Sugar & Spice

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.

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.

Her mother also scrimped and saved from her job in a law firm to send Lisa to a small private school, St. Thomas Episcopal (where, Lisa mentions twice, Tom DeLay sends his kids), and to ballet lessons. Earning a living, running a house and raising a daughter left her mother with little time to make female friends -- something about which Lisa always felt guilty. Lisa didn't have many friends either. At St. Thomas Episcopal, boys and girls are separated through the seventh grade, and there were only seven girls in Lisa's class. But circumstances weren't the only obstacles to female friendships. Lisa thinks it's inherently difficult for women to form lasting bonds. "When it comes to girls and competition," she says, "it's hard for girls to be adults." Men are more direct, she says. Women can be backstabbing.

Still, she longed for female friendships, an environment where she could indulge her girlishness. To support herself as a graphic design student at the University of Houston, she waited tables at upscale restaurants like benjy's and Dish and watched as what she calls "Paper City-style" ladies came in for lunch. The well-heeled women drank chardonnay and gossiped and came up with lists of Houston's most eligible bachelors. How could she get that kind of camaraderie?

The answer came when Holly Hinson, one of Lisa's few girlfriends, wrote a story for her 'zine about a New Orleans group called the Sweet Girls. They are an all-girl "gang" that developed in 1996 out of New Orleans' Ninth Ward art and music scene. The New Orleans Sweet Girls are artists, puppeteers, costume designers, dancers, theater directors, fashion designers and burlesque performers. Led by writer and art-shoe maker Caroline Rankin, the organization serves as a support group for the projects of its members and other artists. They favor a do-it-yourself aesthetic, and their work includes helping local musician Mr. Quintron with the taping of an infomercial for his invention, "The Drum Buddy," and sewing costumes for the 60-member Ninth Ward Marching Band. The Sweet Girls also raise money for charities -- Caroline favors the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As for their "gang" image, Caroline says the Sweet Girls don't hesitate to "take down" people who are hurtful, especially toward other Sweet Girls.

Lisa had her model for hip girlishness. The Sweet Girls' DIY aesthetic lent itself to crafting and sewing. And the gang mentality countered the feminine backstabbing stereotype by encouraging loyalty. Lisa and Holly wrote to Captain Caroline requesting rules and regulations to start their own chapter. They invited established young female artists to join them: women in the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts Core Program, girls involved in bands and college radio, and the founder of Houston's only microcinema, Aurora Picture Show. To explain their fledgling group, they passed out Holly's 'zine article and an antislacker manifesto written after Kurt Cobain's death that Lisa had clipped as a teenager. "I'm younger than Kurt, I'm cuter and I don't mumble. Where he was confused and miserable, I'm confident and cheerful," reads the manifesto. Angst, it says, is no more romantic than the common cold. Furthermore, all women should wear makeup, and all men should have muscles and erections and be able to fix things.

But the group didn't exactly take off the way it had in New Orleans. Women who were approached politely declined; some came to the first meeting but were never heard from again. It's not that they were threatened, explains Lisa. They just already had their own work going. To them, Lisa says, the Sweet Girls was a joke.

Lisa did end up with a core group of girls in their early twenties: Holly, a soon-to-be-medical-student who dabbled in 'zines and college radio, would serve as first mate; Liz Massey, a friend's girlfriend who was working on the human genome project, would be the trustee; Mary Janacek, a new-to-town aspiring printmaker working for Lawing Gallery, would be the scribe; Meredith May, a blond who looks so much like a sorority girl that she swears without prompting that she never was one, rounded out the group. Michelle Glaw, a Joan Jett look-alike who fronts the local band the Vulgarians, was later recruited for her tough image. (Michelle, for the record, says that she joined the club to temper that rough-around-the-edges image. She wanted to be seen as a nicer, sweeter person.)

The Sweet Girls made their own T-shirts and went out on the town for cocktails. They had sleepovers where they painted each other's toenails and shared crafts like crocheting -- and where their male friends conducted pantie raids. They spread misinformation about their gang: Lisa supposedly got into a fistfight with Björk in Paris and keeps a lock of the Icelandic rock star's hair in a jewelry box; Holly is said to have gotten kicked out of prep school for poking one of the nun's eyes out with a pencil.

It wasn't all fun and games. To fulfill their philanthropic mission, the Sweet Girls offered to sponsor an evening of film at Aurora. For the microcinema's Valentine's Day show, the girls set up a kissing booth and sold Polaroids of themselves. The plan backfired on a couple of levels: After the Sweet Girls each had to kiss a rather unsavory character, they decided that kissing booths weren't such a good idea. Besides, it wasn't worth it. The Sweet Girls raised a little more than $100 for Aurora but fell short of the $150 sponsorship commitment. They'd like to raise money for other arts organizations like Infernal Bridegroom Productions and Lawndale Art Gallery as well, but Lisa says that neither group has returned their phone calls.

The phone call snubs weren't the only negative reactions they've gotten. Strangely enough, another gang was forming around the same time as the Sweet Girls. The Shitbirds, as they called themselves, started by pulling pranks on each other and committing random acts of vandalism. Shitbird Jana Hunter, of the band Matty and Mossy, describes them as "fun when drinking" activities. They dressed up in silly outfits and cruised downtown, putting honey on the door handles of expensive cars, presumably parked by yuppies on their way to velvet-roped clubs like Prague and Spy. But before long, the Shitbirds expanded their mission to include protesting what they considered bad art. According to visual artist Heath Flagtvedt, they wanted to up the ante, provoke a more creative reaction, make local artists and bands work a little harder. The Sweet Girls were a prime target.

"It was the whole gang-committed-to-good-deeds that I think first kind of riled our feathers," says Jana. "Not that good deeds are bad…but they were having slumber parties. It just didn't seem like they were willing to do anything that we considered artistic. There was nothing groundbreaking or innovative or even really interesting to us about what they were doing." In short, the Shitbirds thought the Sweet Girls were lame.

Last fall a DiverseWorks show featured some of Holly's 'zine work, which Heath calls a rehash of old riot grrrl culture. At the opening, the Shitbirds staged an "art attack" with water guns and pornographic confetti. Pleased to have found similarly juvenile rivals for their gang, the Sweet Girls staged a retaliatory raid of the Shitbirds' New Year's Eve party. Wearing custom silk-screened black Sweet Girls sweatshirts, they crashed the party and lit smoke bombs. Through pink megaphones they shouted an oddly violent cheer: "Eat shit and die! Shitbirds can't fly! Sweet Girls suck out your eye!" As their toughness degenerated into giggles, they ran away.

Tipped off about the Sweet Girls' raid, the Shitbirds had gathered supplies -- eggs, flour, water guns, duct tape and a shower curtain -- for a counterattack. But the Sweet Girls arrived earlier than expected and the Shitbirds were caught off guard. It looked like the Sweet Girls had bested their rivals until Holly came back to the party in street clothes as if nothing had happened, like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime to marvel at her own handiwork. A few of the very inebriated Shitbirds, angered at having to stand outside while the smoke cleared from their party, were going to have none of that smugness. They tackled Holly, rubbed flour and eggs in her face and duct-taped her hands and feet together, all the while screaming, "Die, bitch, die!"

The game had gone too far, and Holly was upset. Sure, the Sweet Girls talked tough and told people they were a gang, but they didn't want to get into an actual physical fight. "We did feel bad," says Jana. "But the other side of it is we felt like they didn't want to play." The Shitbirds disbanded shortly after the incident.

"You have to be careful throwing the word 'gang' around," says Holly.

"We're really nice people," says Lisa.

Lisa and Holly sip chardonnay on the lush patio at a coffee shop called Brasil. "It tastes like flowers," giggles Lisa. They are well put together, with crossed legs, well-groomed fingernails, curled eyelashes, natural-looking makeup and nice handbags. They talk about how the feminist movement made great advances but in the process it left behind feminine institutions like sewing, culture and charity clubs -- the invisible threads that held the tapestry of society together. Why can't they be career women who crochet? Why can't they connect rather than compete?

The Sweet Girls may all enjoy crafting, but competition is something that seems difficult to squelch. Holly offers up Michelle as the archetypal Sweet Girl because she "embodies toughness and sweetness in a very elegant way." Lisa nods along with the compliment momentarily but soon can't stand it. "We're archetypal too," she whines. "I'm girlier than Michelle."

The situation is almost exactly reversed when Lisa mentions that genome-girl Liz has a more impressive career than the rest of them. "I'm going to be a doctor," counters Holly. They even put down the original Sweet Girls in New Orleans, agreeing that the Houston chapter is more educated and intellectual. But the competition within the group really blew up while they were preparing for the installation at Lawing Gallery.

Although Lisa is an aspiring artist, she says that the Sweet Girls hadn't planned to put on an art show. The opportunity just sort of fell in their laps. There is little doubt that the coveted showing was in part precipitated by the fact that Sweet Girl Mary works at Lawing. If not for Mary, gallery owner Doug Lawing might not have even known of the Sweet Girls' existence.

Lawing says he agreed to show the Sweet Girls because he has long been interested in the inner workings of the garden and Rotary clubs that dominated the social life of the small Southern town of his youth. "While their goals were benevolent," he says, "they seemed to be a stage for all forms of social interaction, including betrayal, adultery and greed, and could sometimes be subversive." It also didn't hurt that the Sweet Girls can be charming. "The Sweet Girls are actually not so sweet," Lawing says. "But [by] telling us that they are sweet and fitting into a stereotype of what we normally think of as sweet (i.e., pretty young women with soft voices), they are able to exert influence…" Even on him.

Whether or not Mary's connections got them the show, the Sweet Girls say that she was a little proprietary about the work that went up in her gallery. This put her on a collision course with Lisa. A conflict over the construction of the clubhouse degenerated into an argument about whose art degree was better (Lisa went to the University of Houston, and Mary graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute). Lisa finally pulled rank. "I'm the captain," she told Mary. "We're doing it this way." Both girls ended up shouting that they never wanted to work with the other again.

Now, Lisa criticizes nearly everything about Mary, from her taste in techno music to her valley girl accent to her intelligence. She says that Mary is manipulative and power-hungry, that she claimed to speak for the gallery owner when she didn't like the way things were going. "I can't be around that attitude," says Lisa, "mostly because I can't defend myself from it. I'm not good at fighting and yelling back." She plans to send Mary a letter, kicking her out of the club.

Mary doesn't need a letter to know that she is no longer a Sweet Girl. She trembles a little when asked about the falling-out, and says it's hard to lose a friend. She says she had hoped the Sweet Girls would be more collaborative than hierarchical. But in perhaps the sweetest move of all, she declines to criticize Lisa or the organization.

There aren't many Sweet Girls left now. Mary has been ousted, Holly has gone off to medical school, and Liz is about to move to California. But Lisa attempts to regroup at a recent club meeting at her apartment. Over white wine and mushroom pâté, the remaining few discuss reaction to the Lawing show and their plans for the future. Specifically, they are complaining about a review of the show written by Bill Davenport for the on-line arts magazine They are upset because Davenport called their ideas trite in the context of protest art. (Actually, Davenport wrote that the Sweet Girls' show wasn't really trying to be protest art, but this fact seems lost on the Girls.)

"I really think he's talked to Mary," says Lisa. "She's the only one who really talks about feminism."

"Protest against what?" Meredith asks incredulously. "Against sweetness?"

"The only thing we protest against is mediocrity and banality," assures Lisa.

Liz mentions that a woman she knows has likened the Sweet Girls to the Guerrilla Girls, a gorilla-masked collective of women artists who call attention to the male domination of Hollywood, Broadway, galleries and museums. But a caustic Michelle dismisses the comparison: "Who is she trying to be?"

The Sweet Girls realize that their ill-defined image is causing them problems, especially with recruitment. Women want to know what they're getting involved in. To that end, the Girls plan to express who they are through more events. It's time, Lisa says, to show their commitment to service and charity. They'll try to raise more money for Aurora Picture Show. But how?

Ideas are floated: How about a car wash? A craft or bake sale? A church carnival? An ice cream social? A male beauty pageant? But there is another problem. Any traditional sorority could put on any of these events. How can the Sweet Girls be different? How can they add a "twist"? The car wash could be of the wet T-shirt variety. The ice cream social could be advertised as "topless," with the girls wearing fake boob suits. The male beauty pageant could call on their talented arts and music friends. The bake sale could be… "Titty cupcakes!" Meredith finally shouts. That's it. Lisa loves the idea, and the Sweet Girls are off and running again.


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