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The Personal is Political 

Chapel Hill artist elin o'Hara slavick's career has followed a trajectory from the personal to the global

Artist Felix Gonzales-Torres once said that he wanted his pieces about homosexual desire to be inclusive. "Every time someone sees a clock or a stack of papers or a curtain, I want them to think twice. Everything has a sexual mission, the walls, the pavement, everything," he said.

Torres is an artist that elin o"Hara slavick knows well. In her studio at UNC-Chapel Hill, slavick grabs a worn biography of Torres from the bookshelf and begins paging past text filled with writing in the margins. Finding what she wants, she stops and points out a photograph of Torres' work. "Perfect Lovers" consists of two identical clocks, hung side by side, set to the same time. "Torres was very subtle about sexuality, whereas someone like Robert Mapplethorpe is on the other end of the spectrum," slavick says, looking up from the book through black-rimmed rectangular glasses.

slavick, an artist and associate professor in UNC's art department, is discussing "Queer Strategies in Art Production"--a class that she developed and taught at UNC a few years ago. The class explored whether there is an essential difference between queer art and straight art, and looked at the strategies that various queer artists use in art-making. What they found, slavick says, was a broad continuum. "People like Robert Blanchon came in and said, 'I don't want to be a gay artist. I am an artist.' Other people are very overt about queerness in their work. But you can be an artist and then all of these other things--including sexuality--can be used to describe the art."

There is no one way to be queer and make art in America. slavick has moved freely along the continuum, with art that has visually articulated her bisexuality and art that has moved away from overtly queer themes to draw parallels between nationality, gender, sexuality and the military-industrial complex. slavick says that her art has followed a trajectory from the personal to the global.

As a teacher, slavick feels her job is to help students find the best visual means and strategies to approach the issues they care about. "Teachers are supposed to broaden options," she says. "You need access to options to know that you can make political posters against AIDS and put them on the sides of buses." She believes that, all too often, public discussion surrounding art with queer themes doesn't focus on the art. Instead it turns to issues of censorship, public funding and the First Amendment--especially if the art is sexually explicit.

She certainly speaks from first-hand experience. Shortly after she moved to North Carolina in 1994, having finished a Master of Fine Arts Program from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, slavick became the center of a local debate over pornography, queer art and public funding. One of slavick's drawings, "Man D," part of a 1995 exhibit titled The Pleasures of Gender, provoked concern before the show even opened at Raleigh's Artspace. The piece, a 20-by-5 foot series of drawings reinterpreting images of women from art history, was a "lesbian sexual fantasy," accompanied by whimsical erotic narration like "she spanked me as hard as she could while we made up stories about dirtied petticoat hems, whips and the carriage floor."

For the show, slavick was paired with Kimberly Russell, a Chapel Hill artist whose work is also informed by feminist sensibilities. Problems materialized when slavick sent in slides of the work to Artspace. Some members of Artspace objected to the piece and asked slavick to replace it. She refused, but did concede to a list of conditions: The gallery doors would remain locked and people would have to obtain a key to view the exhibit. In addition, all the windows would be blocked and a warning sign would be posted notifying the public about the explicit content in the show.

Despite her concessions, slavick says, the city of Raleigh became involved, threatening to cancel the exhibit. The city had recently purchased the building in which Artspace is housed, so the debate widened into one of public funding and the First Amendment. Slavick contacted the ACLU. In the end, the ACLU won an injunction against the city and the show was permitted to open. Artspace had signed a contract, and it was a binding agreement--ironically turning questions of legality and appropriateness back onto slavick's detractors. Artspace was obligated to mount the show.

While the comment book during "The Pleasures of Gender" thickened with writing, slavick worried that few focused on the actual piece. "The conversation shifted away from any discussion of the meaning of the work. It was a black comedy. It was about a woman who broke my heart. But nobody wanted to talk about what the drawing was about--because it was queer, or lesbian, or S & M," she says. "You couldn't separate my work from the media hoopla."

slavick still laughs in disbelief, leaning back in her chair with a roll of the eyes. She says that she never imagined the piece would be so controversial. But the experience did affect her output, forcing her to consider her new North Carolina audience. "My audience has changed from the one I had in the urban art center of Chicago. It is not just the culturally elite feminist, socialist group. It is much broader."

Slavick sees the "Man D" controversy and her 1996 installation, Mutter, exhibited at The Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, as turning points in her career. "Mutter," the German word for "mother" and, in English, an "indistinct utterance," is a series of mixed-media installations that explore slavick's relationship to her mother and her family history. One piece, "My Mother's Wedding Dress Dress," includes a life-size framed Cibachrome print of her mother on her wedding day. In the photo, her mother almost glows, angelic in the white ruffled dress backed by a blue sky. The print is juxtaposed with the actual dress, hanging empty and yellowed with age next to the photograph.

Mutter has been shown as part of Flesh and Blood, a collaborative exhibit of slavick and three of her sisters, which has been exhibited in Raleigh's LUMP gallery and has traveled over the last four years to Hong Kong, Richmond, Miami and Pittsburgh. In the exhibition, the four artists explore their relationships to their mother and to each other, combining their individual work dealing with the roots and manifestations of creative energy in their family.

slavick comes from an artistically accomplished family. Her sister Susanne is a painter, and head of the art department at Carnegie Mellon University; Sarah, also a painter, teaches at Wellelsey, and Madeleine is a poet and photographer living in Hong Kong. elin, who grew up in Maine as the youngest of six children, says that she feels lucky to have grown up in such a supportive environment. "My sister, Susanne, held art classes for neighborhood kids in our basement. We never had coloring books; we were always drawing and my father gave me a camera when I was 5 years old. My parents have always encouraged us, never questioning our passion for art," she says.

slavick also credits her family for her political education--for weaving art, life and politics together as she was growing up. This makes Mutter all the more fitting a bridge between personal and political art. "Mutter was the beginning of the shift in my work from a deeply personal, subjective feminist body to a larger familial body," she says.

For the last two years, slavick has been working on a series of drawings called Places the United States Has Bombed. Opening a drawer in her studio, she removes "The Bombing of Baghdad" and places it on the large table situated in the middle of the studio. Like the others in the series, the drawing is patterned and abstract, with vivid colors and splashes of paint that suggest explosion, destruction and bleeding. slavick has accessed government information about a half century's worth of United States military bombing both at home and abroad. She has reinterpreted the aerial views that the military itself used to bomb such places as Panama, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Vieques Island. There are currently 45 bombing drawings in the series, some of which are on exhibit at SECCA, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem.

Hanging on the walls of slavick's studio--an efficient space on the third floor of UNC's Hanes Art Center--is work from two other projects. A black and white photograph, "Boy With Gun and Soldiers," depicts a boy aiming a rifle while two male soldiers loosely supervise him. We see the back of the boy's head as he aims the gun into white space, while two men in uniform look on distractedly, one soldier only half-framed in the photo.

The photograph is part of a two-year study of the military town of Fayetteville, N.C., that will accompany the work of UNC sociologist Catherine Lutz in the forthcoming book, War's Wages: The Military City and the American 20th Century. The book examines the tensions between the military and the civilian population surrounding the country's largest military base.

Another black and white photograph, "Future Site," shows a vacant lot against a brick wall with graffiti. A sign announces plans to build an Airborne and Special Operations Museum on the site. As slavick gestures toward the photo, she mentions that the building formerly on the property held a homeless shelter.

New Frontiers, a show at Charlotte's Mint Museum last spring, exhibited work from Places the United States Has Bombed, the Fayetteville photos, and several of slavick's TRAVEL POSTERS--a series of enlarged color photographs taken from her world travels. One of the travel posters captures a young woman in China, collecting payments at a public phone booth. Reflections of cyclists on the street are visible in the glass-enclosed booth. The poster asks the viewer to think twice about the image and the eye of the tourist. "New Frontiers" draws parallels between the three projects--exploring the similarities between the soldier's and the tourist's eye--commenting on how military occupation and tourism affect a community's sense of self.

Slavick says that she agrees with Torres, that all art has sexual significance, but points out that he also said that everything is political. "In the travel posters you see Buddhist nuns signing tourists into temples, a beautiful Chinese woman smoking and playing cards, two little girls selling fruit in a market, a woman giving birth at a community clinic in Brazil, American men dressed up for Halloween in Italy, asleep in train station benches in Denmark," she says. "The Fayetteville photographs show us teenage girls as Hooters waitresses, men in uniform buying guns and visiting strip clubs. They all reveal the system we live under--a patriarchal, homophobic, military-industrial complex of capitalism."

Like The Pleasures of Gender, slavick's new work questions ideas of power and powerlessness, self and other--but on a much larger scale. She sees her work following a political, artistic trajectory, from exploring her body and sexuality, to looking at the way that sexuality, feminism, economics and violence affect the world. "These projects are a way to link my joy and my pain to something larger than myself," she says. "It's all connected." EndBlock

  • elin o'Hara slavick's work has evolved from personal to global concerns.

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