Dress for Success

John Haber
in New York City

Tracey Moffatt and Other Role Models

Art shares at least one thing with real life: women have trouble getting into the picture without posing for it. Moreover, they have trouble posing without getting into deep waters. Their pose becomes a statement—about themselves, their bodies, a woman's identity, high culture and fashion, or simply sitting still. They do not have even to appear in their own work, at least not without a heavy disguise.

By now, art and life have made it at least to a Third Wave of feminism—maybe even a fourth. And one can hardly call women self-involved or sell-outs compared to any number of male artist celebrities these days. Better yet, several artists now are keeping their sense of humor about it all. Some critical voice may still get to complain that they are either too angry or too feminine. With luck, however, enough laughter or lechery will drown him out. Carla Gannis's Video Game (photo courtesy of the artist/Claire Oliver, 2007)

Tracey Moffatt kicked off the new year with a celebration of woman's history, but with only one woman, herself. Nina Kuo wonders whether to feel more constrained by traditional roles in China or a shopping spree in New York. Carla Gannis finds her inspiration in the Old Testament, old movies, and her roots in the deep South. Rachel Harrison creates still more monuments to trash culture, and Shannon Plumb puts herself on the fashion runway—as well as among the judges of her own work. What does that leave for a man like me to add?

Woman's history

Chelsea celebrated Woman's History Month early this year—and with only one woman. Of course, it can get to the rest in March, when a new Sackler Center for Feminist Art comes to Brooklyn. Meanwhile, however, Tracey Moffatt's photographs offer a very funny preview. Shot in her bedroom and bath with a digital camera, they bring history, art, and contemporary celebrity alike down to size.

Actually she calls the show "Under the Sign of Scorpio," which topped the astrology charts some months before. Moffatt, born November 12, poses as forty other Scorpios, and the preposterous variety makes them seem like many more still. One gets to meet political figures from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Hillary Rodham Clinton, writers as formidable as Doris Lessing or as overwrought as Margaret Mitchell, and divas from Mahalia Jackson to Roseanne Barr. Some, like Billy Jean King or Whoopie Goldberg, instantly bring a picture to mind. Others—like Tina Brown, the magazine editor, or Marcia Langton and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, both Aboriginal activists in Moffatt's home country, Australia—may not. Thanks to Shere Hite or Anna Wintour, the fashion editor, sex might enter one's mind, too.

The medium, the message, and Moffatt's role-playing may recall Cindy Sherman, but with a difference or two. Sherman makes anonymous characters and unstated narratives look eerily familiar, while Moffatt names names without troubling herself about their history. Sherman avoids eye contact and invites the male gaze, while Moffatt prances to her heart's content and invites the sisterhood to play along. Sherman may leave one shocked, desiring, melancholy, or ashamed, while Moffatt's girls just want to have fun. Sherman's care for detail and for the allure of photography burns her images in one's mind, while Moffatt flaunts improvised poses and the style of photos shared online. Sherman disappears into her roles, while Moffatt, like Andrea Fraser and Jana Leo, remains the star of the show—indeed, its entire dramatis personae.

I have no idea what Elizabeth Cady Staunton looked like, and for all I know Moffatt does not either. One can see her as probing what one even means by a role model after American Idol. It makes sense that the artist portrays someone like Sally Field, whose roles have ranged from prefeminist to gutsy woman and back herself. The approach works least effectively when it comes to what one might call the finished product—larger, glossier prints that end up calling attention to their paucity of props or context. It works best when it plays on the very ideas of a series and of image making as a process, in photos set out on one sheet to simulate contact prints. Moffatt selects the one she wants with the flourish of a hand-drawn circle, and one wants to remember her that way.

Nina Kuo has her mix of pre- and postfeminist fantasies, too. The paintings may look at first like traditional Chinese, Japanese, or Southeast Asian art, in their floating hills and suggestion of gold leaf. The subjects, almost all women, have small features, bodiless drapery, pointed toes, and upraised hair a bit like caps from the Mickey Mouse Club. It may take a moment to notice that the art-historical references point to no one period or place. Even when it comes to Asian American art, Kuo is crossing barriers. It may take a moment longer to see that the boundaries between Asia and America are eroding, too.

That white, red, or gold leaf starts to look more garish on second glance, and in fact Kuo paints in acrylic. Wood, rag paper, or canvas has the battered surface of some contemporary abstraction. The women shop for Chanel, talk on the cell phone, and order in pizza. Kuo is both enjoying a woman's self-assertion and wondering what world she inhabits. She took part in Marcia Tucker's famous group exhibition of "Bad Girls," but in practice she may come across as a little too nice, unless one is equally fed up with strangers talking on cell phones. I liked best a woman who might stand in for the artist herself but with a house painter's roller, almost smiling at her own bravura.

Devil in a red dress

It has to hurt my postmodern credentials, but I just do not care for Bette Davis. I still prefer Orson Welles to James Whales or William Wyler, and I still confuse film noir with B movies. Carla Gannis owes plenty to both, but her "Jezebel" series brings her a little closer to an auteur. Molly Haskell called Davis the "superfemale," the "wicked girl who sometimes was, sometimes wasn't, so bad underneath." Gannis gives the layers a fresh spatial dimension.

Gannis has depicted Jezebels before, along with other very American memories. She creates digital collages of often staged photographs, which she then paints over digitally as well. Her images reside half in Hollywood and half in someone's home or front yard, not unlike reality television. Men almost get their way with women, but the women press closer to the picture plane and slide further from anonymity into myth. The formula sounds ripe for John Currin, but Gannis's cool eye and hot colors make no allowance for his casual irony and lechery. She has the technique now to strike back.

The lighting, color, and compositions look right out of film stills, while up close the surfaces look spookily close to painting. One or two prints do adopt Welles's deep focus and the sidelong glances of early Cindy Sherman. Others use a narrow focus and artificial light to give the foreground actors more immediacy and to develop their emotional isolation. Some wear variants on the red dress that got Davis in deep trouble with Henry Fonda and New Orleans, including a Marilyn Monroe type who hands the DJ a record—perhaps Edith Piaf's "Jezebel." The quotations may extend to a woman with slick, short hair dyed bright red and a cell phone at her narrow waist. She leans across a table like the bored siren in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère transported to the Lower East Side.

The hazy backgrounds further imply unstated narratives, as do horizontal panels below each main frame, sometimes with multiple small scenes. These may supply parallel plots, a before and after, or alternative outcomes. So do the different windows of an apartment complex, with one woman dangling out as precariously as Ana Mendieta before her death. A young Puritan woman, in red lipstick, may or may not appear in the background of her own interior, more or less vulnerable and more or less reserved. As these subjects suggest, each woman in some sense goes on trial, on stage, and on a pedestal. A couple of millennia before Bette Davis, the original Jezebel turned Israel to false gods, and one can think of a horizontal panel as the predella of a Renaissance altarpiece.

As with Eric Fischl's own superfemales, art these days can blithely mistake the ready-made for the collective unconscious or vagueness for complexity and mystery. Gannis leaves to others to choose between smirks, sympathy, and worship. However, the choice has grown very tempting, as with what other women in photography have called "Strange Magic." Sunlight, when it appears, looks more real than in the reproductions I have seen of her past work, the darkness more transparent, and the interiors and subsidiary figures closer to the texture of life. The Puritan's hopes to assert her innocence or her sexuality may yet pay off. If not, one can always rent a movie.

Who dunnit

Monuments to Tiger Woods and Johnny Depp may already have one heading for the nearest exit, but a glance into Greene Naftali provides a push all by itself. With her gaudy, beat-up columns of cement, wood, and trash, Rachel Harrison displays further icons to bad taste. Given some of her subjects, make that icons to icons to bad taste.

Harrison splatters white cement with as bright a paint as humanly possible. Where it does not look tacky enough, she throws in store mannequins, stuffed birds, and Styrofoam peanuts, which the gallery tactfully describes only as mixed media. Depp's totem pole of hacked wood wears an earring, while Fats Domino comes topped with a much needed can of Slim·Fast, label intact. The roughly modeled surfaces, too, insist on both art and artlessness. Two long walls of inkjet prints reproduce still more plastic characters, but as they appear in what I shall hesitantly call the real world. When one aims for a mix of disgust and giddiness, one can hardly help but succeed, and I lapped it up.

Not all the brute facts belong to suburbia, Hollywood, or rock and roll. Al Gore's bloated plinth bears a room thermostat, while John Locke's stands bare, the thing in itself. The prints, called The Voyage of the Beagle, suggest a natural history and journeys of discovery. So do Claude Levi-Strauss with that pair of birds, Alexander the Great with his Abraham Lincoln mask and sunglasses, or Amerigo Vespucci. Does the bite out of Vespucci's apple make the New World a place of exile or paradise itself? I cannot swear why Rainer Werner Fassbinder offers a backward glance through the mask of Dick Cheney, but Europe and America eye each other here with suspicion.

Shannon Plumb eyes everything with suspicion, but she also knows when to crack a smile. She treats video as silent comedy, down to grainy, jerky displays and make-do props. In the past, she simulated a roller-coaster ride while sitting in a chair, an airplane's safety vest with toy balloons, and a horror movie with little more than her eyes. This time the disjunction of means and ends turns not on technology but on appearances, like Sherman's fashion act. She puts on a fashion show all by herself, with paper dresses, equally crude wigs, and still blunter gestures. If the gallery truly intends the costumes for sale, I hope the buyers will wear them to the next opening.

The lack of sophistication does not extend to the editing, which allows Plumb to play all the roles. As she repeatedly walks the runway, a man with a poorly aligned mustache snaps pictures and loses himself in awe. The judges pay more attention to their notepads, their cell phones, or themselves. One just gets into the music, which thankfully only she can hear. As a fashion editor adjusts her fur stole, it meows like a cat in pain. Latex surgical gloves in place of fine leather allow more sight gags, from pulling at their fingers to inflating them.

Harrison's prints include a topiary animal, perhaps to head off comparisons to Jeff Koons, and she calls the exhibition "If I Did It," perhaps so that she, her buyers, and O. J. can share responsibility. Does her self-knowing art altogether evade Koons's smugness? Shall I call Plumb a new-media artist navigating between high art and low or just a gifted comedian? I hesitate to call any of these artists vulgar or shallow. Hey, I might receive a thank-you note. Worse, one might appear in her next show.

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Tracey Moffatt's "Under the Sign of Scorpio" ran at Stux through February 10, 2007, Nina Kuo at Cheryl McGinnis, through February 17, Carla Gannis's "Jezebel" at Claire Oliver through April 14, Rachel Harrison's "If I Did It" at Greene Naftali through March 31, and Shannon Plumb at Sara Meltzer through March 17. A related review follows Rachel Harrison to MoMA.


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