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New exhibit examines outsider status

Luke Quinton

There is something not right about the first picture. A model in a snow-white gown is staring straight at you, into the camera. It's fairly serene. But she has a white beard, actually more of a mane, linking forehead to chest, as if she hopped out of Narnia to warn you about the nefarious queen.

But below, out of focus, you realize that she is also wearing white boxing gloves. This is where "The Pugilist" comes in.

It's a strange word that simply means "boxer," and few people use it anymore, but somehow it suits the Victorian gown in the image.

As you walk through the gallery, you see a kind of story about this character, created by Margaret Meehan, a ceramics lecturer at the University of Texas.

Meehan's exhibit, "Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm," is at Women and Their Work through Nov. 12, and it's a show about boxing, Victorian culture and outsiders.

Austin has long been a town where outsiders found a welcoming rhythm. They socialize or act in ways that would be out of place in much of the country, but here they find a cohort and a general population accustomed to seeing unusual clothes and hobbies. We are city that takes its identity from this counterculture.

Austinites will see neighbors, friends or themselves in this show about tolerance and how society's misfits react when they're confronted.

Meehan, like her husband, the curator Noah Simblist, is adept at working different ends of this social spectrum.

"All of my work since I've started has been about difference or anomalies and the idea of how people fit into society," Meehan says.

Meehan has an interest in "freakery," the once popular exhibitions that displayed humans with rare conditions, like hypertrichosis, excessive hair growth all over the body.

The narrative in her current exhibit is very open. There is a character, the white-haired boxer, but her story is ours to fill in.

Meehan, of course, has left provocative clues. There is a chalk-line circle on the floor, and inside are two boxing gloves cast in aluminum, visions of force and protection. But when you look closer, the gloves are lined with black glitter glass. So, protection from whom?

Meehan calls boxing a "graceful theater for brutality," and her titles come from boxing's vivid history of words. In a corner hangs a punching bag covered in the same black glitter glass. Globe lights drape around the bag, making the scene both graceful and brutal.

Boxing is Meehan's way of getting into defensiveness. For the first time, she is not, she says, dealing with anger or aggression. It is about a character who had to "constantly be prepared to stand up for themselves."

The boxing theme came from a two-year artist residency in Nebraska, but Meehan says she "made a lot of bad work."

"It wasn't what I wanted. The materials were too heavy, it was too ornate."

Her ideas became streamlined. A huge boxing ring became a subtle chalk circle, and the evocative photographs brought a character alive, without crowding out the details.

The photos guide us through the pugilist's story, and by the end of it she doesn't look so good. Her fine white hair sparkles with blood. She looks fierce, beaten, defensive.

The pugilist was modeled by Austin (now London) artist Amy Revier, who endured a 20-hour shoot. She embodies Meehan's vision totally.

The boxing match also has a soundtrack that plays every few minutes, an ambient rock interpretation of Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."

It's weird art. A carefully crafted character from some fantasy land. But Meehan's ideas are based firmly in reality.

Perhaps it's surprising that such a bizarre scenario can evoke such feelings, but when blood begins to appear, tarnishing the white hair, hurting this creature, you realize that you now feel pity, if also a little disturbed by the glint in the creature's eye.

"Hystrionics and the Forgotten Arm: Margaret Meehan"

When:through Nov. 12

Where:Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca St.

Cost:Free

Info: www.womenandtheirwork.org

"Emotional Excess and the Politics of Hysteria: A Conversation"

What:Psychologists/psychoanalysts Marianna Adler and Gemma Marangoni Ainslie join artist Margaret Meehan for a discussion of Meehan's art

When:7 p.m. Oct. 26

Cost:Free