Self Revealed: A 30-Year Retrospective

Essay by Janet Marstine, for Jane Orleman
January , 2000


Click images for details

Both witty and haunting, brash and sophisticated, the oeuvre of CWU alumnus Jane Orleman transcends the genre of psychobiography to engage the wider field of feminist art practice. A survivor of childhood incest, rape, and physical abuse, Orleman foregrounds her personal bodily experience as subject. She creates multi-layered imagery, informed by feminist interpretations of Jungian theory, that explores the nature of domesticity and the potential of metamorphosis. This imagery, while therapeutic and diaristic, ultimately asserts a larger agenda. Orleman translates private trauma into the public discourse of gender politics by suggesting confluences between familial and cultural patriarchy.
   
 
Over the last thirty years, feminism has played a catalytic role in redefining the art world. Orleman's work is representative of the deep psychological transformation in which women artists have made public women's experience, museums have been challenged to prioritize diversity over canon, and the icon of the artist as heroic male figure has begun to lose its grip on the popular imagination. A sophisticated support system of university museums, women's studies departments, alternative exhibition spaces, and community art galleries has developed to spotlight the work of women artists; such efforts have buoyed Orleman's career.

Nonetheless, Orleman and her feminist colleagues remain troubled by censorship. Orleman's shows have been picketed, her exhibition announcements have mysteriously disappeared, and she has repeatedly been called to justify her work, not to legal authorities, but to jittery committees and organizations acting as if they were the law or were in fear of the law. In fact, the obscenity in Orleman's work rests with the act of child abuse perpetrated against her, not with her resulting imagery. Indeed, furor over Orleman's art indicates that the ultimate taboo is for women to take possession of their own sexuality within the public forum of visual media.

Orleman's early works of 1969-78 defy the long-held ideal of the woman artist as amateur: model, lover, student, muse, and patron to her male colleagues. Like Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, and a host of other women artists of that generation, Orleman uses imagery associated with the domestic to subvert traditional notions of the feminine. Through shadowboxes and paintings depicting quiet, intimate interiors, Orleman articulates an autonomous artistic identity based on her search for safety in the home. Her doll house-like space establishes an inner sanctum of harmony and order unlike that of her own childhood. A maze of illusion in windows, doors, mirrors, and paintings within paintings intimates, however, that a game of hide and seek lies within the fiction. And as Orleman adds figures, the home becomes box as container, as the female body; experimentation with sexually loaded iconography such as a bed, a bathtub, and a strategically placed candle by the crotch of a male sitter propel Orleman to examine her sexuality more directly.

Next Page | Back to top