‘Confronting Intimate Violence: A Dress Speaks: Heeding the Voice’

Reviews of recent and ongoing exhibitions and performances around Austin.

Gallery Lombardi, through September 5

Home sweet home. Silence is golden.

A couple of bromides that don't always apply in this era of widespread domestic violence. Home isn't always sweet, sad to say. Silence can be misery, can even be slow and sorrowful death.

All too often, the painful cry that is inspired by rape or abuse is stifled precisely because it occurs inside the home -- or if not literally there, then inside the close circle of family or friends that constitutes the intimacy of home. The transgressor, the assailant, the violator is a parent, a grandparent, a lover, a neighbor, a sibling, a classmate, a spouse, a figure of trust whose name and character are not to be defiled, whose will is not to be defied. So no one may be told; nothing may be said about abuse, assault, violation. And the bond of intimacy is such that the silence is typically enforced.

Finding a voice that can shatter the dark silence within these home sour homes is frequently difficult, but Benné Rockett has been able to in a remarkable way in this new exhibition. She has found the voice inside a dress, that humble article of clothing that shields the female form. In collaboration with The Queens of the Universe Incognito and several charitable and artistic organizations, including Opening Closed Doors, the Ophelia Project, and the Clothesline Project, Rockett has helped women create dresses that sing out the story of their torment, of the violence done them, in poetic and powerful metaphors. Participants in the project were encouraged to find objects which they felt related to their experience, and these were applied to patterns and stitched into individual garment/sculptures. Thus, in one a caged bird is enclosed in a bodice; in another, upended bottles offer loud and anguished testimony to a legacy of alcoholism. The skirt of one dress is stained with muddy bootprint after muddy bootprint, proclaiming the sense of dread a young girl felt when she would hear the footsteps of her tormentor coming toward her bedroom at night.

On the page, such decorations and even the connection of dresses to sexual violation and abuse may sound too obvious, too literal to affect anyone beyond the participants and those close to them. But Rockett's presentation of them -- in a long row along the west wall of Gallery Lombardi, with each dress under its own light in its own small space between two doors suspended in air -- allows for an intensely personal experience with each dress, each expression of intimate violence, and the simple objects used to tell some part of the story, to break the deadly quiet imposed on the woman who lived through it, take on a primal power to convey deep feeling. We are drawn into the room with the dress and are able to access every detail of its sorrowful tale, almost to feel it in what we see.

There is a striking craftsmanship to the pieces in "A Dress Speaks," as there are a number of the pieces that complement this exhibition. But as admirable as that aspect of the artwork is, it's hard to focus on. You see, there is this sound, this voice which keeps drawing your attention back to the skirt with its bootprints, the bodice with its bars, the stiff fabric, the bolts, the sense of compression between the doors, the story ... it is that voice -- at once beautiful and terribly disturbing -- that you keep coming back to. It is the reason you are there.

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