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A homeless woman huddles in a heap on the sidewalk below a Macy’s window display. Display mannequins, bald and resembling H.R. Giger aliens, hold up their hands in a benediction or blessing- a gesture the Pope gave recently in Central Park. One mannequin is dressed in a bikini- the other in a one-piece swimsuit. For the New Yorkers, this window advertises "resort wear" and escape to a warmer climate.

For the woman below the display, Macy’s is just a destination where she can collapse and rest- not an escape or a place to window shop. Her face is shrouded in silent resignation, her back arched in an embryonic curl. Reflected in the glass faV ade like a Richard Estes urban landscape is the street and traffic of Manhattan and the artist’s silhouette, camera in hand. Two views of women in American society- the idealized youthful image of woman as plastic mannequin- and the disintegrating image of an older woman, fragile and abandoned. The irony: this commercial gesture of benediction will amount to nothing for this woman, who will receive neither social blessing nor Club Med reservations.

Ann Marie Rousseau, artist in residence at Orange Coast College, captures an American tragedy in "Out of Place, Out of Mind: A Retrospective Exhibit of Photographs About Homeless Women in America" at Orange Coast College’s Art Gallery. The exhibit might also be titled "Out of Sight," since Rousseau’s contention is that, in the eyes of passerby, the homeless do not exist.

A day in the Life of Darian Moore is a portrait of a woman slumped in the doorway of an art gallery late at night, exhausted. Displayed in the gallery window is her mirror image in an artwork by Zuniga: a woman slumped with her head in her hands. Art imitating life is stolen with the snap of the shutter.

Drinking shows that life on the street is not without human contact- however fleeting. A man and a woman embrace on a raised cement curb, having shared a bottle of gin in a paper bag outside a gas station. The man holds the woman’s neck firmly while kissing her lips; the woman, seemingly surprised by the spontaneity of his momentary passion, is "gassed" up with no place to go. Oblivious to this romantic interlude, another man stretches out on the street, asleep.

Rousseau came to understand the homeless situation in New York City in the early 1970s. Teaching art at a shelter for homeless woman, Rousseau gave each woman a camera with which to document her vision of the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was so impressed with their images that it organized an exhibition to showcase these photographs along with their narrative text. Since Rousseau was on the inside, she began to interview these women and photograph them over a 10-year period. This photographic documentation was published in the book Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives. A film option followed in 1985, with Lucille Ball playing a "composite" homeless woman in the TV movie Stone Pillow.

Thirty-four black-and-white photographs make up the OCC retrospective exhibition. Rousseau describes her experiences with these women as going underground and then emerging to report back to the front- having had access others did not.

Homeless people live without benediction. For most of us, these John and Jane Does are not only sick, lonely, helpless and terrified, but also invisible. We would rather look at a plastic, anorexic mannequin in spiffy, two-piece swimwear than at a woman trying to survive on the street beneath a window display. She represents an ugly reality- one not easily faced.

Doree Dunlap
OC Weekly
November 1995

Related Link: Shopping Bag Ladies

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