Georganne Deen hit puberty in mid-'60s Fort Worth. She was part of an affluent and conservative family -- her grandfather was a four-term mayor and her grandmother wrote books about women and Christianity. If you have even a glancing familiarity with the time period and the social mores of women in the South, you can fill in most of the blanks of Deen's socialization. The plot congeals when you find out she was raised by an alcoholic mother for whom fashion was the only civil topic of conversation.
Deen, like a lot of other artists, has used her dysfunctional upbringing and bouts with depression as creative fodder. Hers are visually lush paintings derived from psychic clutter. She addressed her troubled relationship with her dying mother in a series of works titled "The Vogue Book of the Dead." Her exhibition at Mixture Contemporary Art, "New Alchemy from Shit City," uses searing black humor to address a mélange of issues: sexuality, money, femininity, pharmaceuticals and fashion.
While biography helps to contextualize the imagery in Deen's work, their savvy juxtaposition is what makes the paintings so visually compelling. And her ability to surgically excise elements of the popular unconscious is what makes them so conceptually deft. Having worked as a commercial artist, Deen has a keen eye for style and an extreme facility for text and image montage. Her oil paintings are massive narrative collages combining bits of vintage fabric, pastiches of typestyles and pop culture images, and skewering caricatures.
New Alchemy III (1998) is a great example of her eclectic visual and textual stream of consciousness. "Don't be carried off on the soles of stockbrokers this spring" -- part fashion magazine copy, part feminist admonition -- is painted in digitized text next to the face of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god with the ability to bestow wisdom and wealth. Sparkly blue rhinestones are glued to Ganesh's eyelids, and he raises his trunk to drip out pearls that turn blood-red à la a Karen Finley performance. Two curtains that end in Marlo Thomas That Girl flips flank the god's face.
Floating over Ganesh's forehead are tiny renderings of a low-slung, L.A.-style home with a pool and a 1960s futuristic office tower: "Western Witch World Headquarters." Western Witch is a persona that Deen invented to "re-create her life the way she wants it to be." The logo for the entity is a white glittery pile of decorative poop -- a visual symbol of turning shit to gold.
In the lower half of the painting, "Pussycat?" is written in mauve over a stylized deep red paint splotch. Thickly coated with shiny resin, the patronizingly affectionate "pet name" straight out of a Dean Martin movie becomes entombed and preserved in glossy acrylic. "Are you listening to me" is printed in serifed block letters underneath. In an upper corner, the words "pain killers," "hormones" and "Elasticity" form visually intermingled signifiers of aging and numbing.
Deen hones in on stereotypical female angst and its relationship to the 1-900 number in Psychic Hotline Free (2002). The title is written in brilliant digital letters on silk-covered paperboard hung from a costume jewelry chain. Three little shiny teardrops of resin contain text and drip down the wall. They read, "You will meet a man," "Stay on the line" and then the punch line: "$99."
Deen flashes the teeth of her biting wit in The Corncob Cotillion Went Thataway (2002). On a chalky puddle of dried paint stuck to puckered silk, Deen has rendered a corncob-bodied woman with excessive eye makeup and huge Priscilla Presley bouffant hair. The title is written in a script cribbed from some 1960s Neiman Marcus ad for ladies' dresses. Instead of an elegant Breakfast at Tiffany's cigarette holder, a corncob pipe sticks out from between cornwoman's thin lips -- an extra jab at social pretension.
Other female caricatures star in a series titled the "Three Laws of Prosperity." Believe You Deserve It (2002) shows a scrawny, flat-assed, aging Playboy bunny with huge false eyelashes and rabbit ears seemingly growing out of her platinum hairdo. She holds a tray with a sparkly gold sack of money, the words "Ok if I take this Boss?" coming out of her painted mouth. Deen continues her use of text as both design element and commentary: "Sure???" and "Positive " are decoratively written underneath. And the voice of the sugar daddy/employer comes from above, replying, "OK with me baby "
Lesson #5, In the Browns (2002) peeks through the keyhole of adolescent sexuality and parental censure. In a teen bedroom with a record player and 45s scattered around the floor, a lithe blond girl in bra and underwear dances closely with a wolf straight out of Little Red Riding Hood. "Shhhhh " is embroidered across an ornate piece of upholstery fabric affixed to the top of the canvas. The girl's eyes are closed in the ecstasy of the embrace, and the wolf peers over his shoulder to the door. "It's just daddy, he can't do anything" is written along the bottom of the canvas in the kind of type used for the title of a Doris Day romantic comedy.
The least successful works in the show are the two pieces with three-dimensional found objects, a plastic boy doll and a plastic mouse, affixed to their canvases. The strength of her other paintings comes from making cohesive visual sense out of disparate elements. But these dominant 3-D objects don't integrate with the surface.
But overall Deen's work feels fresh and original in its quirky blend of loose abstract painting, graphic design, cartoons, collage and image appropriation. Her sharply ironic tone keeps any whiff of self-pity firmly at bay. Although she is extremely forthcoming about the autobiographical origins of her images, the point isn't to decode the exact personal experience that informed each piece. In fact, viewers will become sidetracked if they try to look at the work solely in the context of Deen's personal life. The paintings are successful precisely because their success isn't dependent upon an outside narrative. They are feasts of images, colors and associations that strike chords with people other than their author. It's not the specifics of Deen's story -- it's the way she tells it.
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