With images of Victoriana, pugilism, medical anomalies and barren landscapes, Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm proposes a choreographed fight outside the circled square. Margaret Meehan’s drawings, photographs and sculpture-based installations let innocence collide with the monstrous, evoking race, gender, and empathy for otherness.
Interested in teratology, the study of real and mythical monsters, Meehan combines the man made with the freak of nature. The exhibition includes seemingly disparate things: Circassian Women, hypertrichosis (a condition also known as werewolf syndrome) and the history of Boxing, a sport that legitimizes our need to fight, using others to sublimate our own desires.
The Circassian beauties depicted in Meehan’s drawings refer to women of the northern Caucuses who had a reputation in the Ottoman Empire as the most desirable of the Sultan’s harem. At the turn of the century PT Barnum began exhibiting Moss Haired Girls that he claimed were genuine Circassians, as a sideshow attraction. With large Afros and exotic costumes they were self-made freaks in charge of their own agency.
Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm- Conduit Gallery, Dallas, Texas
Histrionics was a term used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to refer to a seductive overabundance of emotion. It was most commonly ascribed to women whom, it was believed, were more prone to fits of excessive feeling. Both Circassian women and those with werewolf syndrome offer images of another kind of excess – not of emotion but of hair. Hair has a long relationship to sexuality but hair also covers the body. Representing two separate and competing ideas, it is about both excess and restraint.
Boxing has similar dualities. Each boxer mirrors the other so that their opponent becomes a reflection of themselves. While pugilism appears to be about horrific aggression it actually is a calculated sport, as noted by such writers as Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates, where the boxer struggles to remain noble, human and civilized. Boxing began with a simple chalk circle drawn on the ground where two men fought bare knuckled. As the sport developed gloves and other rules were introduced and confrontation became controlled.
The term “Forgotten Arm” stands for the arm that comes out of nowhere to clock you when two exhausted boxers are leaning on each other. Whether it is defense or offense, underdog or champ, boundaries are blurred through the course of a fight. In this exhibition these borderlines are embodied in the character of the Pugilist. Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm imagines the aftermath of a fight through a series of relics that evoke an excess of hair, emotion and even ornament. It blurs the boundaries between the stage of the boxing ring and the world outside of it. Victims become aggressors and the feral becomes rarified. White is quickly emptied of its purity and black is no longer the dominion of abject mystery – both are caught in the hot bright lights of a performative spectacle filled with violence and beauty.