Anyone who reads Nicholas D. Kristof's New York Times columns charting the horrific violence perpetuated against women around the world knows that the situation is as dire as ever. Rather than declining in the face of modern progress and enlightenment, religious fundamentalism, ongoing war and global poverty have only fanned the flames of violence against women.
And yet in some ways women's rights have never felt less urgent; it often seems the worst thing you can call any hip young thing these days is the "f" word. In general, talking about feminism in 2011 feels about as cool as fanny packs and minivans.
For that reason, the exhibit Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art at the CDC's Global Health Odyssey Museum seems like a throwback — at least for Atlanta. It's a show that recalls the days in the '90s and early aughts when such issue-driven group shows popped up with regularity at venues like the Atlanta College of Art and Eyedrum. Recently, they've been supplanted by the individualistic, inward-looking art of the Facebook age. Featuring truly profound work by 28 certified international stars, including Laylah Ali, Hank Willis Thomas and Mona Hatoum, Off the Beaten Path is a reminder that art can be the best possible way to tackle difficult subjects: It invites contemplation, soul-searching, a connection to realities not one's own. Complex issues are often talked to death but art moves past concrete language into the realm of myth.
Proving she's as captivating in her hulking, attention-grabbing sculptures as she is in the most delicate context, Louise Bourgeois' small 1999 drawing "The Accident" offers what could be the primal myth of misogyny scrawled on a cave wall: a woman happily smiling in high heels whose midsection is penetrated by a crutch. Forty-six years after its debut, Yoko Ono's performance "Cut Piece" remains powerful enough to take your breath away. Ono's work resembles a date rape in slow motion as audience members are invited to slowly cut away the artist's clothing. Unseen men in the audience cackle as one man cuts away her brassiere, and a stricken look clouds Ono's face. Yes, sexual violence is happening far away in Darfur or Liberia — and the exhibit confirms that — but "Cut Piece" is a reminder that it also persists close to home.
The work that bores under your skin in Off the Beaten Path often uses a shocking inversion of form, such as Joyce J. Scott's crafty, glossy beadwork in 2008's "Day After Rape, Darfur." Used to create a tiny bound and bleeding woman, the beading offers a vicious memento of a wartime horror in the form of a tourist souvenir. For a respite from all of the assembled pain, there are Japanese artist Miwa Yanagi's theatrical, narrative-sodden photographs full of the defiant spirit. Featuring young women wearing wrinkled old-lady masks, the images show women freed from the constraints of beauty culture and marriage, letting their inner boho run free.
Some of the show's work is unshakably haunting, such as Polish artist Gabriela Morawetz's unsettling black-and-white photographs of an unmade bed and of strange objects formed from bed linens that are both soft and suggestive of violence. The work gets at the unimaginable but ordinary horror of incest — where the protective womb of family life and smothering violence coalesce — in a sensory, almost subconscious way.
There is some monumental work in Off the Beaten Path, though often its effect is eroded slightly by the various "teaching moments" in the accompanying wall text. The notations offer sweeping (or just plain absurd, such as "in the 1960s, many women went braless") pronouncements about domestic violence and wartime rape. The text undeniably serves a larger purpose, but can undercut the artists' individual voices. The exhibit, curated by the California-based Art Works for Change, feels utterly vital and relevant. But it's so curatorially mediated it feels like art under a butterfly net, with the curator coaching us on how to feel.
Off the Beaten Path's placement at the Global Health Odyssey Museum is its biggest drawback, accessible only after passing through multiple security checks, including a full car inspection and a bag search. Thankfully, the exhibit offers a rich reward in exchange for your trouble.