“Take this pink ribbon off my eyes. I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise. Don’t you think I know exactly where I stand? The world is forcing me to hold your hand.”

No Doubt

 

In 2014, New York writer Emily Shire wrote an article for the news and opinion website The Daily Beast titled “Women, It’s Time To Reclaim Our Breasts.”

It would be fair to say that artist Raquel Paiewonsky shares that sentiment.

The multidisciplinary artist from the Dominican Republic uses the female breast as a symbol with which to make statements about complex issues including gender relations, cultural assumptions and their deconstruction, feminine beauty, the male gaze, motherhood and more.

And as Shire wrote in her article, “they (breasts) have a hallowed sexual status, arguably more fetished than either sex’s genitalia.”

Paiewonsky brilliantly makes art that honors that “hallowed status” while at the same time tweaking it with humor, by isolating the breast away from the body as a whole.

In her exhibition at the University Art Gallery, she displays a number of mixed media works that celebrate the breast, in a manner that is both playful and witty.

“Inopia” is a large wall-mounted hand embroidered linen, entirely the color of fresh cream. Across the surface, in a gridded pattern are 168 small conical spheres — tiny breasts — complete with monochromatic nipples and areolas. The milky color choice may be a not-so-subtle reminder that the primary function of the female breast is to provide food to babies.

“Muro” (Spanish for wall) is a site specific installation taking up a large segment of the wall within the gallery. Many cartoonish hand-embroidered breasts, situated somewhere between the purposeful crudeness of an R. Crumb underground comic and the kid-friendly innocence of a Muppet, hang and sag from the wall.

Ranging in size and texture and in a variety of colors — pink, ecru, maroon, white, yellow and several shades of brown — they suggest a collective feminine unity, a sisterhood of the breast. The complexions are not quite of this world but they allude to something real and visceral.

Paiewonsky also displays a group of large beach balls that have been upholstered with microfibers. No breasts are that round or those colors or that size, and they are not quite anatomically correct but it doesn’t matter. The silliness of it all is captured in the punny name she gives them: “Bitch Balls.”

Breasts are not the sole focus of the exhibition.

With “Wall,” a construction of concrete blocks in the corner of the gallery, she disrupts the visual hardness of some of them with patterned hand embroidered fabric, which makes some of them look like needlepoint Kleenex boxes. If the concrete can be considered masculine, the embroidery is an attempt to feminize them.

Paiewonsky’s “Isopolis” is an intriguing 11-minute video in which men and women, naked below midchest, wander along sand dunes and a lapping beach, wearing nothing but tall white headgear. Make no mistake: they are phallic as could be.

The faces of the participants are unseen, but everything else is. At some point they are joined by another similar character, but unlike the others in smooth white sheathes, this one wears hundreds of inflated white latex gloves and looks like an anthropomorphized bedroom toy.

And a little white and orange pussycat runs around, innocent as could be.

“Raquel Paiewonsky: Insideout” is on display at the University Art Gallery, 715 Purchase Street, New Bedford until October 28. An opening reception will be held on Thursday, Oct. 10, 6-9 pm.

 

 Don Wilkinson is a painter and art critic who lives in New Bedford. Contact him at Don.Wilkinson@gmail.com. His reviews run each week in Coastin’.