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No More Girlish Games

Next time you're stuck in the supermarket checkout line, by all means grab the March issue of Vogue. It contains a curious feature article and photo spread that go the whole nine yards to explain -- seriously -- why it's okay to look rich again. Celebrating the new "luxe" look of spring fashions, the author waxes nostalgic for an age of circle pins and charm bracelets, hats and gloves -- those debutante years when boys in white dinner jackets came to pick you up and your dress was so big you had to sit by yourself in the back seat.

Whatever happened to dressing for an occasion? Thank heaven it's back, according to Vogue, which prods us all to look rich and glamorous again instead of messy and sullen. The way rich people used to look -- ladylike, well groomed, nice. But amid the sexy shots of couture models clad like French poodles in frothy pink ball gowns, thick jewel-encrusted chokers and satin bows is the more disturbing subliminal message of putting "good girls" in their place -- that is, collared, under the hair dryer and in the back seat.

Sure, fashion is playful and fun, but it often reflects the prevailing cultural milieu as well. And right now, there appears to be a willful backwardness that aims to plant women squarely in the Eisenhower years. What we're talking about is the construction of identity, the means by which we understand ourselves as bad girls or ingenues or, for that matter, schizophrenics, addicts or manic depressives. What seems to be neglected is the fact that identity is constructed very, very badly. Even mainstream culture -- to the extent that it exists anymore -- offers up hundreds of ways of being anything: it's all fragments, falsehoods and cross-references, a buzzing, blooming confusion. We may long for the secure ideals of beauty and wholeness embraced by past generations, but experience tells us that this world-view is obsolete. How can women forward the long, slow process of finding a voice -- for themselves, and for all women?

For some time now, nervy feminist work has been drawing viewers, even though some artists felt hindered by what women could or "should" do in hitting us head-on with the hard facts of female life. Swallowing their fears, these "bad girls" made clear that it's no more playing nice in a society where more than half of all women murdered are killed by their current or former boyfriend or husband. Whereas this angrily ironic feminist art aimed for a gut examination of contemporary art's most prevalent issues, much of the work rarely went beyond the level of the derivative, the jokey one-liner or agitprop.

Yet their wildly boisterous, subversive stance isn't the only viewpoint that's been percolating up through the galleries and alternative spaces. There seems to be an increasing number of women artists -- in Houston, at least -- who make work that brings with it a sense of contingency, of the quirks and commotions of our daily lives. Their art treats the body in a more personal, if reflective way, invoking both mythology and autobiography. Two exhibitions -- "Virgins in Vertigo and Juicy Women" by Lynn Randolph at Lynn Goode Gallery and works by Kim O'Grady, Wanda Alexander and Holly Patterson at West End Gallery -- offer as abundant and diverse an array of visual positions as they exhibit a wide variety of styles. All of these women, however, use the figure to represent inner states of being, often reinventing accepted definitions of self. In both shows, these artists have chosen figurative models because they best express the central dilemma of present-day life: the changing nature of the roles and responsibilities available to the individual, and the psychic cost of attaining and maintaining that individuality.

Randolph's portraits of specific women seem possessed by an internal fire that underscores complex psychosexual messages. Nothing is withheld from our gaze: her paintings of a sleepwalker floating like a dirigible above urban chaos or a nude reposing on sheets of melted ice amid some primeval swamp retain shock value, but they're not shocking. Glowing sensuously in warm tones of muted browns, velvety blacks and iridescent blues, the smooth, even sheens constitute charged grounds on which individual desire and cultural identity are played out. In fact, the most striking factor of these paintings is not their subject matter -- saints, cyborgs, angels, spiderwomen and mestizas -- nor the matter-of-fact genitalia depicted. It is their exacting, if elegant, revisions of seductive social, sexual and power relations.

Randolph's paintings are energized with narrative possibilities that are as confrontational as they are ambiguous. Nothing is certain, save for the subtle reality of the lived body. Randolph's characters seem to exist in another time and place, perhaps another realm. From this distanced realism, they project an imposing, emotionally expressive physicality. Viewers will either want to spend time with these untamed women or run out screaming. Indeed, much of the work has a kind of savage incisiveness that borders on high camp, often using cartoon riffs to make visually demanding statements about the tension inherent in the current social construct. In Randolph's world, the past, present and future are combined to depict scenes of unadulterated innocence and apocalyptic violence, scenes in which the fragile precariousness of continued existence is addressed frankly.

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