Setting and content of artist Tracey Snelling’s Woman on the Run exhibit are a study in contrasts.
On a recent Saturday, the sun played dazzlingly across the sylvan refuge of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, or SECCA, formerly the English Hunt-style mansion of hosiery magnate James G. Hanes.
Hanes’ bequest to the art world reflects the industrial aristocracy, gracious living and assured social status that made his one of the three families, along with the Reynolds and the Grays, that put the city on the map.
The post-World War II milieu of Snelling’s imagination is an altogether more insecure place fraught with betrayal, seemingly on the verge of violent explosion and animated by desperate social striving. And it’s a parched and gritty landscape seething with instability, not the patrician East of strictly defined class relationships that Hanes knew.
The protagonist of Woman on the Run is obviously female, but a quick reference to heroine Veronica Hayden’s husband is in order. Described in an essay by Frist Center for the Visual Arts Associate Curator Trinita Kennedy as a “dark and shady businessman” and in a static-y, blackand-white newscast as a “man about town,” one imagines the fictitious Victor Hayden as a man from a hard and unforgiving background willing to cut corners to attain money, status and pleasure. He can be contrasted with the real-life James G. Hanes, a man who during the same historical period energetically promoted involuntary sterilization for the so-called “feeble minded” with a self-assurance that can be held only by those with unparalleled financial and political power.
The multimedia installation that is Woman on the Run thrusts visitors into a fragmented narrative based on the premise that its heroine is wanted by the US Marshals Service for questioning in the disappearance of her husband. Veronica Hayden somewhat resembles the character played by Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise with her casually thrown scarf and oversized sunglasses, but Kennedy describes her as an homage to noir pinup queen Veronica Lake. She’s a pastiche of any number of alluring Hollywood femme fatales who chafe at the moral constraints of society, flirt with danger and swerve between the roles of victim and perpetrator. Beyond the setup, the installation leaves all the questions it raises unresolved and gives no clue about Veronica Hayden’s eventual fate. Is she guilty or innocent? Is her husband really dead or has he staged his own disappearance? Is he a threat to her? Will she get caught? Will she pay for her supposed transgressions?
In a fitting if completely unintentional parallel, my wife and I walked a labyrinth at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro as part of our Lenten reflection before visiting SECCA. Walking the circular configuration at Holy Trinity gave us both a sense of calm. As a traditional labyrinth, there were no forks or dead-ends, but the pathway wound in and out before finally reaching the center.
Woman on the Run is a different kind of labyrinth. A hall of mirrors assembled from paintings, video, signage and set designs, Snelling’s installation is disorienting rather than centering. The story is told in video screens set inside windows in paintings that show the heroine hurriedly packing and drinking booze. In other scenes, she drinks in a seedy bar and dances in an upper room with a mysterious man. A musty scent hangs in a forlorn hotel room with molding wallpaper complete with a disheveled bed, cast-off blond wig, brassiere dangling from a doorknob and stilettos tossed carelessly across the floor. A jarring soundtrack of lonesome steel guitar and train whistles plays up the desolate feeling to histrionic effect.
Visitors won’t find any definite answers in this funhouse, but if they pay close attention they might run across some stray clues about the nature of power, personal quest, female identity, desire, freedom and acceptance.
Woman on the Run remains on exhibit at SECCA, located at 750 Marguerite Drive in Winston-Salem, through May 27.