OTI Online
Summer 1994

It's Not Easy Being Bad, the Bad Girls Art Show
by Suzanne Messing


WHEN I SAW PORTIA MUNSON'S installation "Pink Project" at The New Museum for Contemporary Art in Manhattan, I thought: whoever decided that pink is for girls got his comeuppance at last. "Pink Project" is a vast table measuring 144 x 168 inches, covered with a total of 2,000 pieces of girl stuff— from combs, brushes and hair ornaments, to little girls' mirrors and toys, to baby bottles and dildos— all in one or another shade of plastic pink. Despite the use of pink to symbolize everything girlish and babyish, Munson, a feminist, is in love with the color. The objects displayed are just a small part of her pink collection. Munson says she's not "making a value judgment. I'm not saying that pink for girls is good or bad. Sophisticated viewers might see the work as political; children might like it just because it's pink."

Either reaction is fine with Munson, but to her pink is "a stronger color than blue, and when you see it in an accumulation, pink becomes much more aggressive." Munson's assemblage was part of a show at the New Museum called "Bad Girls." According to Marcia Tucker, the Museum's director and curator of the show, "The exhibition's ultimate intent is to try to see gender roles from a fresh perspective, using humor as both a seductive and a subversive force." The show included audio tapes, videos, comic books, and posters. Simultaneously, a West Coast "Bad Girls" exhibition, at UCLA's Wight Art Gallery tackled "aspects of the world according to Hollywood: body image, gender roles, relationships, fashion, aging, sexuality, celebrity and art-making itself."

A Few Favorites Among the most impressive and beautiful works in the New York show was Ann Agee's interpretation of the Sheboygan, Wisconsin waste water treatment plan, a 9' x 11' wall of elegant blue-and-white porcelain tiles. The same tiles are used to make matching bathroom fixtures—sink, urinal, and bidet—and looking closely, the viewer sees diagrams of kidneys and of the digestive system with relevant quotes, like this one from Freud: "the contents of the bowels clearly are treated as a part of the infant's own body and represents his first gift." Totally different but equally striking and memorable was Renee Cox's larger-than-life (99.5" x 63.5") nude photograph of herself and her baby, "Mother and Child." Elizabeth Berdann's "Topless Hall of Fame" is a group of 48 paintings of breasts on small copper discs, interspersed with engraved tags of names, which are both the stage names of strippers working in a show near her studio and slang terms which have been used to demean women: "Rocky Mountains, Alyssa Alps, Montana Mounds, Suzy Boobies." Carrie Mae Weems's "Bride" with her mouth taped (multimedia) and Sue Williams's "Try To Be More Accommodating" (acrylic) are powerful feminist statements, while Betty Semme's enormous hanging garments and jackie Hayden's exuberant photographs of large, naked, elderly women protest the tyranny of our culture's ideal for the female body (as in "You can't be too rich or too thin [or too young]").

Sex performer Cammie Toloui asked some of her customers if she could photograph them while they were looking at her. The results can be viewed in her peep show installation. A work I liked very much was Millie Wilson's "Mistress," an elaborate wig which, because of its title, I assumed to be an ironic view of a mistress. The Museum press material, however, described it as "sexualizing the lesbian body." Oh.

Crocheted Dreams The installation in the Museum's window was an impressive and delightful ten foot high crocheted dwelling called "Sistah Paradise's Rival Tent." It is Zenobia Bailey's first major artistic endeavor. Bailey, who studied industrial design at Pratt Institute, learned to crochet after she finished school. She was looking for a reasonably-priced medium. As she says, "When you mess up with crochet you can take it out" and use it over.

You can also earn your living with it; Bailey makes and sells her crocheted hats and other apparel, all the while dreaming of other creations. Someday she hopes to produce an entire village. The tent in the window, which resembles a huge headdress, took ten months to prepare. To go with her creation, Bailey has invented the myth of Sistah Paradise, a faith healer and a BMW—a Black Magic Woman. She is a saint of escape and rescue.

Bailey's color palette is thoroughly modern—red, yellow, and green for African revolutionary colors; yellow to represent the West Indies; red, white, and blue for the U.S.— in all a spectrum of the African-American experience. Besides her plan for a crocheted village, Bailey dreams of creating a papier-mache African city of the imagination. "I've always been fascinated by the Taj Mahal," she says. Obviously she aspires to the monumental.

Not That Funny The printed matter accompanying the show relentlessly touts its humor. Director Tucker writes, "In recent years I've seen an increasing number of artists who are dealing with feminist issues in new and refreshing ways. ... The work that particularly fascinated me and pushed me to rethink the ways which feminist concerns had historically been addressed had two characteristics in common. It was funny, really funny, and it went too far."

Well, the exhibit wasn't riotously funny, but there were a few laughs. Keith Broadwee's large photograph combined little toy people with his own genitals for amusing images. Cindy Smith's altered Nancy Drew covers giving lesbian overtones to the novels were witty, as were the posters of the Guerrilla Girls, the women's protest art group. They listed some of the advantages of being a woman artist, "Working without the pressure of success" and "Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius."

Two installations were based solely on the written word. Erika Rothenberg's exhibit consists of a poster and two buttons from the male point of view. "I'm not allowed to express my emotions," one button reads; and another, "Part of my sex organ was amputated at birth." Sybil Adelman Sage's bon mots, on signs hung throughout the exhibit, tell us the difference between a bad girl and a good girl. A bad girl would "rather be on welfare than under Donald Trump." A good girl is "embarrassed by almost everything Roseanne Arnold says."

Funny or not, this exhibit was worth seeing, not least because it offered a look at what newer feminist artists are doing now. For me, Munson's conflicting feelings about pink have helped me name some of my own contradictions. Now, if I decide to skip an important meeting because one of my children is visiting from out-of-town, I will say "Oh, you know, it's one of my pink things." It has become the color of my ambivalence.

 


Journalist Suzanne Messing was an associate editor of New Directions for Women.


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