The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center’s Kniznick Gallery is currently featuring “More Weight,” a thought-provoking solo exhibition by Philadelphia artist Rachel Stern. The gallery was transformed, decorated with royal blue carpeting and richly colored draping over the walls. Velvet-gloved, bodiless, red and blue hands poke out of the drapery and point accusingly at the artwork, apparently at random, sometimes accusing each other. Stern’s work compares images of justice, religion and morality to our present day.
Stern titled her installation “More Weight” in honor of Giles Corey, who famously uttered those last words during his Salem Witch trial execution. Corey was accused of wizardry based solely on hearsay. He refused to plead at his trial, for which he was punished with pressing until he confessed. Corey lay underneath a wooden board, supporting a little more weight than he could bear, while stone after stone was added to the board. After three days of excruciating torture, Corey was crushed to death at 81 years old. His last words, “more weight,” made Corey a martyr for a corrupt judicial system and motivated the movement to abolish witch trials.
Many of Stern’s portraits are taken in the style of Victorian-era paintings. The models wear Shakespearean clothes and stern expressions, looking directly at the camera. The frames feel antique but with modern, clear pictures. Smaller portraits show the actors looking at the viewer with judgemental expressions, their ears painted red or green. Many of the models seem to regard the viewer with judgement or disappointment.
Stern’s images are also heavy with biblical representation. Portraits of young Adam and Eve hang next to each other, glaring at the viewer. One photograph depicts a woman with golden calf feet. In another, a mask of skin peels away from a skull adorned with a halo-like crown. A sword stabs a Bible in its spine. Moral debauchery abounds in Stern’s world.
The exhibit also plays with justice imagery. One photograph shows a gloved hand holding a building column typical of justice buildings. The Lady of Justice holds out a gauntlet, waiting for another gloved hand to fill her cup, while her scales weigh jewels against a burning candle.
Her physical art shows a judge’s blue gavel resting on a red block and heaps of manila folders on a fancy platform. Stern’s manila folders hold what looks like colored felt and are scattered in a huge pile. The pile reminds me of the stacks of folders President Trump brought to a press conference as proof that he no longer has conflict of interest in his businesses, but he denied the press access to them.
Stern’s images are beautiful, ornate and disturbing. She compares our current political climate to our ideals of justice and integrity and asks whether we are doing our best to represent them. She reminds us of the president’s manipulative use of stage props during a press conference. The president’s hollow gesture is indicative of the judicial system’s failure to execute justice and our lost moral ideals. Whether we strive to uphold our fundamental ideals or content ourselves with moral complacency is up to us.
“More Weight” ends Oct. 26th.