The RNG Gallery and its partnership with Dixie Quicks Restaurant is leaving town sometime this summer to set up new residence across the river but not before making a strong statement about what Council Bluffs can expect via contemporary art. Last Friday, members of CB’s Chamber of Commerce lunched on Chef Rene Orduna’s Southern and Cajun fare while getting an earful from Orduna’s partner, gallery owner Rob Gilmer on what RNG will contribute by way of non-mainstream and alternative art to the river city’s cultural scene. The chamber also got an eyeful as they sat and digested a sophisticated and largely well-organized exhibit provocatively titled Les Femmes Folles . The show features the work of five “wild and crazy” (folles) women artists, Leslie Diuguid, Wanda Ewing, Rebecca Herskovitz, Jamie Lamaster and Lauren van Wyke, who readily accept the appellation and interpret it personally in themes of race, gender identification and sexuality. The exhibit, which continues through May 1, consists of prints, drawings, paintings and ceramic sculpture, most of which is suitable for an adult audience. Council Bluffs has already established a regional reputation for public art outside the box. RNG should go a long way in putting the city firmly on the visual arts map, indoor as well. RNG has been down this road before with its successful Body as Text show which ran last fall in conjunction with the sixth annual Omaha Lit Fest event, Undressed/Untold , a performance of erotic readings by nude models at the venue. Body as Text was a mixed bag of contextualized erotica from amateur and pro alike, but the show made a statement seldom seen in this area. This time around Les Femme Folles was motivated by a one night stand and deliver event last Thursday, The Spirit of the Female Beats . Highlighting the evening were readings, again some in the nude, honoring the likes of Carolyn Cassady, Marilyn June Coffey and Diane di Prima as well as other women literary artists of the beat generation. The event was presented by Lit Undressed, a project that also helped organize Undressed/Untold . Both event and exhibit opening were well attended as they achieved their goals, but ironically both suffered somewhat from a relative lack of didactic material regarding their shows. Though there has been much cooperation via emails, social media and local media websites in getting the word out, event night, an otherwise informative pamphlet listing readings and artist bios contained no explanatory material regarding the night’s purpose or Lit Undressed’s mission and history. Likewise, the exhibition would benefit from a strong show statement as well as artist statements, either on the wall as in the past or with the list of works made available to the viewers. Such helpful material is always appreciated, especially when dealing with controversial subjects and the hope for building community support, understanding and appreciation. That said, it can be argued that readings and art speak for themselves, that is, if one understands and is open to the language. Les Femmes Folles offers a mix of the exotic, erotic and downright pornographic; a cultural Rorschach Test that separates the enlightened viewer from the censorial. All it asks is to be seen and taken seriously and not be dismissed out of hand, a given in any artistic license. That much the five diverse artists in this exhibit have in common with the Female Beats as well as their own generation. Curator Ewing, Diuguid, Herskovitz, Lamaster and van Wyke are all upbeat about their strong feminine and feminist point of view. Overall, the show is exploratory, revealing and at times self-effacing in its view of what it is to be a woman. It is also occasionally self-indulgent in illustrating both the pleasure and the frustration in living up to society’s as well as one’s own expectations of being female. The women, and a few men as women, portrayed in the work are proud if a little insecure about their gender and bodies, happy to be the subjects of art even as they acknowledge what it’s like to be treated as an object. Empowered, defiant even, knowing they have this power over the viewer, as they transform themselves from a shrinking violet to a full blown rose. The Femmes Folles themselves are either established or emerging artists and their work enjoys a mutual influence and conversation or two. As a UNO arts professor, Ewing has had a mentoring impact on two of her former students here, Van Wyke and especially Lamaster. Ewing offers familiar imagery of her own that continues her social commentary on how women, particularly Black women, establish their identity and worth based upon images of themselves in the media. Her two earlier caricatures (2003), Get Real and Who’s Bad , set the tone for the exhibit with their combined text message of “keep it Real” and implication that one’s identity can’t be found in a Jheri Curl bottle or any other commercial scheme. Even more impressive is Ewing recontextualizing her expressive Half Dolls in Gallery 3 into small clay sculpture that satirize living the Good Life while half a person. Her influence is readily apparent in the strikingly paradoxical mix media of Lamaster in Gallery 1. The latter cleverly reinterprets the former’s puppet-like Video Grrrlzzz series, but instead of punching bags for heads, these figures sport heads or upper bodies that reflect their titles such as Cherry Darling and Train Tracking . Lamaster’s aesthetic cleverly combines a lacey Victorian attitude with a modern ethos, best seen in Train Tracking . In this image several high stepping half dolls propel a darkly menacing antiquated steam engine forward with their comely net stocking legs. A case maybe of the women’s movement held back or impeded by a lack of progressive thinking and repression. Also in Gallery 1 are the oil pastel and graphite nudes of Van Wyke. A former figure drawing student of Ewing’s, she eschews the caricature of her mentor and offers a rougher, sketchier rendering of the female form. Though Van Wyke has titled each piece with the model’s names, Erika, Lauren and Molly, all the work is autobiographical as the tentativeness of each subject belies the artist’s own in showing her first nude exhibit. Erika seems reluctant to expose herself as she crouches forward covering her breasts, and in a second image comes close to touching herself as her hand hesitates on her inner thigh. Meanwhile, Lauren herself is exposed to the world but hides her identity and her head outside the frame standing awkwardly and insecurely, a feeling any artist can appreciate female or otherwise. There is nothing tentative about Herskovitz’s imagery which highlights Galleries 2 and 3. As she has in the past, the artist continues to explore the impact of explicit pornography on women and its audience with her exact art that replicates hardcore magazine photos. Herskovitz’s work is dominated by women pleasuring themselves but its eroticism is measured by a certain ambiguity and nuance. As with her series and installation in Galley 2, all of the figures are incomplete or minimalist, focusing on facial and body language, raising the issue of self-gratification for both subject and viewer. Less ambiguous are the faux orgasms on the faces of her Harem further compromised by their frames of embroidery hoops which may reinforce the lengths to which some go to make a living. Perhaps the most compelling piece in the show is Herskovitz’s large oil on Mylar Miss Tracy who seems oblivious to her viewer such is the depth of her orgasm. Even the oil drippings that extend fortuitously off the Mylar in shadow form down the wall are duplicitous representing both the passion and frustration of self-gratification in a voyeur/voyance relationship. That the artist pays such attention to facial expression here as well as in her Harem further supports her Humanistic attitude toward sexual freedom and expression. Diuguid ends the exhibit with a lighter, more whimsical touch with her gender-bending mixed media drawings with such tongue-in-cheek titles as Big Girls Need Big Diamonds . Similar to the exotic portraits of Christine Stormberg, these “girls” still flaunt their facial hair and musculature inside their wigs, makeup and breastplates. Diuguid’s cross-dressers are the wild and craziest girls of all in Les Femmes Folles as they too strive to find and express the female side of their nature outside the box and conventional wisdom. Les Femmes Folles continues through May 1 at RNG Gallery, 1915 Leavenworth (Dixie Quicks entrance). Call (402) 214-3061 or go online at for details.

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