Flurries of black, Edward Gorey-like clouds and thunderous seascapes dominate three large pencil and ink drawings from the “Mayflower” series in Sarah Peters’s solo exhibition at Winkelman Gallery. Haunted by almost imperceptible disembodied heads that float between the sea and the sky, the works evoke a dark, childlike naivety and combine fantastical imagery with a historical event.
Expanding on her fascination with the Puritan religion that contributed to the founding of the American colonies, in this exhibition Peters considers the hardship endured during the first settlers’ journey across the Atlantic through mediums she typically works with: drawing and sculpture. A table of bronze busts titled “Descendants and Believers,” resembling Franz Messerschmidt heads, are not only a reminder of more traditional art forms and our historical roots but also prove to be as disconcerting as the drawings opposite due to the hollow eyes of the female heads. Furthermore, a large etching of Mayflower passenger Dorothy May Bradford in the back corner echoes a cartoonish George Condo style as well as reiterating Peters’s focus on women.
The figure of Bradford seems to play a central role in understanding how the works fit together. She was one of the colony’s first deaths (not even having stepped ashore, Bradford drowned in Provincetown Harbor before being able to set up her new home). Her husband, William Bradford, was known for his detailed reports of their journey as well as his former life in Europe, where he had been arrested twice for his radical religious beliefs. Taking this into account, and with Dorothy May Bradford being given such a modest, doe-eyed countenance, the implication seems to be that she was the innocent victim of her husband’s idealistic goals.
The aggressive lines of the “Mayflower” drawings, which are each given titles of the dates of the voyage, are successful in evoking a chaotic realm of visionary religion. The implication that women are subjugated within that realm makes it hard not to draw associations with a widely-held perception of Islam and Peters may be making too much of a sweeping generalization in this regard. However, she brings an added element to the subject of religion, explored in one way or another by many other artists from Maurizio Cattelan to Kiki Smith, by placing it within a specific historical context that shakes our foundations and reminds us that every religion has experienced prejudiced social exclusion at one point or another, an important reflection at a time when respect for other belief systems seems to be somewhat lacking.