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Carol Chase Bjerke's 'Hidden Agenda' at Marian Gallery

Art Review

Mar. 7, 2011
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Intimate apparel, hidden beneath other garments, is often considered "unmentionable." In artist Carol Chase Bjerke's sculptures titled Intimate Apparel, paper slips and undershirts stitched from recycled medical disposables help to reveal emotional and/or physical conditions that likewise often go without mention. Her thought-provoking installation exposes an intimate struggle to accept life with gastrointestinal cancer and the treatments that go with it.

Currently on display at Mount Mary College's Marian Gallery, Bjerke's exhibit "Hidden Agenda: ARTiculating the Unspeakable" combines several series of works that feature art as a way to cope with her cancer diagnosis from 1996. When her cancer reoccurred in 2000, Bjerke began envisioning additional projects using mixed media, photography and sculpture to reflect on living with an ostomy (a procedure that uses an exterior opening, or stoma, to remove body wastes), which can be a devastating process for those experiencing it—an experience sometimes made more difficult because of how rarely anyone discusses the disease's ramifications.

The discussion begins when entering Bjerke's "Hidden Agenda" room and passing through five artworks titled Privacy Screens. These reproductions of tri-fold 5-foot-high screens filled with clear plastic squares tied with blood-red string flutter and spin with the room's air currents. Beyond those screens, Bjerke's Stoma Wall acknowledges the 200-plus people who face an ostomy every day. The artist hand-carved a stoma stamp and then printed parchment paper with rosy ink marks, stamping 210 per day, to create the unique pattern lining the gallery walls.

Of the two glass cases in the room, one requires careful reading. The work Misfortune Cookies displays over 100 stoma-shaped cookies "baked" from ruby polymer clay featuring slim paper strands quoting text that give voice to the unspoken truths of coping with gastrointestinal diseases. One reads, "You will feel both saved and betrayed."

Many survivors dealing with these aftereffects will understand the fortunes. While the phrase "lucky to be alive" may often be repeated to those confronting life-altering, threatening diagnoses, the resultant future can challenge that notion. There can be a feeling of betrayal in being affected by the disease while other bodies remain untouched.

Anyone intrigued by art, medicine or the social concerns connected to disease will appreciate the way Bjerke instills beauty and meaning into humble, sterile materials. The exhibit demonstrates art's ability to communicate feelings on difficult topics, including life with a chronic disease.

"Hidden Agenda" continues through March 19.


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