You might say artist Babs Reingold has been cursed with an interesting life. In her young teenage years, tragic circumstances led her family to move to a public housing complex in Cleveland. Her experience of the universal misery of high school involved riding three buses across town to a school where she was a fish way out of water. But in this milieu, Reingold met an art teacher who inspired her and encouraged her to apply to the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Her ascent from adolescence in the projects to adulthood as an upwardly mobile artist has the familiar ring of the American dream. (I've left out some of the more disquieting details at her request.) For the most part, Reingold would just as soon viewers didn't know these biographical tidbits — except in relation to her latest undertaking, an installation that navigates the fraught divide between the personal and the political. In this case, knowledge that the artist has been there invites careful consideration of a work that ventures into what might look at first glance like hackneyed territory. In her installation, Hung Out in the Projects — now on view at the Morean Arts Center — Reingold tackles the topic of what it's like to live in public housing, or more generally in poverty. With dutiful respect for the subject, she cites chilling statistics: 40 million people in the U.S., or more than 13 percent of the population, live below the poverty level. Indeed, these numerical figures are horrific, though they fall far short of giving any sense of the actual agonies of extreme hardship, which most viewers can hardly fathom. As a component of the installation, a video projection of words associated with poverty suffers from the same literalism: the word "danger" illuminated on a wall founders when it comes to provoking a feeling or memory of experienced danger.
Instead, where Reingold's installation delivers a punch to the gut is in its psychic creepiness. A visual cliché of modest means, the laden clothesline slung between windows (or fire escapes) in a multifamily building, supports the airing of the dirty laundry of poverty. And this laundry — a repressed social malady filtered through an artist's personal experience — is pretty damn dirty. Reingold utilizes her long-practiced method of staining silk with tea and rust on garments disturbingly altered with the addition of tail-like appendages, often stuffed with hair. The elaborate staining, which in other works by the artist has resulted in comfortably beautiful effects, here evokes nothing so much as rank filth and — let's face it — shit. At its most unsettling, Reingold's clothesline draped with these monstrous figures suggests a faceless population of crap-stained people whose individuality can't help but dissolve in a miasma of squalor. Held aloft from these conditions by scaffolding, viewers of the installation are left to question their own complicity as bystanders. Comparatively minor details drive the hurt home: a bucket filled with hair-stuffed intestines, the poignantly pathetic figures of domestic animals resting on the gallery floor, and — though perhaps too touchingly — the photo of two anonymous children clipped to a piece of stained fabric at one end of the gallery. In an adjacent room, a copious series of drawing studies for the installation add a further dimension. In them, a growing plant-creature — part vine, part giant worm — alternately offers a potential escape from a confining interior space or represents an invasion into it; likewise, the motif of a broken window possesses a double edge as an opening onto the threats (nearby) or promises (seemingly far away) of the outside world.
None of these elements says "poverty is bad" in any literal sense, but they provide a conduit for insights into the lasting psychic trauma that comes from unrelenting feelings of shame, inferiority, helplessness and difference (administered through destitution, discrimination or the depressing architecture of public housing, not through any self-affirming sense of personhood). Bracket its more didactic elements and concentrate, as a visitor, on feeling in this space, and Reingold's installation will remind you how artworks can enlighten in a way that issue-awareness campaigns cannot.