written by Jake Seniuk, Director Port Angeles Art Center, Port Angeles, Washington
Marilyn Lysohir remembers her contemporaries from the class of 1968
with a regiment of clay busts that spark a visit to one’s own irretrievable past.
“Marilyn!” A voice cuts through the sounds of nearby traffic as Marilyn Lysohir pumps gas, back in her Pennsylvania hometown running errands in her mother’s car. “Marilyn,” the voice insists as Lysohir, who’d spent most of the last three decades in the Palouse country of western Idaho and eastern Washington, does a double-take towards the middle-aged woman beckoning to her across the hood. “It’s me … Mary! Mary Reynolds, from Sharon High … remember?”
Lysohir tries to put the warmth of shared memories into her smile, but it isn’t until she gets back to her studio in Moscow and digs out her old yearbook that she’s able to return to 1968, and see who it was that this aging stranger had been then. And who was it that she herself had been, she wonders? Who was that who, who was still recognizable in this new century?
Turning the pages of the annual, her eyes and memory track the unlined faces, frozen in 2” x 2” black and white cameos, all sculpted hairdos and choreographed smiles. There she was Mary Reynolds, a girl she’d known only slightly. But here was Marie Virostick, too, and Yvonne Smith, Darlene Marcus, and Linda Krakowski. What had become of them all?
And there was Marilyn the one Mary had remembered and called out to against the seamless background paper in her mohair sweater. There she was again, with them, in blurry candids goofing in the hallways, dribbling on the fledgling women’s basketball team and goose-stepping as drum major, all legs, baton and high hat. On another page she encounters what’s-his-name on the fourth bleacher step with the glee club, and in the front row of the marching band her then best buddy, Karen Rudge, with her baton.
The group shots bring back the minuet of adolescent friendships where so-and-so stood next to so-and-so on the school steps for the camera, declaring allegiance to each other and to the various clubs and junior societies, where mine-strewn social turf was being platted.
Washed over by waves of nostalgia, it becomes clear to Marilyn that all the ingredients of art are present, here in her lap. As has happened many times before, she feels she is being called upon by the muse to use her skills and vision in honor of the lives of her old running mates, whose only connection to her now is through these small grey photos in Sharon Senior High School’s The Mirror.
Lysohir with husband and life partner, Ross Coates, presented a memorable show at PAFAC in 1991, with multi-faceted installations that did much to probe the conventions of the traditional exhibition space. Marilyn miniaturized Esther Webster’s great room1 by filling it, fore to aft, with a twenty-five foot ceramic WWI battle cruiser, which gave the viewer the claustrophobic feeling of standing shrunken in the shadow of the proverbial ship in a bottle. Outside, Ross provided an early nudge towards the birth of Webster’s Woods Art Park (still nine years in the future) with his neo-primitive fetish totems and his artful shaman’s altars, popping up here and there around the former estate while his Grass Boat grew tall in the central meadow.
As far back as when she carved an eight-foot chocolate rabbit at her first job in a candy factory, Marilyn’s ambitions have leaned towards the monumental. Nor has her discourse with clay ever been beholden to the potter’s wheel or any vessel tradition. Her forms are hand-built from clay slabs and animated with drawing and painting in service to a strong conceptual overlay. Sometimes she incorporates documentary materials that provide social and historical context, such as the recorded veterans’ interviews available in headsets to viewers of The Dark Side of Dazzle.
In that work every surface of her two-ton battleship is covered cheek-to-jowl with wild geometric “dazzle camouflage,” meant to confuse enemy gunners with its hard-edge Op Art patterns that fracture the ship’s vital geometry. Bristling with military-industrial machismo, expressed in gun turrets and heavy armor plates, The Dark Side … was, nevertheless, as much about the home front experienced by the warrior’s wife. She appeared in the adjacent gallery wrapped in a “dazzle” camo towel, having just stepped from the bath to contemplate her fate in the mirror of the medicine chest, wherein we spy three miniature “dazzled” destroyers berthed on the shelves, while a four-foot replica of the mother ship lurks in the tub’s draining bath water like a Brooklyn alligator. Reminders of his plight and hers follow her every step in this camouflaged haven of domesticity.
History and autobiography have gone hand-in-hand in many of Lysohir’s complex and labor-intensive installations. Tapping the very essence of the Judeo-Christian origin story, she fashions full-size human figures out of clay and sets them up in narratives that fill a room. Like the life tableaux of seminal plaster caster George Segal, Lysohir’s installations invite the viewer to share real physical space with her art mannequins, to step inside the frame and become part of the piece.
Yet, while Segal gains his power from transforming the individuality of his gauze-wrapped subject into a faceless everyman, Lysohir responding perhaps to the doll painter’s DNA in her Ukrainian genome colorizes with brush and glaze to specify a character who is, in varying proportions throughout her oeuvre, both an individual and a type.
In the Fourth Sister (1981), for example, three willowy brides bow stiffly at the waist towards their matching wedding cakes towering before them. Eerily clone-like in lacy wedding uniforms, they seem to have leapt from their appointed place on top of the cake and grown to life-size still outlined by frosting. Their soft-focus conformity makes the absence of the fourth (presumably unmarried) sibling into a manifesto for freedom from prescribed roles and long established conventions. Or, perhaps, it is a paean to security and wifeliness itself, a wish blown across a candle flame in honor of some spinster aunts. The choice, of course, is the viewer’s, who by her/his very presence and witness assumes the role of the missing sister.
In B.A.M.s (1979) a squadron of eleven “big ass marines,” as the female semper fi’s were referred to by the grunts, is arrayed in dress formation in two rows, one sitting, one standing behind. They appear to be posing for the official battalion photograph. Marilyn’s WWII vintage mom is there, second from the right in the back row, resurrected to service from an old snapshot. The others wear her face as well with some variations of eye and hair. Starched and prim, yet at the same time feminine and ripe, these are women of what’s been called “the greatest generation,” who are comfortable with duty.
Good Girls2 began to take shape in Marilyn’s mind over a two-year period when her time was parsed between teaching classes at Washington State University and the University of Idaho, finishing a project called The Tattooed Ladies and the Dinosaur, and touring that installation and The Dark Side of Dazzle to venues in Idaho and the Midwest not to mention running the chocolate factory.
When she was finally ready to embark on the Sharon project in 2003, Lysohir drew upon these earlier all-female works, both in spirit and style. As with the brides and the marines, the high school portraits were tied to a momentous life transition, a clear demarcation point when a new role was being cast. They were the mementos of a rite of passage, destined to be framed on desks and mantels, freezing forever a moment of hope and aspiration. If the surrendering brides pledge allegiance to the nobility of family and the mature marines pledge allegiance to the sacrifice of service, these newly prepared and inexperienced graduates pledge themselves to nothing more than childhood’s end.
Because the unexpected call to the project had come from a woman, Lysohir decided early on to limit herself to the girls of ’68, a strategy that is not surprising given her prior explorations of female identity. Yet the project was still so daunting in scale that it would occupy her for four years. But first, she had to develop a methodology for tackling the formidable goal of recreating all one hundred and sixty-two of her female classmates, as well as her own youthful self.
The expansion of the small photographs into the third dimension required a process of translation, which was abetted by the standardization imposed by the yearbook photographer’s craft. As their day jobs, Marilyn and Ross have run a successful cottage industry, Cow Girl Chocolates3, for nearly a decade, so the standardization ethos of the factory was old hat for Lysohir, and had spilled into her art methods since her early encounters with chocolate rabbits.
The uniform poses and fixed lighting setup of production line photography allowed Lysohir to create a corresponding matrix mold that yielded a basic clay armature, upon which she could build the individual features of each girl. The limitations of that pose, which revealed only a single angle of the head in space, and the small size of the photograph on the page, however, offered her only enough information to enlarge the features to about three-quarters life-size, beyond which she felt the image began to fall apart.
Because the blood was already drained from their young cheeks by their monochrome reproductions in The Mirror, and the natural skin textures and variations had been dutifully subdued by the airbrush of the photo retouch artist, Lysohir did not try to reproduce variances in complexion, and settled on a palette that was more symbolic than naturalistic. All the faces have a similar polished pallor reminiscent of marble, excepting the ten African Americans who stand out starkly with glossy chestnut skin tones.
Evidence of life stirs in the pale and stony visages in their most animated features the rose blush lips and vibrant eyes of blue, green, brown and hazel, which seem to peer out from the past. Preened blonde and brunette coiffures frame the faces with bangs and beehives, bobs and flips, telegraphing each girl’s style and creativity, and acting as a badge of her developing social caste. Lower down, the scoop neckline of a sweater, the checked pattern of a dress, or a blouse gathered at the throat and offset with a broach or pendant, further individuates each graduate and provides clues to the contents of her mind and character.
As the exhibition debut of the Good Girls at the Washington State University Art Museum in neighboring Pullman approached, Lysohir felt the need to track down these teenage ghosts and bring their living presence into the mix. She began sleuthing (made so much simpler by the ubiquity of the Internet) and contacting these now aging women, one by one.
Many were intrigued and lent their aid to the search with their own contacts. Some sent current photographs and biographies of the intervening years, thirty of which were framed and provide a coda to the exhibition. One had become a successful opera singer and music professor in Texas. Another had been an editor at Time/Life. Many had stayed in Sharon and worked in the local economy, joined church and civic groups, took care of husbands and raised families. Some did not reply. Seven, she learned, had already passed on.
1968 was a watershed year of tumult as this writer, whose youthful likeness inhabits another yearbook (The Wizard) with that date embossed upon its cover, well remembers. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in close succession in that final high school spring, the racially-driven riots over another “long hot summer” when street battles also brought the Vietnam War home to Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, the comeback election of “Tricky Dick” Nixon to the presidency, the emergence of R. Crumb and Underground Comix and the counterculture he caricatured none of that and so much more seems to have touched these girls, forever fixed in the postures of tradition.
In her arguably definitive essay, On Photography, Susan Sontag spent much ink ruminating on the inherent presence of mortality imbedded in every photographic portrait, which will in all likelihood long outlast its flesh and blood subject on this earth. The French auteur of the Holocaust, Christian Boltanski, made this clear in photographic installations that used unfocused blow-ups of senior portraits appropriated from the yearbook of a Jewish high school in Weimar Berlin, reminding us once more of the disappeared. “I think we all have somebody who is dead inside of us,” he surmises. “A dead child.”
The mortality implicit in Lysohir’s source archive is thickened by the funerary associations of these memorial busts, which recall a tradition usually reserved for fallen statesmen in galleries ranging from the ancient Roman Senate to the marble halls of Capitol Hill. The clay medium, itself, is a mainstay of archeology and with its dust-to-dust cycling is a metaphor for uncovered bone.
Lysohir inscribes each girl’s name on the custom corbel on which her head is displayed, clinching her identity and at the same time holding it safe from the future demands of brides and soldiers. Like Chinese tomb guardians, these eight-score heads comprise a crowd that speaks to a distant and unknown future.
Given the generation from which it springs, it is hard not to see this sisterhood as a proud and eerie reflection of Maya Lin’s Viet Nam War Memorial. The absence of Sharon’s boys in this collection poignantly makes that point. While many of their classmates disappeared in the jungles of Southeast Asia, some permanently and some to return almost unrecognizable, these smiling faces memorialize the home front the girlfriends, wives and sisters who would receive the true impact of the dreaded falling dominos.4
Lin gives us only the engraved names of the sacrificed, stripping their legacy to its barest essential, while demonstrating the immense scale of the loss through the sheer size and sweep of her black shadow stone. In Lysohir’s white clay reliquary the names are matched to the expectant faces of the future, a state of survivorship that makes them, at least for this suspended moment, all good girls.