Feminine mystique: Waldrop wires into women's nature

Is there something in Roanoke’s water? Because who would imagine that a western Virginia railroad hub would become fertile ground for women artists focused on the feminine? Among Roanoke’s luminaries are renowned feminist sculptor Betty Branch and stellar painter Susan Jamison, as well as Annie Waldrop, whose mixed-media sculptures are currently on show in the Second Street Gallery exhibit, “Shift.”

Although the nursery rhyme says little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice,” Waldrop mixes twigs, bones, and barbed wire with fabric and found objects to create a more uncomfortably nuanced version of femininity. In Waldrop’s work, it’s as if Jane and Sally from the childhood readers are learning spells from the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Wire– rigid yet malleable– is central to Waldrop’s compositions. In “Dysfunctional Narrative,” she re-imagines a series of everyday objects in barbed wire. For example, there's a pear that’s neither juicy nor inviting and a crutch that would only further injure its user. Waldrop’s favorite trope, however, is the wire outline of a little girl’s dress, recognizable as the high-waisted, puff-sleeved variety worn by those childhood icons, Jane and Sally, which Waldrop creates again and again, embellishing and augmenting the basic form to shift its meaning. She also uses wire to stitch together branches, bones, and other organic bits, perhaps riffing on the idea women are “hard wired” to mend what’s broken.

For “Pockets of Love,” Waldrop conjures a dress with sleeves of slender twigs, a bodice of parallel sticks, and a skirt of interlaced branches, some of which are meticulously wrapped with coral-colored thread to further the correlation with veins and arteries. Where the pockets would go, Waldrop has placed two anatomical hearts of iridescent red brocade stitched in black. The effect is simultaneously charming and deeply creepy.

Waldrop’s work runs thick with nostalgia. She incorporates found objects like antique photographs and yellowed scraps of letters to tap into viewers’ sentimental associations and inherited beliefs about femininity. Her piece de resistance, “Nature Gives Release,” consists of 18 small dresses arranged in three parallel rows. Each wire-frame frock combines manufactured materials, like metal screen, with organic components, such as moss, bark, and human hair. Although every dress conveys its own personality, the formal repetition and Waldrop’s earth-tone palette unify the overall piece.

Like the ingredients in a witch’s potion, every element in Waldrop’s work is symbolic, and the result is darkly magical.
Annie Waldrop’s exhibition, “Shift,” is on view through October 1 in the Dové Gallery at Second Street Gallery. 115 Second St. SE 977-7284,