The paintings on display at Kettle Art in Deep Ellum depict small groups of prepared women — prepared to defend themselves, prepared to harm you if necessary. Sometimes armed with handguns or swords, they look unblinkingly at the viewer, their faces obscured by gas masks, ski masks or American flags. Not exactly a threat, but surely a warning. They are ready for whatever will come.
Cathey Miller, who turns 45 this week, has been painting empowered women for years now, often as space travelers, circus performers or other goddesses doing their own thing with aplomb. Much of the humor of her earlier work subsides in this more overtly political show, Prepared Americans, which she says was inspired by a FEMA manual she found online, “Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness.”
“I’m a government/patriotism geek,” Miller said in a brief interview at her opening Saturday, which happened to be Flag Day. She talked while greeting dozens of fans who all seemed to know one another. “I read anything the White House puts out. In the ’50s, we had meetings. Now nobody knows. It’s good stuff.”
In an artist’s statement at the Elm Street gallery, where a pair of flags frames the narrow entrance, she writes about her desire “to re-examine patriotism, feminism and the ancient human urge to wage war on other tribes.” She wants to call attention to “fear instilled by the machines…war, survival, weapons of mass destruction (real and imagined), terror, materialism, the loss of relationships, global warming…first person shooter games, greed…constant computerized contact and the tiny humming of ear implants.” (Some of her subjects wear iPods under their masks.)
Miller used live models, including herself, for the paintings. In some, there are eye-shaped openings in the background — screens or windows with a view onto flaming chaos outside. These are partial recreations of the largest piece, set off by itself in a corner, showing a person on fire in the middle of a burning street.
“One day I was thinking all the men are going to kill themselves, and women from different countries are going to have to fight each other,” Miller said. “We like ice cream. We’re not going to let anyone tell us we can’t eat ice cream. American women will do what they have to do.”
The quasi-paranoid, semi-nostalgic feel of Prepared Americans seemed to be in the air Saturday in Deep Ellum, or at least extended inside the Hal Samples Gallery on Main Street. Dylan Hollingsworth, one of half a dozen artists hanging work there in a show called Pluto is Not a Planet, gently unleashed a quick narrative of his engaging and varied photographs for a small group of us. It was all about the learning cycle that is life.
Sergio Garcia stood out with a large metal disc stamped with the “VW” logo and a painting of a pay telephone almost perfectly rendered. These symbols of the past were echoed in Fred Holston’s Polaroids, whose passing as a medium he laments.
But though we didn’t notice it/him for a good 15 minutes, the grabber at Hal Samples was Hal Samples, photographer, filmmaker, activist and, tonight, naked man in a glass box on the floor.
Samples is always an intense young man, a provocateur who’s taken to the streets of Dallas to document the homeless and to give them cameras to document their own lives, even if right now he’s best known as the guy who shot that really cool Polyphonic Spree video.
In his artist’s statement, he rants about the disconnectedness of our age while seemingly acknowledging the inevitability of it. “Conversations once held across tables have turned to blogs and emoticons. We contribute to causes we know little about in hopes for a sense of importance…It’s none of our business what other people think of us. You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone…ever.”
Samples sat modestly in an almost fetal position, occasionally twirling a tiny feather between his thumb and forefinger, almost menacingly. Like Cathey Miller’s characters, he too was wearing a gas mask. And when he looked at me through one eyehole, I couldn’t look back for very long. Unlike Miller’s characters, for this I was not prepared.
Prepared Americans runs through July 12 at Kettle Art, 2714 Elm St. Pluto is Not a Planet runs through July 6 at Hal Samples Gallery, 2814 Main St., #101.