Who bears the load? What is the relationship of beauty to strength? of the individual to society? of myth to history? Virginia Maksymowicz has spent a lifetime looking and questioning; looking at life in the environments around her and as represented in the history of art – that archive of social and cultural values. She has researched and questioned and synthesized her thoughts into art that provokes further attention
photo by Constance Mensh
to social life and cultural values. Her work offers a model of how to observe the wealth of information in our surroundings, how to raise our own questions and make meaning from them. Maksymowicz’s work is grounded in the female body as a site of identity and knowledge, a source of production and reproduction, a basis of social ordering systems, a reflection of projected ideas and emotions, and a fundamental subject in the history of art. Her work is deeply feminist, but pivots from that maxim of second-generation feminism: the personal is political to look at the politics of social and structural forms.
Who sustains us? Who provides the food and water necessary for life? Can the decorative provide support? Comparisons (2015-2023) incorporates images from a trans-historical, international cast of women, real and carved, bearing weight on their heads and providing the real and the symbolic sustenance of bread: carrying the weight of buildings, as caryatids that function as columns supporting the South porch of the Erechtheion at the Acropolis, as referenced in the Bearers series (2008/2015), or the many women who to this day carry food and water on their heads, as do women in West Africa, and the incorporation of this activity into folk customs, reflected by women in Tomar, Portugal bearing enormous stacks of bread for the Festa dos Tabulieros or Russian women carrying baskets of bread and salt in welcoming ceremonies. The artist has added two further pairs of women and columns for the Rowan exhibition that acknowledge local and national history: a Zuni woman paired with a Classical column supporting a ball, and a Lenape woman paired with a column from Saint-Guilhelm-le-Désert, now at the Cloisters in New York.
Comparisons consists of pairs of long, silk banners digitally printed with photographic images. Some are hung so that the images overlap, as in a double exposure; others are displayed side by side. The silk is white and the printed images, while colored, appear to be fading from view in the center of each banner. The translucent silk moves with passing air currents. The installation creates an environment of changing, overlapping, and fleeting pictures that imply shifting points of view, perhaps the sorting process of memory or the function of the unconscious. This forces the viewer to move to make out the paired images and to become part of the conversation.
What do we celebrate? Who do we memorialize? Who bakes the bread? Panis Angelicus (2009-2023) is both a monument and a site of devotion, its story entwined with that of Persephone, the Corinthian column, and the sacral function of bread. Demeter was goddess of agriculture, harvest and grain, whose daughter, Persephone was abducted by Hades, god of the dead. The gods made a deal – that Persephone would split her time between the underworld and the world above, which was the basis of the changing seasons. The Roman writer, Vitruvius, traced the form of the Corinthian column to the wild acanthus leaves which enveloped the basket placed on Persephone’s grave.
Panis Angelicus is an arrangement of five Corinthian capitals: four stacked as a column, the other upended, so that it becomes a basket for the bread that fills it, creating a monumental form. It is ringed with loaves of bread, as sacred sites are covered with piles of devotional offerings. The bread in Panis Angelicus is related to a number of the women depicted in Comparisons who are carrying bread on festive occasions, which likely derive from pagan ceremonies. For Christians, bread is associated with the body of Christ through the Eucharist. The small figures of cherubim and seraphim that are intermixed with bread loaves at the column’s base reinforce the Christian reference, as does the title. Panis Angelicus is made of cast resin and a form of hardened plaster called Hydrostone. It is uniformly white. At first glance, it looks like stone, but that illusion disappears at close range. Instead, its ubiquitous monochrome emphasizes the abstraction of ideas from which it was created.
Zhyttya (2022) takes the format of three, stacked, stemmed basins formed with acanthus leaves, which stand on a fluted base that looks like a section of a Classical column. They are also made of cast resin, somewhat more variegated in tone than Panis Angelicus, and an abundance of actual wheat appears triumphantly above the top basin. “Zhyttya” is Ukrainian for “life,” and the monument is both a beacon to the Ukrainians, in the midst of a war of survival, and a reminder to the world of the importance of Ukraine in supplying such a fundamental part of the world’s diet. While the piece doesn’t explicitly refer to women, the majority of home cooking is universally women’s work, and women will have to try to feed their families without it. And metaphorically, it refers to Demeter and Persephone in that the nested basins contain the wheat and acanthus associated with both these goddesses.
Are ideas gendered? What does it mean to translate an idea into a work of art? How can you protect hopes and dreams? Can we create new metaphors? Caryatids in Five Books (2012) is composed of five open books, cast in Hydrostone. Each of the spreads has the text of a poem by Cristina-Monica Moldoveanu (1) at left, and facing it, an image of a caryatid, selected from Maksymowicz’s photographic archive. The poem is about a little girl who makes a doll out of chalk, and her doll survives the long-erased blackboard of classroom mathematics lessons. The caryatids represent women across history, and their models were once little girls, whose play was their first expression of creativity. The caryatids also evoke the men who sculpted them and a patriarchal culture that employed women’s bodies as architectural decoration.
Can public meaning become private? Is somebody watching? Mascarons (2020-2021) is a series of twelve charcoal-pencil drawings based upon architectural details that the artist discovered during a trip to Buenos Aires. Such decorative carvings are termed “mascarons” or big masks. They are used variously in architecture, occasionally with obvious symbolic intent, such as masks of Comedy and Tragedy, or beasts to provide protection. Sergio Kiernan, author of Las Máscaras de Buenos Aires (2), posits that many of the mascarons in his city are particularized faces of women and girls, likely the wives and daughters of the architects and builders. What does it mean to place the face of a loved one on a building’s façade? Assuming the architects and builders were all men, didn’t they have sons? Why were women’s faces thought appropriate? The drawings are a reminder that Maksymowicz is a superb craftsman steeped in traditional sculpture and drawing. The conceptual basis of her work is executed with extraordinary technique, and she chooses the methods to suit the ideas. Why use drawing to make images so precisely detailed that they could be taken as photographs? Can we assume that the artist, having spent so much time with images of those twelve girls and women, has personal feelings invested in them?
Does architecture tell stories? Whose stories? And what happens when the stories are translated over
time and distance? Maksymowicz has investigated the intertwined legacies of Classically inspired architectural forms, representations of the female body, and women’s history over the past two decades. She began with The Garden of Earthly Delights (1998), which employs the sort of decorative, stucco interior decoration associated with eighteenth-century Neo-Classicism. Within eight decorative wreaths she placed women’s heads; their eyes are closed, and each has a piece of fruit or vegetable stuffed in her mouth as a gag. Below each is a word that might describe the fruit or vegetable, or the woman – with very different implications: ripe, firm, luscious, etc. Do decorative images denote power and control?
What is preserved when we restore historical buildings? Do buildings have their own ghosts? How do we record a changing history in permanent form? Maksymowicz began work on Architecture of Memory (2023) with research into Hollybush Mansion, an 1849 Italianate house on Rowan University’s campus. It was built by Thomas Whitney, who ran one of the largest glass companies in a county where glass was a major industry. Whitney’s life is well-recorded; the few records of Josephine Allen Whitney, his wife, document the seven children she bore, but not much else. It is even difficult to track down the date of her death. The house was subsequently a dormitory for Glassboro Normal School, which became Rowan University, then housed the university’s president. It is best known for being the site of the 1967 meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin. How do we make sense of such fragments? And what is left out?
(1) Moldoveanu, Cristina-Monica, A Wheel in the Garden, ©2012, San Francisco, CA: ScribD, <https://www.scribd.com/book/193976100/A-Wheel-in-the-Garden/>.
(2) Kiernan, Sergio, Las Máscaras de Buenos Aires, ©2021, Buenos Aires, AR: Comisión para la Preservaçión del Patrimonio Histórico Cultural.