Straightened Out: The Art Work of Laura Ferguson, Body Politics, and Gender

Laura Ferguson   is a New York-based artist whose work focuses on the intersections of medicine, art, the body, sexuality, and femininity. Her most famous work is The Visible Skeleton Series, a visual autobiography of her experiences with her self-concept and body, as a womyn with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which you can learn more about here. As the artist explains, “Scoliosis is a flawed model of the beautifully designed human musculoskeletal system, but I wanted to portray it as having its own more complex beauty, one that viewed deformity as differentness, and differentness as individuality.” I find Laura Ferguson’s work evocative, powerfully touching, and beautiful.  I think she challenges the gaze and understanding of beauty, particularly at a time, when our society so quick dismisses, erases, and loathes bodies that represent difference.

Ferguson uses x-ray film of her own spine, and incorporates them into her multi-media work.  Her images are carefully constructed, intricate, and Ferguson pays special attention to the anatomical accuracy of her representations. Not only is her work medically accurate, but it is also techinically skilled. Ferguson uses a techique of “floating colors,” that give her work a powerful and unique look. Ferguson combines thinned oil paint with bronze powder, so that the paint on the paper has near glow, further enhancing the viewer’s sense of being inside the body, observing an organic beauty.

Ferguson’s work has traveled widely – in 2004 she had an exhibit at Walter Reed’s Medical Museum, and she’s written a great deal about her experience. On her website she says:

I have scoliosis, a deformity of the spine. My body’s asymmetry creates the need for a subtle effort of balancing, in my physical relationship to gravity and space, as well as in my psychic sense of centeredness and wholeness. The conscious awareness of walking, moving, breathing – bodily processes that usually unfold by themselves – has made me attuned to my bones and muscles, nerves and senses, like a dancer. Drawing my body, I focus on this heightened awareness and transform it into visual imagery.

Much has, and rightly so, been made of the ways in which womyn’s bodies are depicted, (re)imagined, (re)purposed, and exploited, but less has been written – at least in the blogsphere, about the complexity of (dis)ability, the body, and femininity; even less about those intersections when race, class, and sexuality are considered. What does it mean, and how does it feel, to be a womyn who’s body can never conform to the desired form? When exercise, eating disorders, surgery none of it can be utilized (and arguably perhaps shouldn’t) to create the desired body, because the body itself, at its core has resisted and denies any form but the very one it has taken. In other words, how does a womyn claim beauty when (dis)ability is deemed so crippling and ugly? Even by other womyn, who are (at least for now) able-bodied, or who can inhabit a less different sphere because they are white or have resources, or a less threatening disability?

There are of course, many womyn who have discussed these intersections: Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Octavia E. Butler. In The Disability Studies Reader, an anthology edited by Lennard Davis, writer Danquah says, “I am black; I am female; I am in immigrant. Every one of these labels plays an equally significant part in my perception of myself and the world around me.”

Ferguson is unique because she is overtly tackling and answering this question through a different medium: art. Nancy Mairs, one of my favorite writers and essayists, and who has multiple sclerosis, candidly  and eloquently writes about the intersection of class, (dis)ability, and gender in her works, such as Carnal Acts  and Waist-high in the World. I think, Ferguson captures through her visual autobiography, what Mairs illuminates in her writing. Both are interpreting and negotiating how a womyn’s sense of gender is impacted: of what kind of womyn you might be, of what your body can and cannot do, and how your body will be perceived – by those who love you, and those who do not,  art,  and how that calls for a different invention, protection, and understanding of the self.

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One Response to “Straightened Out: The Art Work of Laura Ferguson, Body Politics, and Gender”

  1. […] another peripheral.    This puts me in mind of my earlier posts about Laura Ferguson , “Straightened Out: The Art Work of Laura Ferguson, Body Politics, and Gender, ” “A Brief Comparison: Kahlo & Ferguson, Ability, Gender, Race and the Structure […]

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