Sugar & Spice

The Sweet Girls pretend to be bad and try to be good, but Houston's newest social club fails at both

It's mid-July, and one of Houston's most prestigious art galleries looks like a little girl's bedroom. The walls are pink, with white painted trees. Deer and bunny figurines that might have adorned a dresser have become life-size woodland creatures, arranged in pastoral scenes with fake flowers. There is even a clubhouse, a red and white inner sanctum of girlishness complete with a vanity, beanbag chairs and homecoming mums tacked to the walls.

On closer inspection, it seems that the girls who inhabit this space are supposed to be bad. They may still be living in their childhood bedroom, but they are old enough to require things like bustiers, red panty hose, birth control pills, smoke bombs, switchblades and handcuffs. A video shows their recent naughty escapades: topless baking, reckless driving, swigging from miniature liquor bottles, swiping a purse, smashing porcelain baby dolls against a brick wall and licking fruit in a grocery store. "As you can see, being a Sweet Girl is a complex fusion of grace and wit, the pinnacle of cunning and charm," purrs Lisa Cooley from the screen. "Join us if you dare."

The Sweet Girls call themselves a "social aid and pleasure club." They are a hazy mixture of sorority and girl gang, Elks lodge and ladies auxiliary club, sewing circle and art collective. The girls parade around the gallery in fluffy pink dresses worthy of debutantes, and beauty pageant sashes that denote their rank. Lisa's pure white sash indicates that she is the captain of the club; nonofficers wear a garish red. Some of the girls have added decidedly nonsweet fishnets and studded leather bracelets to the standard ensemble, but Lisa plays it straight: the smiling and ever-so-proper hostess, introducing gallerygoers to the other girls and answering questions about their art with inoffensive "maybe it is, maybe it isn't" coyness.

Sweet Lisa plays the proper hostess at the Girls' art opening.
Deron Neblett
Sweet Lisa plays the proper hostess at the Girls' art opening.

This show at Lawing Gallery is the Sweet Girls' art scene debut. And it's quite a debut. Lawing is known for showing high-profile, blue-chip, nonlocal artists. The fact that the Sweet Girls have been around for less than a year -- and that some of them are self-described nonartists -- has raised more than a few eyebrows. The Girls call it "the look" -- the reaction they get when they tell people, even friends, about the show. Lisa mimics their critics: "Where did these girls come from? Who do they think they are?"

Judging by the show, they seem to have come from a mid-'90s explosion of postfeminist art. To prepare for the installation, the girls studied a bicoastal 1994 show called "Bad Girls." The New York exhibition featured a "Topless Hall of Fame," an enormous merkin (a wig to cover female genitalia) and a "Pink Project" crammed with everything from pink barrettes to pink dildos. The Los Angeles sister show included a pair of satin panties that would fit a giant, a phallic comment on the Tailhook scandal and some works by Kim Dingle (best known for her entry into the Whitney Biennial: a customized pink car that leaked blood-red oil, thus appearing to menstruate).

"Bad Girls" was designed to be humorously subversive, to cross boundaries with flair, to assume political power by giving feminism a confident laugh instead of a shrill shout. But while the Sweet Girls play with their own loaded images of childish innocence, violent girl gangs, 1950s housewives, sorority sisters, crafts and cuteness, they deny a political agenda. "Ooh, you're rebelling. Ooh, you're so transgressive. I'm impressed," Lisa says sarcastically. "Hard-core rebellion doesn't appeal to me."

Deep down, the Sweet Girls just want to be sweet. All the rest -- the gang rhetoric, the smoke bombs, the switchblades -- is just purposefully alluring window dressing, a little black coffee to cut the saccharine. "People are more interested in the story than the truth," says Lisa. The truth is that the Sweet Girls genuinely enjoy traditional "women's work." Their eyes light up when they talk about cooking and cleaning, crocheting and cross-stitching. They watch Martha Stewart. They relish socializing with other girls. They like to flirt with men. They'd rather focus on raising money to help other arts organizations than make their own art. The sweetness of the Sweet Girls is not tongue-in-cheek, and that makes it perhaps even more radical than being a bad girl.

But sweetness, even in the world of the Sweet Girls, is a very difficult quality to maintain.

Lisa Cooley comes from a long line of hostesses. Her great-grandmother had a ranch on what is now the Ship Channel. According to family lore, she used to serve peach ice cream to the ship captains who passed by. In fact, Lisa's was one of the first 300 families to settle Texas. (Her mother tried to join the Daughters of the Republic of Texas but was declined because one marriage in the lineage could not be documented.)

By the time Lisa was born, the family was poor and there wasn't much land left. Her mother had to move into an inherited house in the rough community of the Fifth Ward's Denver Harbor. Lisa was not close to her father, an income tax protester who refused to take a job with a paycheck, or her stepfather, an attorney whom Lisa calls "manipulative." But she loves her mother, a quiet, elegant, refined woman who taught her how to sew her own clothes and make a house a beautiful home. Even though they didn't have much money, her mother occasionally threw "very well put together" fondue parties (it was the '70s). Lisa was so impressed by the fetes that she hoped she would grow up to get a job planning social events.

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