Visual Arts

"Leaving My Father's House" at the Icehouse Is Not to be Missed

For centuries, fairy tales have held both adults and children in their magical sway. In actuality, these fanciful tales are basically mini-morality plays, spun to illustrate prevailing societal mores embraced by those rapt audiences. Through them, listeners have painlessly learned about the unquestionable reward of virtue (getting rich and/or living happily ever after) and the inevitable punishment of vice (imprisonment, death, and eternal hellfire are three that come to mind).

More recently, fairy tales have been tapped by psychoanalysts, especially Jungians, to explain the integration of the psyche's various fear-and-anxiety-laden facets. "Leaving My Father's House," a three-part installation by Canadian sculptor Katherine Zsolt was inspired by a book bearing the show's name and penned by famous Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, who's also known for tomes like The Pregnant Virgin and The Ravaged Bridegroom.

Using an early-19th-century Brothers Grimm tale titled "Allerleirauh," Woodman explores the integration of the female personality, which begins metaphorically when a woman experiences the pain of leaving her father. Zsolt's visual re-interpretation of the fairy tale is not far behind Woodman's psychological theorizing, though it's best to approach this show without the weighty baggage of female consciousness-raising and just let your mind wander.

Actually, the Grimm Brothers' original story, a variation on narratives dating back to 16th-century Italy, is pretty creepy. "Allerleirauh," which means "all kinds of fur" in German, is a cross between Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast (both of which were downright dark scenarios before the Disney-sanitized versions) — with a generous dollop of incestuous lust and physical abuse dumped into the mix.

It's a strange tale of a king whose beautiful wife dies, but not before making him swear to remarry only someone as hot as she is. The king can't find anyone other than his daughter, who is the spitting image of the dead (and poisonously narcissistic) Queen Mum, so he announces to her and his court that he'll marry his daughter. Horrified by the idea, the princess demands that he produce a few impossible things before the marriage, including dresses made of sunlight, moonlight, and starlight (she has to be able to pack them in a nutshell) and a fur cloak made from pieces of skin of each and every beast in her father's kingdom.

Of course, King Daddy does so and sets the wedding date, at which point Allerleirauh takes her stuff and flees to a forest belonging to another kingdom's king, who discovers her sleeping under a tree in her cloak of many furs. This non-blood-related king takes her home to work in his palace kitchen as a lowly, sweaty scullery maid charged with doing dirty work. Three Cinderella balls later, King II actually figures out that the beautiful lady appearing at his palace dances is his kitchen slave in princess drag. He immediately proposes marriage and they live happily ever after. This is the CliffsNotes version, by the way.

Zsolt, who now lives and works in Sonoma, California, begins her mainly monochromatic, visual version of the narrative in the Icehouse's Column Room, which is lined with cast-sand panels of abstracted sketches she made of the fairy tale's different episodes (she learned the technique while working for architect Paolo Soleri in the early 1990s). On the other side of the room is a series of cocoon-like, plaster-cast figural pieces representing various points in a female's psychic integration.

Once a personality is whole, one's attention is ideally shifted from self to the outside world, which, unlike a fairy tale, is not living so happily ever after right now.

This is illustrated by Zsolt's Silver Room installation. There, on a diaphanous scrim is projected a video that she and collaborators in Sonoma made and which references Allerleirauh's three magic dresses and fur cloak. In another area, she's grouped a small sea of tattered, ghostly figures around three monitors. From the figures spills garbage. The monitors play one of several documentaries dealing with environmental ravaging, including Best Documentary Oscar-winner The Cove, a chilling film about the senseless slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Zsolt's plaster people — most of which were children who volunteered for the project — seem otherworldly, reminiscent of shed skins from lives choked out by indestructible grocery produce bags. They appear as abused and violated as poor Allerleirauh was in fairy-tale life.

But the apex of Zsolt's show is The Waiting II, in the roofless Cathedral Room, in which facing walls are covered with an army of plaster-cast children's forms clinging to their rough brick surfaces. Each figure's face is covered with transparent white silk, weirdly suggesting fencing masks. The floor is covered with black water, which, depending on time of day and your position, reflects the figures in its inkiness; the apparition-like bodies appear to be alive and crawling upward toward the room's open sky. The frozen scene exudes a hope that, after much waiting and efforts to rectify all those environmental horrors, our children, heirs to the mess we've made of our world, will be emerging into one that's open, uncluttered, and renewed.

The entire effect of The Waiting II is simply breathtaking — and I do not use that word very often. Installed with the help of many local artists, "Leaving My Father's House" should not be missed.