“What started my playground was a search for joy.”
How my seven-year-old would delight in “Composed Under Compression” at the Baby Blue Gallery. She would like to gently pull “Alb of Naked Truths” off the wall and put it on. Then she crawled, with all the excess fabric folded and bunched around her knees and she sat two feet from the swollen spine, “Ionic Order Disorder” (2022), which features a video: “Episodes of Ritual Play” (2022). Softly muffled by the humanoid column dancing happily and absurdly on the monitor, she quietly played on her own. “Episodes of Ritual Play” is a looping video that documents the performer in black tights: sliding, roll over, bend your knees and embrace the tubular shape her body transformed into while wearing “Pontifical Cocoon for Ritualistic Joy” (2021) and while it’s incredibly silly, it’s also remarkably soothing.
“Composed Under Compression” feels like playful, joyful and quick-witted salvage theatre. Cat Bowyer successfully plays her memories in a fantastically uncomfortable and candied satire of the patriarchal Catholic upbringing she remembers. In an email exchange with Cat, she describes how children use mimicry in play to understand their world, and she is deeply motivated by this psychology. She says that in nature, mimicry is a survival mechanism. This objective allows him to appropriate Catholic icons, present in almost all the objects of the exhibition, but more visible in “Sacred Grounding” (2022), “Alb of Naked Truths” (2021), “The Naked Truths” (2021) and several of the staggered padded columns like “Mimesis I and II” (2022). These columns are mostly tufted with white yarn, with black and gray outlines. They have an intentionally clumsy presence that works to eradicate any potential spinal congestion. This appropriation transports the spectator to a time when he himself acted out his experience of the world he had not chosen.
Bowyer’s exhibition is part of the tradition of women’s artistic practices that use “crafted” objects to subvert or deflate oppressive patriarchal systems. The exhibition statement cites Louise Bourgeois’ famous Femme Maison series, a collection of works illustrating the artist’s dissatisfaction with the responsibility of raising her children and how it alienated her from her practice – a feeling still relevant for some parent artists. Bowyer’s work isn’t as objectionable as Bourgeois – perhaps it’s more a testament to fun and play as a way to respond healthily to an ever-changing world; like children do.
The emotional depth and volume presented in this show is palpable. But more importantly, it’s fun as hell. There are tufted depictions of bodies stuffed or playing slyly inside columns. Pink rugs lie on the floor, the size of a welcome mat. We see columns making backward turns and cartwheels. There is a pile of small handmade coloring books. As loaded as Cat Bowyer’s “Composed Under Compression” is, it’s also loaded with the energy and creative zeal of someone who just loves making things.
Many artists spend a lot of time trying relentlessly to escape what we are taught about art, what it means to make art, and how we are supposed to achieve artistic productivity. I would like to commend Cat for allowing me to remember with joy where I found safety and joy in my own play as a child, and how those habits evolved and grew with me over time. (Megan Bickel)
“Cat Bowyer: Composed Under Compression” is on view at Baby Blue Gallery, 2233 South Throop, Room 518, through June 25.