Sally Hart

Siren screams

Sally Hart's Siren Screams is an exhibition of nine paintings with a folio of pencil drawings, held in the intimate and casual venue of Café Europe. Cafe Europe has been operating as an exhibition space for over a year. The works hang higher than in a normal gallery space and the booths inhibit close inspection, but they also provide a personal space from which to view the art works. Siren Screams suits the space well, consciously usurping the role of conventional coffee-house decoration. The small number of equally sized works are dominated by an iconic aesthetic using predominantly black, white and primary colours. This creates a unified visual discourse which in turn facilitates a more complex and subtle flow of ideas.

The works are based upon the central symbol of the mermaid which serves as a visual metaphor for the feminine. Hart's exploration of the mermaid figure (and the feminine) resides in the issue of representation where representation is a composite involving the structural nature of the mermaid symbol itself and its aesthetic encoding in a stylistic medium and context. These two components (like the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic) work to situate the mermaid/metaphoric feminine in a representational discourse while leaving generated meaning multiple, an open-ended play of the various structural and aesthetic signifieds.

Hart's images contain only one or two figures, presented in a two dimensional format with bold black outlines. It is a curious blend of the naive and high modernism, styles which are both effectively dependent on the concept of the primitive. Hart's combination of naive faces with modernist figures offers an effective representational strategy for the mermaid symbol.

In naive works, such as Siren Screams II, the mermaid's tail is not in evidence and her sweet-smiling face predominates. Here the feminine exists within a prescribed beauty and a benign mystique of spirituality (mermaids are bewitching and extremely beautiful). Obvious allusions are made to the Mona Lisa and the Madonna. The figure in Siren Screams II (an extraordinary title for such an 'innocent' work) hangs as a wall flower, a decorative back-drop in Cafe Europe. Merbaby usurps the Madonna icon, replacing the male Christ child with the female merbaby and presenting the mermaid's breasts, which traditionally signify her sexuality, as symbols of fertility.

Mermaids are also a traditional symbol for death. In works such as Sister Screams, Hart develops the dark side of the feminine, the grotesque tail which partners the beautiful face, using an unmistakeably modernist figuration. Modernism has focussed on the female body as a metaphor for avant-garde practice – the radical unknowable terrain. Thus the mermaid is linked with the mutilated female of modernism. Her tail could easily be a Picasso-esque pastiche, a Matissean decoration, a Chagallian dream, a Dalian vision, a Munchic metaphor and so on. The tail is the mutilation which relegates the feminine to the projected domain of the 'other'. Along with the concept of the primitive the feminine must forever remain outside the definition of culture, law and civilisation.

Mexican Wilderness, another very modernist image, depicts the mermaid symbol in reverse-legs and buttocks springing from a fish 's head. This highlights the mutilation process and its ungainliness is in conscious contrast to the relaxed and confidant mermaids of Hart's other images. The reference to Mexico moves the mermaid icon away from its culturally overburdened tradition to the contemporary culture of South American fiction.

Particularly in Mexican Wilderness, but throughout Siren Screams, Hart's representational strategies are counterpointed by a structural examination of the mermaid symbol itself, giving voice to the metaphoric feminine. It is this voice that conceptually dominates the exhibition and gives Siren Screams its positive character. Hart's mermaids do not struggle to deny or to be free of their form. Siren Screams is a celebration of the feminine 'other'. Hart sees the mermaid symbol as essentially liberating.

She Scared Him a Little depicts a mermaid's tail hovering over a male figure. In this image the tail symbolises the male subconscious fears of the projected feminine. To the mermaid the tail is her means of transport, navigating the oceans of the primitive/imaginative with ease. The mermaid's tail is asserted as a powerful symbol of independence (as in Siren Screams II).

The final image in the series is titled Nix and is Hart's depiction of a 'merman'. Nix is the name for a merman in Germanic folklore. In English, nix means nothing and it is a coincidence which puns on the no-place which exists between genders. Nix has long hair and heavily outlined breasts with a fine moustache adorning his face.

In her nine beautifully painted works and accompanying drawings, Hart successfully negotiates the representation of a culturally overloaded symbol. Siren Screams rescues the mermaid symbol from banality and revitalises it for feminist mythology. In doing so Hart tackles the issue of representation itself, declaring her stylistic and generic references for deconstructive ends. In her subtle re-evaluation of the patriarchal feminine, Hart has crystalised core icons of female experience.