Faking It

An exhibit saddled with a name that contains not only a play on words, but a sub-subhead, might well be cause for alarm. And indeed, "Justapose: Strategy and Style: Explorations in Fictional Narratives" does take itself a bit too seriously, despite its investigation of the playful activities of dressing up and "posing." The show juxtaposes work by female artist Amber Eagle with work by male artists Alan Krathause and Theo Coulombe. The artists pretend to be what they're not and never will be, or what they imagined they were as kids, or what they are on a good day. And even if the two installations -- which purport to show female and male perspectives -- seem to ignore each other, there are good theoretical reasons to show them together. They use similar strategies to depict the artists as characters in fictions of their own invention.

For her half of the show, Eagle attempts to create an aura of beauty-pageant-style elegance. She appeared at the show's opening with upswept hair and a full-length gown, disembarking from a 1955 Cadillac limousine and maintaining a delicate grip on the pink satin leash of the diminutive pup Nelle Bell, whom Eagle has tagged "The Most Beautiful Dog in the World." Eagle seated herself at a posh table to receive well-wishers and sign copies of This Years Girls, a sort of souvenir activity book created for the exhibit. One wall of the gallery has been turned into an arcade of "movie posters," self-portraits of Eagle starring in various fictional films. Painted in a flat, storybook style, they're reprinted on three-feet-by-four-feet sheets of photographic paper.

Eagle is best known for her lurid, malevolently feminine dioramas made of cake icing, which she photographs for display. By contrast, her recent work shows a heavy folk art influence, peppered with kitschy details from the artist's Southern upbringing and romantic travails. The freakish images and faux-folk style of Eagle's movie posters make them look more like advertisements for a carnival than a Hollywood production. The artist paints herself in various states of alienation: as a snail, buried up to her neck in what looks like an anthill and in fancy dress sewn into a jewel-box and surrounded by quotes from former lovers. Eagle really poses not as a movie star, or an unhappy Southern woman, but as an outsider who "naively" monumentalizes her own memory and fantasy. By reinventing herself as an untutored painter, Eagle plans her escape from the shrinking island of contemporary art practice to the bulwark of autobiography.

One finds a welcome levity not in Eagle's posters, but in the workbook This Years Girls, whose pages are displayed in the gallery. The cover sports a portrait of Eagle and Nelle Bell bordered by spring blossoms. Inside is an Amber paper doll, Amber and Nelle Bell word finds (in which readers locate key words from the pair's biographical sketches), and coloring-book drawings featuring Eagle's favorite men. On one page, readers must navigate mazes in order to reach Amber's and Nelle Bell's hearts; this page is bordered with cupcakes, flowers, dollar signs and a T-bone steak, small milagros that are, perhaps, prayerful offerings from earlier suitors. Another "activity" involves a standup Amber head with a choice of supplied "brains." The viewer can fill Amber's cranium with flowers, a lit pink candle, some dubiously bubbly gray matter or a human heart (as in "she thinks with her heart"). This Years Girls clearly enjoys being folky and thoroughly "feminine," down to the tags on the paper-doll outfits that tell where they were bought and how much they cost. It shows how the self is "dressed" (sometimes by others) for various roles. But it stops short of critiquing such roles. Eagle's self is no more than a two-dimensional -- though glamorous -- paper doll.

If Eagle's flowers, hearts and candles are meant to tell us what little girls are made of, then I suppose Krathaus and Coulombe's Signal Corps project is intended to tell us what little boys are made of. In their photographic series, Krathaus and Coulombe borrow the trappings of the Signal Corps, a branch of the U.S. Army that in World War II was in charge of communications, photography, newsreels and propaganda. The artists, dressed in genuine WW II regalia, parody a Signal Corps fact-finding mission that includes visits to strategic coastline spots, a space shuttle liftoff and the Houston Ship Channel. The resulting black-and-white photos are glossy references to classic war photographs by Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa. Each is embossed with the logo of the Signal Corps, the location and the date. This is a media-saturated variation of playing soldier: photographing oneself playing soldier.

In keeping with the Signal Corps' propagandistic intent, the depiction of communication and reportage is far more important than the actual accumulation of data. Only one photo, Beach Head, is a straight documentation of a site. The other pictures show the artists going through the motions of power: performing surveillance, heroically posing in helmets and fatigues or awaiting special orders. The sites the artists have chosen, with their blazing petroleum refineries and sleek spaceships, figure more as locales of real and symbolic capital than key combat defense points. Coulombe and Krathaus are surveying an America that is literally and, one presumes, economically out of their reach. They do not truly own what they "conquer" through surveillance -- in fact, they are subverting notions of conquest and control. But in donning the costumes of an earlier era, the artists lay claim to a faded heroism and authority. They play "let's pretend" with glee, outsiders in their own land and time.

In addition to the photos, Krathaus and Coulombe display the actual costumes they wore, a chest filled with war books and other WW II items. Eagle, for her part, has installed a mannequin wearing her opening night gown along with a photo album of the event. These displays poke fun at the "George Washington slept here," "Jackie O. wore this" brand of historicity. In the case of the Army fatigues, the fact that they're the artists' actual clothes does not authenticate their endeavors as Signal Corps members. Instead, it authenticates their attempts at simulation. In Eagle's case, the gown is residual glamour. In it are the rudimentary beginnings of a debutante party, quietly awaiting "Next Year's Girl."

By its very nature, "Justapose" encourages us to think about male versus female perspectives. But it fails to create any enlightening dialogue between the two. Eagle's project and the Signal Corps project inhabit fantasy territories that share no border or bridge. Though each verges on celebrating, or at least enjoying, stereotypic gender roles, Eagle's feminine and the Signal Corps' masculine are not essential but fictional, not "girl art" and "boy art," but possible girl art and boy art. To apprehend them as comprehensive truth would be to miss the point.

"Justapose: Strategy and Style: Explorations in Fictional Narratives" will show through May 4 at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, 4912 Main, 528-5858.

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Shaila Dewan