The Scarlet Genotype

Pattie Belle Hastings

Excerpts from reviews:

Red-letter days at the BCA reveal society's secrets
by Cate McQuaid, The Boston Globe, October 10, 2004

Exposing Scarlet: A Visual Response to the Scarlet Letter
Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts

Nathaniel Hawthorne laid open a powerful underground stream in “The Scarlet Letter” ­ one in which desire and shame converge. Writing in 1850 about the pride and passion of Hester Prynne, the Puritan woman condemned to wear a red “A” stitched to her dress after refusing to reveal the father of her unborn child, Hawthorne dissected the battle between the heart of the individual and the need of the community to keep individuality in check.

It was a defining work, not just of American literature but of American culture, a book with a central dilemma still relevant today as we choose to survive socially by hiding central truths about ourselves. What power do those hidden truths take on? What do they do to the holders of the secrets and to the people from whom the secrets are kept? Thirteen artists throw themselves into this bruised and juicy material in “Exposing Scarlet: A Visual Response to the Scarlet Letter” at the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts, a slightly uneven but largely provocative, rewarding show.

Organizers Ed Burnam, Cynthia Atwood, and Lucinda Bliss invited artists to create work in response to “The Scarlet Letter.” Everything on view was made this summer, after the artists read the book, rather than pulled out of storage to fit a call for entries. The results pulse with life, recontextualizing a 154-year-old story into the 21st century.

As with Hester's illegitimate daughter, Pearl, these days the labeling starts before birth. Pattie Belle Hastings’s “The Scarlet Genotype,” posits that now the label is not a moral judgment, it's a biological one. A plaster cast of a full-term pregnant torso sits in a white rocker set in the corner of a white room. Bells tinkle eerily as molecular diagrams of Parkinson's and sickle cell disease project over the breasts and belly; DNA is the equivalent of today's scarlet letter.

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