Very rarely has Barbie been used well in art, but Lauren Kelley pulls it off in "Collect Them All! Soft Brown Narratives." It's one of a whole slew of new shows at Lawndale Art Center, but it's the best thing there -- not to mention one of the best new shows in Houston. Kelley's exhibition includes some great color photographs of staged scenes using altered Barbies and other dolls. But the real showstopper is her video Big Gurl (2006), which stars the dolls and uses stop-motion animation.
Big Gurl opens with a grandmother's voice admonishing a little girl who's crying about being made fun of at school. "You're almost seven; you're going to have to just suck it up and start acting like a big girl."
The video goes on to present short narratives about the trials and tribulations of various African-American women, with a masterful blend of humor and poignancy. The artist's attention to detail is amazing, as is her eye for social commentary and satire. One character, Mindy, is a multidegreed career woman who finds out she's pregnant. Mindy's scene in the waiting room at the women's clinic is both empathetic and hilarious. A doll walks along with what looks like a Ping-Pong ball under her sweater. A dad (made from some angry-looking action figure) has little kids crawling all over him. An overeager father-to-be obnoxiously videotapes his wife. A mother lectures her daughter about not making the same mistakes she made.
The video has an intentionally rough, seat-of-the-pants aesthetic that works well. There's nothing slick about the sets and props, but they're so witty and ingenious, they just crack you up.
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Another character, Shayla, is a poor woman who's working at the local chicken shack and being hit on by her boss. For a scene featuring Shayla frying chicken, Kelley uses pieces of plastic foam to simulate bubbling oil around a tiny chicken carcass that looks like it was made from Sculpey clay. The clay also seems to have been used to craft miniature black-eyed peas. Meanwhile, the greens on the steam table look to be made from air ferns from an aquarium.
Kelley sometimes uses oil-based clay -- the kind used for claymation -- to make Barbie's facial features more ethnic -- black Barbie is exactly the same model as white Barbie, just with darker hair and skin tone. Kelley also uses clay to caricature features such as lips, butts and breasts. Case in point: a scene about body image in which an exuberant grandma jumps on the trampoline with her grandchild, boobs a-flying.
The artist's takes on the interaction between the sexes are dead-on and funny as hell. In one scene, an attractive woman works the counter of Queen's Chicken and Biscuits, standing in front of a massive pile of pasty-looking little clay chicken parts. A ridiculously cheesy guy is next in line -- it looks like Kelley made him by sticking a huge bobble-head doll head on a Ken-doll body. His neck is made from clay, and Kelley really nails his gestures. His head wobbles from side to side as he tells the woman she's too fine to be serving wings. Meanwhile, characters waiting behind in a long line get pissed off. It's amazing how Kelley pulled off such hysterically evocative body language using stop-motion animation.
In another scene, Shayla storms out of the chicken shack into the parking lot after her manager suggestively offers her "overtime" as he explains how to rub the secret herbs and spices. She stomps past a white convertible driven by a guy sporting silver chains and a silver grill that Kelley made by smashing a wad of tinfoil into the doll's mouth. He tells her, "Smile, baby, damn, you ain't gotta look so evil." It's a perfect little detail most women can identify with: some loser admonishing them to smile and look pretty.
Some of Kelley's narratives could be fleshed out a little, and the audio -- sections of which sound like they were recorded on an answering machine -- is unintelligible in a few places. But as long as it's understandable, the tinniness adds to the inventive, lo-tech quality of the video. Kelley has such a deft, witty hand with visual and social detail that the video is uniformly riveting, revealing new things each time you watch it.
In Lawndale's back gallery, Betsy Huete's installation "Palimpsest" provides a great example of how not to make girl art. Huete has covered the walls with the text of a letter to a former lover, and the result is a pretentious, sophomoric bore. Where Kelley is attuned to the world around her and addresses hot-button issues such as abortion, poverty and sexual harassment with humor and humanity -- avoiding preachiness -- Huete takes her own experience and pompously presents it to us as if no one else in the world has ever had a failed relationship. In her statement, she says she believes the "honesty and pain" will "deeply resonate" with the viewers as she "brutally depict[s] the most painful experience of my life." Since Huete is just out of college, that's no doubt true. But she's too narcissistic to understand that a breakup, even the breakup of a lesbian relationship, is not automatically fascinating.
If you're going to make art about your personal life, you have to find a way to make it resonate with people besides yourself. Men and women of every sexual orientation have angry breakup letters stuck in the back of a drawer or buried deep in a hard drive, but thank goodness few of us inflict them on the public. Scanning Huete's badly written and endless harangues, self-absorbed whining and relationship dissection makes you really feel sorry for her ex, no matter what she did. Like her, no doubt, we wish Huete would just shut up.
As a part of her project, Huete "quit her day job" to wash the walls and then rewrite the text each day the gallery is open. I was at the show a week after it opened and it looked like that ambitious plan was on the wane. Still, the accumulation of ghost text is making the walls more visually interesting and the artist's narcissism less legible. If she applied the same process to a better chosen subject, things might be more successful. Huete is young and just out of school; thank goodness she has plenty of time to learn from her mistakes.
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