'Reproduction' art

What with wine tastings, food samplings and similar forms of socializing, the works of art shown at gallery parties -- such as this week's Third Thursday openings in the Downtown Arts District or the First Thursday soirees at the Orlando Museum of Art -- can become a backdrop to the crafts of networking, seduction and hooking up.

At such events, there is often a singles vibe, as love -- or something like it -- blooms among the paintings. But not so at the University of Central Florida Art Gallery's current exhibit. Nobody who attends this show is going to put the artwork second, and nobody -- but nobody -- is likely to be doing any picking up.

"Wake Up Little Susie: Pregnancy and Power Before Roe vs. Wade" and "Warnings" are pro-choice themed art installations that few observers would be able to regard as wallpaper for a social event. Indeed, here the art is the event.

"Pro-choice" naturally brings to mind the issue of abortion, but in both "Susie" and "Warnings" the phrase encompasses a variety of women's reproductive issues. Since their 1992 debut, the traveling exhibits have been seen in more than 40 cities nationwide. They are still illuminating eye-openers as they reopen important chapters in the history and precariousness of reproductive rights.

"Susie," a collaboration of artists Kay Obering, Cathleen Meadows, Kathy Hutton and Rickie Solinger (an author who has written extensively on the subject), deals primarily with the historic issues of women's reproductive rights. The emphasis is on the disparity of treatment between black and white women, and the way unwed mothers were long perceived as a "threat to the social order."

"Susie" is divided into two parts. The first features a giant chess board which depicts the game that has been played with women's health. The playersâ or chess pieces, are made of wire (or wood, in the case of the "castles"), and each consists of a collection of objects which stands for a lesson in history.

One of the "pawns" is the "black abortionist" -- the poor old voodoo midwife in a ghetto -- who, in addition to other decorations, bears a rusty hook and pliers. "The king" is the "all-American white male," represented by cigars, magnum condoms and open zippers.

The second part of the "Wake Up Little Susie" show consists of collage posters which serve to better explain the chess pieces and the social climate in the 1950's: It was a terribly suffocating time for many young women. Today, we watch, nonplused or even bored, as pop-culture magazines twitter about the "trend" of unmarried motherhood among celebs (Calista, Camryn, Rosie). But, in 1958, U.S. Rep. David Glass of Mississippi proposed an act "to discourage immorality of unmarried females by providing for sterilization of the unwed mother." Okay, it was Mississippi (one of the few states that has not hosted this exhibit). But it was still America, and it was only 43 years ago.

The man depicted as "the judge" on the collage which covers this bit of history is noneother than George Bush, the elder. If that doesn't prepare you for an exhibit called "Warnings," nothing will.

It is a multi-media companion installation by Lisa Link, who, in a phone interview from Boston, noted that her exhibit can be "rolled up and mailed anywhere," consisting as it does of posters of computer-manipulated images which very much bear the flavor of the propaganda poster. Her art draws provocative -- even chilling -- comparisons between modern American takes on reproductive issues and those of Nazi Germany.

Take, for example her comparison of two quotes, one from U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist: "The government can make a value judgment favoring childbirth over abortion and selectively fund a program to encourage certain activities it believes to be in the public interest." The other quote is from a Nazi pamphlet: "Your body does not belong to you but to your blood brethren, your volk."

"The show is not about converting" anyone to a different viewpoint, Link says. Rather, "it's about generating discussion" at a time when, she fears, liberal voices have become dangerously muted. The issue Link seems most passionate about -- and one she feels has been largely ignored -- is the lack of rights for surrogate mothers. She believes such women are being used as "breeders for upper class society," noting that the average pay for surrogates comes down to "15 cents an hour, when you add it up over nine months."

One of her pieces compares the plight of today's surrogate mothers to a Nazi policy by which Polish teen-agers were bred with German teenagers, the babies given to proper German families and the young mothers sent off to brothels or work camps. Link, a vivacious, idealistic wife, mom and artist, fears that complacency in this country could lead to an erosion of our own reproductive rights to drastic levels.

"Democracy lasts only as long as we work on it," she says, something a lot of us may not have been on our toes about lately.

"Susie" and "Warnings" are not what you'd call pretty art exhibits, but the reawakening they might give to feminist spirits could be considered beautiful.

Reproductive rights may not seem like a priority issue when our country is fighting terrorism and religious extremists. That is, until you remember that the first acts of terrorism on American soil were bombings of women's health clinics by religious extremists.

So, like the Susie of the old '50s pop song upon which the title of the group art show is taken, the question remains: Are you awake?

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