Johnny Got His Dress: Sara Pearce Explores Gender Roles in RolePlay
By Shawn Daniell
In Sara Pearce’s world, men can wear dresses, with or without the blue, satin sashes. In RolePlay, her solo exhibit on display at 1305 Gallery, Pearce explores several concepts including the examination of gender roles, the concept of female empowerment, and being gay. I have been a huge fan of Pearce’s since I saw her artwork in last year’s Art of Food exhibit at the Carnegie in Covington, Ky., so naturally I just had to check out her newest pieces and I was again amazed by her artwork.
Pearce, a predominantly self-taught artist, has worn many hats during her professional career, spending time as a librarian, chef, and most recently an editor, critic, columnist, and reporter at several newspapers. I can’t help seeing these experiences coloring and adding layers to her artwork. For Pearce paper is a gem; a treasure to be melded and crafted into something magical. Part of her process involves finding materials with which to create her artwork, involving exploring yard sales, flea markets, used bookstores, and various other places. She mixes book illustrations, antique photographs, vintage prints and maps, ink, marker, watercolor, and various other materials. The materials and how they are incorporated into Pearce’s artwork are key elements in the viewing experience; adding multiple layers of meaning. Vintage photographs are transformed into commentaries on gender and equality. Many of the images used in the artwork depict men and women from the Victorian era; a time known for repression, prudery, and strict codes of conduct. There is a delicious, satiric battle between the stiffly posed men and how Pearce accessorizes them. I love the idea of taking something with a past, such as a family photograph or vintage print, and incorporating it into something that is brand new. You could almost physically feel the history derived from the images on display. Even the ambiance of 1305 Gallery had a vintage feel to it; through the use of earth tones, brown, wood walls, and a simple retro looking bench in the center. I felt as if I had stepped back into time and was passing my time in a sitting-room from the past.
One thing I really loved about this exhibit was the way Pearce addresses and treats her subjects on paper, with respect and yet with an element of whimsy. The whimsy for me is the beautifully elaborate and humorous titles that she pares with the artwork. Examples of her titles include: Geoffrey Believed the Maxim That The Ability to Accessorize Is What Separates Us From the Animals and Richard Felt Most Comfortable Cross Dressing in the Privacy of His Study. Pearce creates these beautiful portraits where men wear dresses, skirts, jewelry, ribbon, dreads, and other accessories. These men stare out at the viewers in several states of emotion including: shyness, stateliness, reservation, ambivalence, and finally confidence. In today’s current political climate in which the issues of equal rights is in hot debate, this exhibit couldn’t have been more timely. As the Supreme Court tackles the issue of legalizing same sex marriage across the United States these men on paper address the audience. I can imagine them saying, “You are free to be you. Why can’t I be myself as well?” So what is Pearce saying with these images? It’s really up to the viewer, but for me, I felt a huge wave of acceptance come over me when I stepped into 1305 Gallery. Pearce dedicated this show to her younger brother, David, who died from AIDS when he was only 36. In a world filled with so much ugliness it was a wonderful change to see images that encourage acceptance and equality.
RolePlay is on display at 1305 Gallery through April 21. Gallery hours are Thursday Noon-4 p.m., Friday Noon-4 p.m. and 6-11 p.m., Saturday-Sunday Noon-4 p.m. If you miss the exhibit make sure to check out Pearce’s artwork at Paper With A Past at HYPERLINK “http://paperwithapast.com/home.html” http://paperwithapast.com/home.html.