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Birthing Room

Art Review

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EXHIBIT: "In Vivo, In Vitro," paintings and drawings by Sarah Rutherford. L/L Gallery, Living/ Learning Center, UVM, Burlington. Through February 16.

ARTWORK: Untitled booklet images by Sarah Rutherford

Sarah Rutherford is a fearless artist. Her unflinching look at pregnancy and childbirth in an exhibit entitled "In Vivo, In Vitro," currently at the University of Vermont's Living/ Learning Center stems from what she has described as "my perverse fascination with the physical birthing process, as well as my own anxiety about someday becoming a mother."

The paintings are sometimes tough to look at, but they are infused with a reverence for birthing as a uniquely powerful act of creation. And in "exploring the boundary between grotesque and beautiful," Rutherford is a powerful interpreter.

Scale plays an important role in her works; most of the figures appear as life-sized or bigger. "Wonder Woman's Baby" is a vertical, 7-by-5-foot acrylic on canvas in which the super-heroine is a strange, menacing mother who looks down upon her naked baby lying on a scarlet floor. Wonder Woman appears to lack motherly instinct: She's wearing a baggy, ill-fitting costume, and her offspring is tethered by its umbilical cord, like a hairless Chihuahua on a leash.

While Wonder Woman is an American pop-culture icon, "Pierced" reinterprets a more universal iconographic female: the Virgin Mary. The seated nude, depicted as a modern young woman with pierced nipples, earrings and bracelets, looks uncomfortable with her immaculate-conception circumstances. Rutherford explains in an email that she is "attempting to connect Mary directly with her pregnant female body, tying down her halo to the earth." This unorthodox Madonna would be quite controversial in some quarters.

"Pregnant Strap On" is a mock pregnancy in sculptural form: The wearable sculpture consists of large breasts and belly installed on a mannequin.

Two figures portraits of the artist and her mother are similarly outfitted in a 20-foot-long installation and mural entitled "Cycles." The standing older woman at left has an air of confidence, seemingly comfortable with her fecundity. The younger one, seated at far right, is awkward in comparison. The life-sized figures are painted directly onto the room's deep crimson walls and connected by a sinewy faux umbilical cord made from tape, silicone glue and polyurethane. Rutherford artfully installed the cord so that it appears to thread in and out of the wall. At the end of the show, Rutherford plans to paint over the piece to represent a metaphorical separation from her mother.

Scenes of birthing appear in a series of 18-by-28-inch works on paper; they are executed in red, sepia and black ink and are gruesomely bloody. The birthing woman repeated in the theme has tangled hair, wears the "Pregnant Strap On" and squats to bear her infant. This kind of charged realism seems essential to Rutherford in coming to terms with pregnancy and childbirth.

Her graphic imagery might have run afoul of community standards at other galleries, especially taxpayer-supported ones. L/L Gallery curator Joan Watson, on the other hand, gave Rutherford carte blanche and the artist used it well. Another remarkable aspect of "In Vivo, In Vitro" is that Rutherford is just 21, a UVM senior. It's rare to see work so early in an artist's career exhibiting this level of technical strength and conceptual depth.

Though the paintings may be shocking to some, sensationalism is not their intent; this work concretely examines aspects of a woman's life not often in public view. Rutherford describes the exhibition as "asking visual questions that need to be asked, personally and socially."

Such questions can keep an astute artist busy for decades.

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