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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the secure ideals of beauty and wholeness embraced by past generations, but experience tells us that this world-view is obsolete.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.

At once epic, endearing and bloody, Randolph's portrayals of women out-of-bounds give fleshy substance to life's antagonisms and mayhem. As if timelessly suspended in strange, dreamlike states, their solid bodies and implied consciousnesses seem governed by intimate memories and primal instincts. In Sky Walker: Biding Thru, a nude woman with black wavy hair and tan skin strides between two planetary orbs, pushing aside meteors or anything else that might get in her way. Her strong, don't-mess-with-me-and-I-won't-mess-with-you stance summons forth the cartoon warrior She-Ra, Princess of Power. In any case, she fairly leaps out of the canvas into the viewer's space, her eyes locking onto ours much like a lioness stalking her prey.

Moreover, at a time when ideologies are collapsing, technology continues to develop exponentially and biological research brings into question just what it means to be human, the distrust of the purely personal and the securely social become acute. Accordingly, Randolph implies that technology has become part of nature, and that women had better start using technology before technology starts using them. Self-Consortium features a beautiful young woman and her cloned android moving through inner and outer space by means of a large, serpentine strand of DNA. Will cyberspace become another area that will have to be gender negotiated at the end of the century?

Randolph's women are unapologetic in urging us to negotiate obstacles that will create a more mutable, elastic reality. For now, however, these women are caught between some dark space and a projected utopia. But where will they go, what will they do after breaking through? And who is the future? Could it be Barbarella with biceps?

If Randolph envisions a kind of paradise, but with street smarts, O'Grady, Alexander and Patterson confront the relentlessly bizarre moments of ordinary life. Moving from hauntingly personal narratives of childhood experience to adolescence and adult repression, their implicit theme is the hard drop from bliss to tainted disillusionment. Of the three artists' works, O'Grady's Five Names for Breasts is the most confrontational, for in these paintings innocence is already pretty clearly on the skids.

Single images of adolescent girls have been stripped nude and sliced off at the abdomen, then seemingly set adrift in milky seas, places both nowhere and anywhere. A strong sense of the psychological infuses these paintings, in which the pre-teen girls appear emotionally vulnerable and yet incredibly empowering.

O'Grady's paintings suggest an admixture of generic bodily consciousness and intimate sensuality. This dismemberment of the body by naming -- boobs, hooters, melons, pistols, jugs -- and the disconnection it engenders unfortunately begin at the earliest stages of female identity. Can interrupted innocence alter the future terms of intimate personal interaction? Given half the chance, these truncated figures would probably act out their girl-type ambivalence by spitting right in our eye.

Conversely, Patterson foregoes attitudinizing in favor of off-balance scenarios in which natural reality clashes with the ridiculous, often nightmarish simplemindedness of our most basic assumptions about society. Patterson's odd vignettes don't follow a linear narrative, but instead summon the larger lexicon of life. Her characters are like members of some extended dysfunctional family -- many of them seem to be plucked right out of the National Enquirer. Patterson mines nostalgia with a knowing eye on the erotic edge of childhood innocence and adult dilemmas.

Her works linger somewhere between bright fantasy and the darkness of a nightmare vision -- a magnificent blue carousel horse goes suddenly wild as a small girl hangs on for dear life, a Cinderella clad in white robes grapples with her pumpkin "head," formerly friendly acquaintances quickly turn into ominous strangers. Patterson treats her cast of characters as specimens -- the angelic grandmother, the muscled waitress, the eccentric woman dressed in floral kimono and headdress, the obnoxious bride that looks like an inflatable doll. Each has her own story to tell, which could be pleasant, or could be shocking. Either way, Patterson's array of weird curiosities often present women playing out roles -- perhaps happily, perhaps without choice, perhaps without a clear picture of their own situation.

That fusion of edgy uncertainty and anxiety with a firm certitude is also the core of Alexander's buoyant colored-pencil drawings. Alexander obsessively fills up almost every inch of paper with an onslaught of images -- cartoonish eyes, flailing, groping, helping hands -- and stylized patterns of interdependent abstract shapes. Such expressiveness often verges on the hallucinogenic; it grapples with intimate memories, visions and the unknowable. In any case, it doesn't affirm the status quo, but suggests an urgent need to draw an alternate world explored over time. Not a wild or crazy style, Alexander's vision is highly ordered, often symmetrical and full of implied movement. I Dropped Grandma's Pie depicts pieces of meringue with extended arms floating on a pink ground. Moreover, works composed wholly of skittering spiders suggest a terrible purity to Alexander's vision, an effect of selfless concentration on an unfolding narrative that is not under her control, although perhaps fueled by her passions.

Much of the time, however, one gets the feeling that Alexander's visions of nude girls and boys sitting at pinwheel-like "posey" tables, or diagonal rows of black balls hurling toward an exotic female dancer, are less finished products than records of explorations. Polymorphously perverse and sweet, they seem to come from the hand of a child still too naive to disguise the depths of her own aggression. Whether approximating reality or imagination, these associations stimulate our own contemplations on the relative nature of past and present, instinct and memory. Like richly patterned board games, Alexander's visions enable us to travel through a land of monsters, wild beasts and fairy-tale creatures, the sort of pictorial images that stay with a child, yet pop up in one's dreams.

"Virgins in Vertigo and Juicy Women," paintings by Lynn Randolph, will show through April 1 at Lynn Goode Gallery, 2719 Colquitt, 526-5966.

Group exhibit by Kim O'Grady, Wanda Alexander and Holly Patterson will show through March 18 at West End Gallery, 5425 Blossom, 861-9544.

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