Ann Shostrom’s army of women warriors fills the front room of the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, a ghostly troop draped in shades of white: the traditional color of virgins, brides and suffragettes. Tall and graceful, evoking Corinthian columns, these seventeen fabric figures are both timeless and completely of the moment. Elegantly pieced together from sinuous scraps of material foraged from salvage sales, thrift stores, friends’ childhood wardrobes and Shostrom’s own closet, they simultaneously suggest Miss Havisham’s endless jilted vigil, the courageous members of the #Metoo Movement, and the chorus of 100-something congresswomen who earlier this year proudly wore ivory, ecru and alabaster to President Trump’s second State of the Union address. While explicitly feminine, they are also plainly phallic, iron fists within velvet — or in this case lace, linen and silk — gloves.
Fabric is Shostrom’s primary medium, and the artist is adept at manipulating it to highly expressive ends. Each of the figures began as a simple cardboard cylinder, and then was slowly layered with overlapping pieces of cloth, painstakingly sewn together. Fabric stuffed with padding and pushed into the top of the tubes was used to crown the pieces, creating hints of heads, hats or horns.
The series was inspired by a recent trip to Crete, which led to rereading Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth.”
Shostrom, who is of half-Irish descent, calls her cadre of dancerly sculptures (a la Isadora Duncan) “The Rising,” after Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising, and a popular Irish folksong, “The Rising of the Moon,” about the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Seen as a group, the figures look like life-size wedding cake ornaments, but they possess an undeniable aura of power and poise.
Shostrom based each sculpture on a mythological or historic female figure, from the dryad Daphne to Countess Constance Markievicz, an artist, Irish revolutionary and suffragette, who also served as Minister of Labor from 1919 to 1922 in the first Dail (one of the houses of Ireland’s National Parliament.)
Daphne is the most formally realized of the group, perhaps because she was the last figure created in the series. From the dainty cloche-like suggestion of a head to the ruffles at her breast to the fluid draping of fabric from waist to floor — a bustle-like gathering of ruffles embellishing the hem — she could be a classic Greek sculpture carved in marble rather than soft sculpture fabricated from cloth. Shostrom has ingeniously conjured the attitude, pose and even the headlessness characteristic of the art of classical antiquity.
Astarte, a pre-Hellenic Goddess of the sun and the moon, was a goddess of war when the sun was up; at night, when the moon rose, she became the goddess of love. Festooned in a bouquet of varied lingerie-like material, she is garbed here as the Goddess of Love. Durga, based on a Hindu goddess of Justice and Harmony, is a slender column of ribbed bibs and gathered lace. Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, has been given the most complicated headpiece, bristling with soft fabric cones. Yet she is missing the key to her power — a magic girdle lost to her lover Heracles, who both took the belt and murdered her. As formally rendered as Daphne, Semele is based on the Theban princess who gave birth to a god, Zeus. Here she is represented in a relatively simple array of fabrics, ranging from a doily armpit to a bra wrapped round her waist.
Shostrom’s statuesque fabric sculptures are a unique blend of both the dainty and the daunting. Like Nancy Spero, who famously addressed feminist and mythic themes using ephemeral materials, Shostrom’s latest body of work powerfully evokes the eternal feminine and the matrilineal origin of the world.