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"Girls" Just Want to Have Fun?

Awkwardness, angst and mental illness take center stage at the Blaffer

The word "girl" has regained currency -– in certain contexts -– as a term for grown women. "Girls' Night Out" at the Blaffer Gallery presents works by women that explore the concept of "girl." Group shows are notoriously uneven, and this one is no exception. But while individual works succeed and fail, the show, organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, presents an overall vision of girls/women that's heavy on awkwardness, angst and mental illness. Call me crazy, but this skewed curatorial vision of the "girl" experience could use a little more balance.

There are standouts in the exhibition, however. Thank goodness for Rineke Dijkstra -– her video project and photos have a palpable humanity and empathy. For her video installation The Buzzclub, Liverpool, England/Mysteryworld, Zaandam, Netherlands (1996-97), Dijkstra set up a video camera in two European clubs for young people. You can hear the music coming from the dance floor as a variety of kids stand in bright light against a white backdrop. They dance awkwardly -– the all-northern-European cast could be presented as evidence in support of the white-people-can't-dance theory. The kids, mainly girls, simultaneously smack gum and smoke cigarettes, trying to look cool and unaffected. Some begin to dance and bob jerkily.

The boys are the worst and the least successful at pretending to be cool; you feel bad that these girls have to date them. In a particularly amusing clip, one boy's dancing consists of twitching spastically like he's having a grand mal seizure. Another clip features a pair of Dutch-looking twins whose rectangular heads sport ears that stick out at right angles; they bob them in unison like those guys from Saturday Night Live.

In Elina Brotherus's images, self-involvement overwhelms any other content.
Courtesy of gb agency
In Elina Brotherus's images, self-involvement overwhelms any other content.

Many of the kids are terribly young; a girl who looks 12 and has barely seen puberty drinks a Budweiser in slow motion. Her cheeks are round with baby fat, and her hair is pulled up into a bun with a tight sausage curl on either side of her face. It's the kind of hairstyle someone's mother does for her when she's eight. Another pudgy preadolescent with dark hair has unevenly painted her lips a vixen red. She tries to stare blankly and look cool from under her heavy black eyeliner. She will be an Elizabeth Taylorish beauty as an adult, but for now, her facade of cool is shattered as she brings a cigarette to her mouth, held by plump childish fingers with stubby, dirty nails.

Dijkstra makes us smile at and feel for the awkwardness of these kids in their cheap synthetic club clothes, trying so hard to be older, sexy and cool. She reminds us what it felt like to be so young, trying to act so much older and being completely unaware of how much we were missing the mark. Dijkstra's work is as straightforward in its conception as it is multidimensional in its effects.

Two other artists who fare especially well are Daniela Rossell and Katy Grannan, who offer us views of women from two different countries and the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Rossell is a Mexican photographer who produced the series "Ricas y famosas" documenting her peers, the wealthy families of Mexico. Meanwhile, Grannan creates portraits of the middle class and unknown of places like Poughkeepsie.

Both photographers work with their subjects, teasing out their conceptions of self. Rossell photographs her sitters in their lavish home environments and allows them to dictate what they'll wear and how they'll pose – kitschy theme rooms are de rigueur. Surrounded by their possessions, these women pose to create visions of wealth and sexuality. There's a "bird in a gilded cage" thing going in all this excess; they've surrounded themselves with furs, tiaras, chandeliers, maids, baroque furniture and taxidermied lions. They believe their beauty and sexuality are their currency.

Meanwhile, Grannan culls her sitters from ads she places in the newspaper looking for artist's models. She usually photographs the respondents in their suburban homes. Using their living rooms or bedrooms as studios, she collaborates with the sitters on the arrangement of the rooms and their wardrobes or lack thereof. The resulting photos have a sort of Diane Arbus feeling, but without that level of discomfort and distance –- there's a hokey pinup quality to many of the photos and their tacky surroundings. A chunky girl in lace tights reclines on a hideously upholstered sectional sofa in a room with sculptured carpeting and swagged lacy curtains. The design of her tights blends into the surrounding excess of pattern.

But much of the work in the show feels too self-absorbed, too staged and just too irritating. Dorit Cypis's photographs of herself standing behind bars are guilty of this crime. Ditto the "Oh, let me pause in my nervous breakdown to photograph myself" images of Elina Brotherus. We see her standing with her maudlin, badly drawn self-portraits, crying over a half-eaten cantaloupe and crouched naked in a sink. Self-involvement overwhelms any other content. The level of angst that comes across in the photos is better suited to someone suffering in Darfur.

While Eija-Liisa Ahtila's series of short videos based on women's accounts of mental illness works fairly well, other video pieces are heavy on pretense and low on content. Kelly Nipper's Bending Water into a Heart Shape (2003) is characterized as "poetic," but I would just call it affected. There are four video screens -– two present different views of an ice rink; another shows a metal mobile dripping ice; and a fourth features a dancer trying to do a lutz in slow motion. The artist is trying too hard to make work that's so spare it must be meaningful. But the results just seem pretentious. Likewise her series of photographs depicting a woman partially obscured by a wooden screen, raising and lowering her arms. What exactly is the point of that?

Salla Tykkä's video Thriller (2001) centers around a young girl who spends a lot of time staring -– out the window, into a mirror, while lying in bed -– all to a dramatic soundtrack. (Supposedly it's all about sexual awakening.) The setting is a bleak Scandinavian farm, and images of the staring girl are interspersed with footage of a young woman and young man engaged in obscure farm chores -– dragging branches, leading sheep, launching a rickety boat. The video culminates with the staring girl shooting a sheep. Tykkä is better off than Nipper, but her wordless video and its labored symbolism need to push further into the unsettling -– or the ironic -– to actually work. It's too much like something a first-year film student would make after watching too many Bergman films.

This show was sponsored by Neutrogena. In a "sponsor's statement" the company wrote: "Neutrogena has an insightful understanding of women...Like this exhibition, Neutrogena celebrates the power of the female identity..." Gee, do you think the whole "girl" movement has gotten a little commercially co-opted? I'm leery of contrived "women's art" exhibitions. Are "girl" shows the latest iteration of the Judy Chicago-esque vagina-thons of the 1970s?

But the main problem lies in the number of affectedly arty, convoluted and self-involved works included in this show. They aren't interesting art, nor are they the kind of art interesting women make. Whether you jump on the "girlness" bandwagon or not, it could be far better represented than it is in "Girls' Night Out."

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