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Bad girl blues.

NEW YORK Toot Toot

"Girls just wanna have fun" may have been good enough for Cyndi Lauper, but what's distressing is that the curators of "Bad Girls," both East (Marcia Tucker) and West (Marcia Tanner), seem to share her adolescent joie de vivre. Tucker's concept for the show called for art that is "funny, really funny," and that goes "too far"; Tanner's idea was to showcase work that is "irreverent, anti-ideological nondoctrinaire, nondidactic, unpolemical and thoroughly unladylike." Everything may have been up for grabs but, as us girls know, the proof is in the pudding--and frankly, this one is downright unpalatable.

I fear "Bad Girls" at the New Museum and its companion show at the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA are more than a bad exhibition concept, and that the appearance of another show of the same name at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London last fall is more than coincidence. While the UK version of "Bad Girls," cosponsored by the ICA in London and the Center For Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, was planned independently of the American shows, three exhibitions mushrooming in as many cities over the course of as many months spells zeitgeist. The spirit may not be friendly but it's hauntingly familiar: one that not only trivializes work by women artists, but signals the death knell of a highly diversified movement that finds itself clumsily packaged and misunderstood all over again. Once feminist-oriented art has been disparagingly categorized as the work of "bad girls" it can be laughed off, crated up, and shipped out to sea. You know what happens in the wake of this debacle: the waters part for the next jerk who comes along spouting a theory about why there are no women artists.

Though in the art world the term "bad girl" may be shorthand for a position that challenges the assumptions of identity politics and the piety of antiporn feminism, the slogan has specific meanings in contemporary culture that make lumping together the work of over 50 women (and a few token males) under the rubric "bad girls" highly problematic. Think about the women (other than artists, that is) who currently share the dubious distinction of "bad girl" in the popular imagination--the Courtney Loves and Tonya Hardings who are cast in the role of the misbehaving, incorrect, wicked, and vengeful females whose calumny will in all likelihood lead to utter oblivion. Sure, to call oneself or to be called a "bad girl" can indicate a form of empowerment and even affection, but only when it's understood as a term of self-definition, rather in the sense that African-Americans might call each other "nigger." But title an exhibition "Nigger Art" and you've got big trouble on your hands. It's no different when work by women is subsumed under a pejorative tag.

What the institution wants to say to its audiences is that it is as hip as the art it presents, but, in effect, it's sending a very different message. "Bad Girls" promises titillation; correspondingly, its curated delivery of PG-rated eroticism also implies that female sexuality is coy and nonthreatening, and even cute. Anyone in the market for the banality that the New Museum dishes out as commentary on the sexual revolution, symbolic representation, and being cool probably still subscribes to the proverbial double standard. Conventionally speaking, good girls are madonnas and bad girls are whores, sluts, lesbians, or any number of other aggressive radical types who transgress traditional codas of feminine behavior. The New Museum, as well as UCLA and the ICA, might think they're challenging conventional sexual politics by joking about it, but they miscalculate the power relations embedded in the term "bad girl" and inadvertently end up victimizing the women who participate in their exhibitions. I dare say that few of the participants see themselves or their work in so denigrating a light, but they are held hostage by their need to show. The invitation is for an exhibition whose title makes one wince, yet at a time when there aren't nearly enough galleries to go around (let alone enough galleries interested in presenting "feminist" art, which continues to be regarded as "special interest" work with limited market appeal), artists are forced to play by the institution's rules.

The issue here is not how good the artwork is, or how illustrious the essayists who legitimize this curatorial misadventure with their catalogue contributions might be. (Writers need museum credentials as well; we can only thank God the catalogue doesn't have a pink-and-black cover, or rubber parts, or strings hanging out of it.) What does matter is that the curators at the New Museum, and their counterparts in London and L.A., aren't doing their job, which presumably, as spokespeople for "alternative" institutions, is to represent the underrepresented. Despite the weight of theoretical writing on the subject of feminism, supposedly savvy organizations still won't go near feminist artwork with a ten-foot pole--they just sort of poke at it and giggle when it moves. And it has to be said that in this case this behavior is particularly egregious, given that the show's organizers happen to be women. In fact, it gives a whole new slant to the slogan "bad girls." The curators want to be really, really bad, but all they can muster is a playful little dress-up game of "let's pretend we're challenging perceptions of feminism and gender." Give us a break! The only thing the New Museum challenges is our already thinly worn patience with their namby-pamby response, otherwise known as "death by committee," whenever they manage to get too close to issues that count. We are witnessing the strangulation of a movement at the hands of an institution that wants desperately to be a player but ends up the executioner.

Jan Avgikos is a contributing editor of Artforum.

LOS ANGELES (Sigh)

If a curator from a large institution asks you, a young artist, to be in a group show entitled "Liver Tartare: The Blanche DuBois in Us All," you cross your fingers, try not to be cynical, and say, Yes. The same goes for "Bad Girls West." You either produce specific works that address the idea of a girl being bad (beating up boys or playing with yourself) or you forget about the theme and simply show your current work. After all, you were invited to be in the show because you or your art are apparently synonymous with badness. Maybe you drink too much, you've had sex more than once, or you don't always excuse yourself when you get up from the table. When someone calls you a lady, you laugh out loud. In short, you're the stuff myths are made of.

Maybe one shouldn't get caught up in the title, idea, or theme, right? Best to just look at the work and let the objects do the talking. So what if the idea is backward, the artists don't have to be the curator's victims. Like dorked-out parents grooving to the newest sound, curators blow it all the time. This show thinks it can tell us who's really down, who's hip to the filth, who chants the party slogan most fiercely. Inquiring minds want to puke.

With the help of a few boy artists (honorary girls with penises) cast in the role of P.C. preachers, we can all lament straight-white-male dominance and other oppressive European inventions, but it's hard to swallow the claim either that being bad is politically correct or that political correctness is a major component of being bad. Good girls, frigid and prudish--too chicken to cut the balls off their fellow man--are all caught up in form, or so the logic runs. True or not, this grab-bag, circus atmosphere makes it difficult to read individual pieces on their own terms, no matter what their biases. The cards are stacked in favor of the loudest, biggest, and brightest; the most aggressive works catch the eye and take the sassy prize. One can see the troubles the curator faced when one of her Bad Girls failed to shout the gospel in the proper maddening pitch. Works that traffic in subtlety are hunched in the corners, staring at their feet. Artists who make formally astute, layered work are punished for it (Girl, who are you trying to please?). One gets the impression that "the struggle" is stuck on stock issues lifted from an outdated sociopolitical context. It's time to examine and break through the basic tenets of '70s feminist art: to recognize that gestures a la Judy Chicago now seem dated, slightly comical in their directness--naive.

Sure, a new generation of artists is trying to crank things up a notch, to get in your face, but the one-note simplicity of their works too often goes unchallenged. Lauren Lesko's Coifed, 1993--a condemnation of the man behind psychoanalysis--consists of an analyst's couch manicured like a poodle, (Read: poodles are Just like a woman, i.e., clipped poodle-hair equals oppression equals Freud.) It's Instant art--a loaded sign (the analyst's couch), add irrelevant associations and stir. And then there's Tailhook, 1993-94, by Lillian Ball: a narrow corridor lined with 34 condom-clad speculums. Viewers run the gauntlet, or at least think about it. The male gaze turned inside out? The vagina looks back? There are also slick portrayals of the organ itself, such as Millie Wilson's red-velvet hood, in which luscious, folded fabric set in an ornate picture frame suggests a giant clit flap via Little Red Riding Hood --it's gothic, gorgeous, and possibly even wearable. The badness is elegant, safe, conventional, and, most important, museum-ready (see Robert Morris' House of the Vetti, 1983). Conservatives and the institutions they sustain have always taken pleasure in transgression, donning radical chic and wearing it like an ironic charm. (Remember, J. Edgar Hoover was a bad girl too.) Endlessly harpIng on about sexual identity to assert difference and disenchantment, these artists end up presenting a sell-out alternative; trafficking in generalities, they attempt to turn the male vernacular against itself but succeed only in buying into what they purport to critique.

At least a third of the work in "Bad Girls West" is articulate and amusing, rising above the show's lame concept. Despite the grotesque ripoffs, pitiful cliches, empty formalisms, and aspirations that strive for little more than the power of a tabloid headline, there are more than a few cold, hard gems in this show (in fact, far too many to mention here). Works by artists like Jeanne Dunning, Kim Dingle, and Elena Sisto have a powerful dignity and stand out as more than mere one-liners. Dingle and Sisto are both incredibly loose painters whose works dip into a strange behavioral brew to deliver genuinely perverse returns. They're smart, void of cheap tricks, and they elude the quick read. Dunning's neoprene-latex "skin" sculptures, pocked with imperfections, are simultaneously lyrical and deadening. Presented on white pedestals, her flesh slabs, objectified to the nth degree, send one down disturbing paths, suggesting both the pursuit of cosmetic beauty and Nazi lamp-shades. Another cool piece of morbidity comes from Jennie Nichols: brilliant lighting reanimates two huge, if unassuming, human-hair balls. Sullenly turned toward the wall, as if in conference, they look a lot like oversized decapitated heads. These works succeed because there is no lesson plan, their esthetic is free-floating, their meanings uncertain, and they do much more than trumpet the identity politics of the "girls" who made them.

Benjamin Weissmann's collection of short fiction, Dear Dead Person, is forthcoming from Serpent's Tail/High Risk Books.

LONDON Beep Beep

In the rush to herald a paradigmatic shift in feminist practice, a number of curators seem to be championing work that turns away from a prior body of mediatized feminist art (the work of Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine) and lays claim to an expanded esthetic arena. In many instances this purported shift seems to be founded on a relatively naive raiding of conventional esthetic forms--naive because the appropriation of painting and sculpture can no longer claim legitimacy simply as a "colonization" of "phallocentric" forms of Modernism.

The certainty with which curators have embraced this unsatisfying strategy actually serves to reestablish the unfortunate duality of form versus content: either the works seem to engage merely formal issues or the form becomes nothing more than a vehicle of propaganda. On the one hand, one is faced with the question of whether each new assault on Modernist protocols can ignore the values that continue to inhere in them, even though they have been written over by earlier feminisms. On the other, questions of effectiveness generate misplaced worries about whether a painting, poster, slide show, or Cibachrome is the appropriate medium for the message.

In some respects, the curators of "Bad Girls" (jointly sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow) can be credited with having vividly brought to our attention the moment when the transgression or subversion of form becomes its renewal. But do we really have grounds to treat this work as a release from the perceived Puritanism of feminist ideology, or as a riotous celebration of a newly configured sexual body? (This seems especially pale when compared to the wide-ranging program of debate, film, and performance that was also part of the exhibition.) Most of the so-called postfeminist art exhibited here does not engage nor is it informed by recent artistic practice centered around questions of ontology and epistemology. It's as if those sorts of concerns were viewed as inescapably tied to a masculinized theory of art, which these artists would rather ignore. The renewed investment in forms viewed as off-limits by a previous generation of feminists could present us with the possibility of a new feminist art, but only if it were--as much of this work is not--self-conscious with respect to its romp through the art-supply store.

Nonetheless, work produced under the rubric "postfeminist" has already begun to assert itself in criticism through a search for female precursors of a specific type. Louise Bourgeois is the latest icon, in keeping with the present need to reconstruct a feminist art history that supports a practice driven by a fascination with what the curators called "the power and seduction of images and materials." As hip as this may sound, it is an inadequate foundation for an exhibition, which, as a whole, is inconsistent and uncritical: "Bad Girls" ends up suggesting that postfeminist transgression in and of itself obviates the need to address the politics of form.

Sue Williams and Nicole Eisenman seem to be key players here. Williams' paintings draw their strength from their relentless narrative of female victimization. The simplicity of the rendering is supposed to contrast starkly with the dark message, but this spontaneity of style does not so much carve out an independent cultural space for the cathartic representation of female victimization as announce itself as ultimately part of a socially acceptable "transgressive." Her use of artless, cartoony vignettes is full of guile and sophistication, recalling the work of other angry young artists, such as the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. Eisenman's mural The Minotaur Hunt, 1992, suggests something else entirely: what Picasso's just desserts would have been had Paloma had the gumption to be a bete noire rather than a fille celebre. It's mildly amusing, but in the end it does little more than change the color scheme of the Guernica, 1937.

What Williams' and Eisenman's forays into painting do provide is a foil for the other works in the exhibition. Though the works of Helen Chadwick, Rachel Evans, and Dorothy Cross form a cohesive unit, here formal experimentation leads to (weak) paraphrase. While their engagement with materials and processes is palpable, it feels beholden to an earlier model of artmaking, one that had more faith in the stability of signs and in the possibility of "decoding" them than in the experiential engagement with supposedly politically suspect media and techniques; the latter's historically overdetermined structures of meaning ought to make them ill suited for didactic ends, though Williams and Eisenman often seem blissfully unaware of this fact.

The emphasis on the representation of the female body does link all of the works shown here, but in itself does not fully explain why they differ so radically from earlier feminist art. Different indeed is the kind of audience called into being in their presence, but perhaps unfortunately, difference cuts both ways. While the competencies required of the spectator by Chadwick's Glossolalia, 1993, are not entirely distinct from those necessitated by an encounter with Eisenman's The Minotaur Hunt, the factitiousness and "spontaneity" of painting, as opposed to the constructivism of sculptural hybrids, presents a more convincing totalization of attitude. And it is this sense of easy versus forced harmony that is at the heart of our perception--in this grouping--of Chadwick as "old hat" and Eisenman as "new."

In the end, however, neither burlesques of masculinized forms nor hyperintellectual pastiches seem to me to be very convincing options with which to forge a new direction for feminist art. The subtlety of interpretation and approach required has somehow evaded these artists. We are left with the eternal return of some historically evacuated esthetic, with little sense of the importance of a "dialectics of seeing"--of looking at things and simultaneously seeing their opposite, even if the requisite cultural cues for such a reading elude us.

Michael Corris is a frequent contributor to Artforum.
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Title Annotation:New Museum, New York City and Wight Gallery, Los Angeles, California
Author:Corris, Michael
Publication:Artforum International
Date:May 1, 1994
Words:2899
Previous Article:Derek Jarman 1942-94: a political death.
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