Dana Bell: A Delicate Balance
An agitation of hands. Cries and whispers. An inner monologue manically externalized. Fending, grasping, beckoning for something—anything—a solution… or an escape route…
This is the embodied language of ‘the hysterical woman;’ the dangerously reductive diagnosis not so long ago given to women who exhibited signs of significant psychological distress. Historically, the fluctuation of women’s emotion and temperament has been highly pathologized. Like the Cassandra of myth, women’s troubles and anxieties were dismissed as rumblings of a weak or defective mind. Biology was destiny, it was only a matter of time before a fragile psyche was interrupted by the real world, and a woman descended into full-on psychosis. The hysterical diagnosis, rooted in antiquity, transformed into a pervasive archetype, with far-reaching consequences. The narrative of ‘the hysterical woman’ reached it peak in the the Victorian Age, when the prevalence of the “disorder” and its corresponding “treatment”—from incitement of “hysterical paroxysm” (i.e. placating pelvic massage) to institutionalization and ultimately to such extremes as lobotomy—was used as a means of socio-cultural domination and control.
Though this diagnosis has declined sharply in the last century, and its assumptions have been demystified, the archetype still lingers in the public consciousness…and in the corresponding cultural production. The archetype, long referenced in the history of Western Art, has frequently been the subject of film. American Cinema is rife with depictions of women on the verge of some sort of nervous breakdown. In A Delicate Balance, Dana Bell’s inaugural show at Louis V E.S.P., she examines some of these depictions in classic Hollywood films.
Bell critically interprets a broad section of hysterical collapse, as dramatized by a who’s who of great actresses. There’s descent into madness, and subsequent forced clinical institutionalization: Jessica Lange, as tragically wronged actress Frances Farmer, in Frances (1982); Gena Rowlands in husband John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under The Influence (1974); Joan Crawford in The Caretakers, (1963); Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948). There are accounts of unaddressed psychological trauma wreaking dissociative havoc internally, via multiple personality disorder: Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1967) and Sally Field in Sybil (1976). And trauma leading towards an external acting out, (cruel abuse of others: Faye Dunway, as Joan Crawford, in Mommie Dearest (1981). And of course there’s the requisite general mania due to family dysfunction, drugs, and overwhelming pain: Katharine Hepburn in Sidney Lumet’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night (1962), and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
Dana Bell paints films stills as a means of distilling (psychological) motivation, placing sharp focus on the physical realization of intent, and how gesture transforms from dramatic idiosyncrasy to a vernacular body language, or a clichéd response. In (A) Delicate Balance, she has created a reductionist study of women who, through a perceived loss of sanity, have lost recognition as an individuated self. The “hysterical woman” is essentialized. Bell portrays the women as they are perceived– faceless, reduced to gesture erased of nuance, of subjectivity…
See more work by Dana HERE