Small Worlds Under Glass

There’s an exhibit at Ghost Gallery right now that deserves your time and attention. Called “Bell Jar: A Group Exhibit,” it displays works by 24 female-identifying artists from across the US who have responded to a prompt to make work that fits under a decorative bell jar—the glass, bell-shaped dust cover commonly used in Victorian households to shelter trinkets, clocks, taxidermized animals and other baubles. Laurie Kearney, founder of Ghost Gallery and curator of the show, points out that this is not about Sylvia Plath’s book of the same name but a call for works that incorporate the small worlds inside these vessels.

The bell jar (also known as a cloche) is haunted by connotations of female entrapment and display, a point compounded by the fact that the exhibit is flanked by jewelry and other objects of adornment for sale in the gallery. (Not all exhibits at Ghost benefit from the juxtaposition, but this one does.) It may be coincidental that the design of much of the jewelry in Ghost Gallery veers toward the sensually threatening, like pendents carved from horn that taper like claws and rings with violently jagged quartz crystals jutting where polite, wifely diamonds might otherwise be. Surrounded by such talons, the bell jar sculptures weave a story of historical feminine tropes appropriated and subverted, often to stunning effect.

In keeping with the history of the bell jar, some artists have run full-steam ahead with Victorian themes, like Erika Rier and her hand-drawn, articulated paper dolls, the joints of which are knotted with blood-red thread. The pen-and-ink women battle atop a landscape of craggy rocks, driftwood and shells. One figure pierces the breast of the other. Danielle Schlunegger has woven the tiniest, fantastical creatures, like the Long Legged Field Mouse, out of fur, beeswax and seed pods. Based on field notes of 19th-century amateur naturalist Marcus Kelli, she recreates the animals and environments he describes to uncanny effect. Caitlin McCormack’s In Keeping shelters the skeleton of a small bird spun out of crocheted cotton string.

Also dipping into Victorian tradition, Erin Frost’s Self-Fulfilling Vessel harkens to 19th-century mourning jewelry crafted from the hair of the dead. For the past decade Frost has focused on her own body as an ever-transforming and transformative site where sensual and existential mysteries are measured out. For this show, her cloche protects a fist-sized nest woven from the artist’s own hair. It sits atop a short stem, rendering it an impossibly porous goblet. As per most hair-based objets d’art, the piece is equally repellant and heartbreakingly delicate.

Laurie Kearny has installed a swarm of miniature cloches sheltering gold leaf-wrapped pills. “This piece represents one month’s intake of 1000 mg of Metformin, which I have taken daily since being diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) in 2012,” she writes. “This diagnosis has led me to a clearer understanding of the myriad difficulties involved with infertility and reproductive health, as well as a frustrating awareness that, as a woman approaching 40, my physicality now very often endures such labels as ‘not viable, high risk, geriatric, lacking, depleting’ and the like.”

Only one of the sculptures, I Am by Amber Anderson, has been given air to breathe. The cloche is removed and set to one side of a vaguely vaginal, oval-shaped object made of ceramic encased in soil. A pocket-size forest sprouts from along its form—literally sprouts, which have been seeded in the soil.

The exhibit wraps with a shelf containing four pieces by Nola Avienne, whose work strikes a balance of freaky repulsion and can’t-look-away attraction. (Her day job as a phlebotomist has informed her relationship to blood-as-material as she mines the beauty and humor in the horrifying.) Her Portrait of Two Cats Sleeping is an actual hairball made from cat hair and whiskers, flaxen-colored and smoothed into a mound. Another bell jar encapsules the meandering Sea Formal, an iron garland that spirals upward along a metal spine. Bundles of magnets and iron fillings form blossoms that feather ominously, dripping carmine strands of whip coral.

After a while walking around the gallery, gazing into each miniature display, one begins to notice another element at play as a result of looking through and at so much glass: the reflection of the world outside the bell jar becomes a perpetual distortion inscribed on the surface of the glass itself—twisted and warped with a funhouse, Wonderland effect. For just a moment, the contained worlds of the bell jars are the only things that come clearly into focus, unbent by the curve of the bell. Everything on the outside seems unreal.