PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — With her contemporary takes on Classical relics, Los Angeles-based artist Cammie Staros collapses more than three millenia of references into delicate sculptures. Staros interrogates how the continued prominence of Hellenic aesthetics has shaped our present and what this may say about our future. Her solo show, Unearthing the Sky, on view at Providence College Galleries, explores her 12-year preoccupation with these artifacts to investigate how their canonization has complicated not only the way we view art, but also the way we view ourselves.
Staros’s multimedia works, which range from wall-hung installations to freestanding sculptures to pottery sunk into aquariums, refer to a style of Classic ceramics — typically black-figure narrative amphora (vase) or kylix (wine cup). They also emphasize the bodily associations long ascribed to them; while she eschews traditional figurative illustration, every piece in Unearthing the Sky evokes the human (nearly always female) form, highlighting the tangled, often dangerous ways our society imagines women as receptacles — of desire, shame, beauty standards, and of course sex and motherhood.
Two large freestanding sculptures, “How Neat the Fold of Time” (2017) and “My Soliloquy to Your Chorus” (2017), depict this overt sexualization. The former displays the hourglass curves and wasp waist of Jessica Rabbit, its traditional pattern zigzagging along its form like a thigh-slit dress, and the latter rises up as a great masked head, its unremitting, soft blackness recalling a leather bondage hood. Both pieces are pierced with brass rings, which — coupled with the allusions to fetishization and constraint — denote how both pain and pleasure play into these long-inherited beauty ideals.
The chokehold that Hellenic aesthetics has on the Western world is underscored by the pride of place these artifacts hold within institutions, and the way their motifs have been reinforced throughout Western art history, particularly by the art titans of the early 20th century. In “The Weight of Medusa’s Head” (2017), a large Brancusi-esque head lolls on its side; its surface has been tattooed with snakes and a rusted steel pipe punctures the spot where an ear should be. Staros implicates both Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse” (1910) and antiquity’s slumbering gorgon, illustrating the violence enacted by and upon Medusa by her single open eye and fractured skull. Here, she touches on concerns shared by women across history: the danger of sleeping among men, the ravages of pillaged bodies. In the myth, Perseus absconds with Medusa’s head to decorate Athena’s shield after killing her in her sleep. In our reality, colossal looted Medusa heads support columns in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, their watery captivity inspiring this piece.
With vitrine-turned-aquarium “Figlinum aquaticum” (2021), Staros redirects viewers to the looming climate crises and humanity’s inevitable demise. Two drowned kylikes, turned on their rims, regard the viewer from a submerged purgatory, fish passing blithely by. We have come from water, they seem to say, and to water we’ll return. The cups serve as a pair of prophetic goggles through which to view the rest of the show. Their watery pinholes penetrate a legacy of sexual anxiety and impossible beauty to remind us that, while we may be immersed in our own personal epics, the things we make will outlive us all.
Cammie Staros: Unearthing the Sky continues at Providence College Galleries (212 Huxley Avenue
Providence, Rhode Island) through March 2. The exhibition was curated by Providence College Galleries former Interim Director Kate McNamara.