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Learning to Say No in 520 Languages

I’m Learning to Say No in 520 Languages

“How often do I hear my brain screaming NO as I smile and say yes? These random words are all “NO” in different languages. So I am learning to say no in 520 languages, most importantly mine, NO.”

Artist, Karen Gutfreund, works with unconventional materials: roof tar, bone, red food coloring, wax… Moving against standards and customs, is she saying NO even in the becoming and embodiment of her art?

She has good reason to go against the flow. We all do.

“Using hot political issues, I mix it up with text, pop culture images, stencils, and symbols to create works that are a combination of personal commentary, religious and moral teachings, political outrage and social observation,” she says. “Often the imagery and core meaning of the painting is very personal and emotionally gut-wrenching, so that not being able to discuss it verbally, I present it visually. Part humorous, part tragic.”

As she explains, the layering and mixed meanings echo and reveal the inner complexity of dreams, nightmares and emotions.

Her work strikes a chord with a piece I once read entitled, “Betrayed by the Angel”:

“I’m 25 years old. I’m alone in my apartment. I hear a knock. I open the door and see a face I don’t know. The man scares me, I don’t know why. My first impulse is to shut the door. But I stop myself: You can’t do something like that. It’s rude… He is inside. He slams the door shut himself and pushes me against the wall… Since he is being rude, it is okay for me to be rude back.”

Despite her revelation that rudeness can be good, it was too late. The young woman was raped.

Some feel queasy at self-defense seminars when told to gouge out an attacker’s eyes. “Could I do something less gruesome?” Advice from the expert: “He’s bigger than you. If you try something weaker he’ll overtake you and you’ll be raped or dead.”

I had it easier. But not really easy. He was a guy from church, and we were dating. At church we didn’t have double standards. Men and women were both told to stay pure. So inexperienced and naïve that when he touched me outside my clothes, but at “third base,” I froze in shock. Was he really doing that? I didn’t want to be rude. In guarding his feelings I paid a price, smacked with the label, “loose.”

Virginia Woolf speaks of the Angel in the House. Some scattered lines:

“You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her – you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House… She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish… She sacrificed herself daily… She preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others…

“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”

This piece was originally shown at “CONTROL,” an exhibition of  California women artists presented by The Women’s Caucus for Art at New York’s Ceres Gallery, February 1 – February 26th, 2011.

For more on Karen Gutfreund’s work go to her website.

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