Taking Off the Gloves

Beautiful bruising.

If you weren’t aware, women’s boxing will be contested at the London Olympic Games this summer. Bad enough for men to risk concussion, but there’s equality for you. The sport comes to mind at Margaret Meehan‘s new show, mostly photography, called The Pugilist. Like Cindy Sherman or Matthew Barney, she makes herself the subject, though these are hardly self-portraits. Instead, she’s covered herself mostly in fine white hair—like an animal or albino circus freak. (She could be Chewbacca’s pale cousin from another planet.) Makeup, not a fist, supplies the bruises and cuts. The poses and wardrobe are archaic, Victorian-by-way- of-Arbus, recalling photography’s early days, when you had to sit still for minutes to gain a proper exposure. Women couldn’t box back then, though pugilists were often photographed—weirdly static, like Greek statuary—as anatomy models. Meehan also has reversed the colors: Instead of Victorian black, everything is white-on-white except for the lipstick and blood. The bearded lady was once a staple of the carnival, a slightly less scandalous attraction than the hermaphrodite who lifts her skirt. In just a few mysterious images—culled from a larger show in Austin, where the UW-trained artist now teaches—Meehan suggests several meanings and reversals. Anything forbidden is a means to power (or transgression, if you prefer), and a century ago, nothing could be more “unladylike” than boxing. The fur just makes it that much more outlandish. That’s why Meehan’s expression of calm, bloodied accomplishment grabs your eye. Whatever abuse she’s taken in the ring, she still has the look of a victor.