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James Scarborough

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"Stay Free© or Die: The Menstrual Hut Project," International City Bungalow Gallery, Long Beach, California

Posted: 12/22/11 03:10 PM ET

The following is part of an on-going conceptual project by the author.

What's black and white and red all over? The marquee outside the International City Bungalow Gallery where Cassie T. Ration recently unveiled her much anticipated piece, "Stay Free© or Die: The Menstrual Hut Project."

The piece's inspiration and sources are as many and varied as the piece is multivalent and profound. Ration conceived it as a reaction to the anodyne and sterile Hello Kitty-inspired Gore-Tex, Jell-O, and Top Ramen installations by the Japanese artist Annie-Mae. Ration first learned of the existence of menstrual huts in the "Why Don't You..." section of Cosmopolitan magazine. Though the tone of the magazine's otherwise sensible suggestion was fey and flippant -- would that demographic actually build one of those things?

Ration immediately connected the plight of women being banished simply for being women to that of English convicts who, centuries before, were parceled off to Australia (Out of sight, out of mind). A little ethnographic research into the menstrual traditions of Kalahari women, a little inspiration from Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," and, voila, The Menstrual Hut Project was born: a place for women to give their -- Quick, what's the female word for "Brethren"? "Cistern?" -- sisters a once-a-month, few days respite from their Wilma Flintsone lives.

Though it reeks (literally as well as figuratively) with allusion if not collusion, it isn't much to look at. Over a bamboo armature that resembles an igloo made of tumbleweeds, Ration adobed its exterior with clay from the Red River Valley. It smells musty, like a yoga mat in a senior citizen's home. An internal light source emits a lambent umber glow so that, in the gallery's dimly lit corner in which it sits, it looks like a meteor that just cratered into the floor.

Though silhouettes of figures within can't be discerned from the outside, it does glow maraschino red deep within, its syncopated strobe reminiscent of a liquor store's blinking lights as they glow through the gossamer curtains of a Skid Row hovel. The sound track, neatly engineered, consists of sound bytes of the murmur, palaver, and birdsong of a South Central Los Angeles beauty shop, women waiting in line for tickets to the taping of Oprah's final TV show, two separate bachelorette party Chippendale strip shows, the pubescent pants and moans of Brooke Shields in "Blue Lagoon," the grunts of Serena Williams hitting a tennis ball, and the to-me haunting ululations of women relatives at a Palestinian funeral.

According to gallerina Justine Try-Me, the viscous remains of boll weevils crunched underfoot as you approach the Hut in that sepulchral light resemble a C.S.I. Miami crime scene. I personally think they look more like a blood splatter that TV's "Dexter" would analyze. Little matter: Ms. Ration contends that the resulting mess (not to mention the as-yet attended-to biohazard) represents a fortuitous discovery that, in the spirit of the enterprise, she decided to incorporate into the piece's dialogue with the viewer.

The opening was almost as exhilarating as the installation itself. The PMS Quartet (formerly known as The Curse), provided the evening's entertainment. A group of 30-something musicians who meets once a month to ventilate their kazoos, they dressed as Dickens's Little Dorrit and regaled lucky guests with such composed-for-the-occasion instant-hits as "Quiet Flows the Blonde, "There Goes my Abdomen," and my favorite, "Not Now, I'm in White." Of special note: rhythm was provided by a maraca fashioned from Advil capsules rattling against the inside a diaphragm carrying case.

It's a little known fact that Marcel Duchamp once painted a landscape whose pigment was bonded with his own semen. Showing him up at his own game, Ms. Ration managed - though the formulation is as closely guarded as the recipe for Original Coke -- to inject an HP PhotoSmart printer cartridge with her own private reserve. The result? There's a reason that those invites a fortunate few received, allowing them to attend the après-opening private reception at the latest, greatest Place To Be, the Feral Cheerleader, are tinctured with a hue you cannot find at Sherwin-Williams.

Going a dab and a squirt beyond Georgia O'Keefe's vulvic paintings, "The Menstrual Hut Project" keenly resolves the hegemonic male-enforced isolation and alienation of women just going about their business with their bonding together in the adobe abode that one wag affectionately called The Yurt of Hurt. It's organic (in more ways than you can imagine), it's raw (Good Lord, is it!), and it's compelling (Duh). Less an indictment of biological determinism (the identity-affirming "I bleed," there I am") than a thatched affirmation of the hive mentality of women forging blood-ties, the piece clearly shows how fortitude trumps vulnerability, isolation, and ostracization. And how we, and by that I don't mean just men, are the better for it.

The show runs until the end of the month. Gallery hours are contingent on Ms. Try-Me's mood. The Bungalow is located at 421 E. 1st Street, Long Beach. For more information, call (562) 435-5699.

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