tough-looking woman ironing clothes. Behind her, on a laundry line, hang dresses. Unlike the gagged and bowed and blurred women in most of Lyon's photos, this woman looks directly at the viewer. She's visibly irked about having to do the wash, another menial task considered women's work.

This isn't the message of liberation it appears to be, though. Annoyed or not, the woman is doing the crappy work. Maybe the best we women can hope for in an age when the country is drifting to the right and Condi Rice is a role model is ironing dresses instead of wearing them.

Yow. Where's the Bionic Woman when we need her?

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Leanne Potts