Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tomboy: Review of the Exhibit

The power and ambiguity of queer visibility
Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago, Nov. 8 – Jan. 7, 2011

Reviewed by Therese Quinn and Erica R. Meiners

A tomboy is brash and fresh and in-between: Not quite adolescent; not yet adult. Both girl and boy, or neither one. “That way” or growing out of it. There is something queerishly unfixed about tomboys, something green and tempting.

Curator Betsy Odom’s succinct exhibit showcases six “queer women artists” exploring “the idea of the tomboy.” Odom’s crucial curatorial statement acknowledges the political power of visibility, but clarifies that these artists “employ identity in intentionally ambiguous, mercurial, and peripheral ways.” They may be lesbians, but this exhibit won’t tell the viewer what that means.

What shines in Tomboy is pleasure and play. In Mary George’s fine The Cult of the Endorphin, the setting is a workshop in which cult leader and members appear to be happily reinventing the wheel, and more, in wood. The shop-slash-natural gym is littered with projects in medias res—clock, speakers, disco ball, and barbells made from tree trunks, along with safety gear, pop bottles and other detritus of delirious labor. A looping video offers infomercials of dancing, jogging and cart-wheeling women exhorting family, friends, and viewers to join; they aim to recruit with the promise that action leads to natural highs.

George’s themes resonate in Daphne Fitzpatrick’s sculptural installation: a growing mound of the artist’s worn out athletic shoes. This witty work, titled Tomboy, conjures sexual and gendered fairy tales (some shoes will never fit) and a butch’s boasts (nobody can fit these shoes). But Fitzpatrick may also be signaling the isolation of identity; only her shoes can make that pile grow. And, like a reversal of Felix Gonzales-Torres’ installations that shrink as viewers take away candy and prints, this sculpture suggests loss: physicality and a youth—her tomboy—that is sliding past.

Nearby, Alison Halter’s What’s so funny? softly grainy video reinforces and challenges the theme of bliss—it captures women laughing; one after another throws her head back, slides into tears, rolls on the floor, covers her mouth and clutches her belly or her face —offering sequential snapshots that name the soft edges between pleasure and pain, and the awkwardness of affect, or how emotions are worn, and “read” by others. Does one woman have a black eye? Is her laughter a lie or is she just toughing it out?

Kelli Connell’s luminescent staged photographs also confound simple readings. Each features a female couple, but every body belongs to the same woman. Is Connell playing with feminist fantasies of easy loving between ladies or encouraging the queer question: Who is tomboy—the woman on top or the one wearing lipstick?

One answer offered to the question—Who is tomboy?—may be unintended: The near-total absence, paired with some uncomfortable presences, of women of color in the exhibit indicate that Tomboy is probably white..

For example, Leeza Meksin’s tactile interactive piece, replete with gendered neoprene bags and mysterious toys is a play party on a wall. A “black mammy” statue in the midst of these sexy utensils, linked by a pulley to an ironing board and a spatula, is a freighted presence. The exhibit insists that identity is performed; the inclusion of the caricature may be an attempted nod in this direction, but it misses the mark.

Irony, play and race also surface in another video by Halter. In Please, Please, Please, a young apparently white woman paints teardrops on her face until it is nearly covered with the marks. Is Halter, as the curator’s statement asserts, “poking fun at the sadness of the [Smith’s] song” someone is singing in the background? Or, is she commenting on our national fascination with black masculine forms—in this case, “gangsta” (teardrop tattoos, see Lil Wayne) and the soul singer (via James Brown‘s 1956 hit, Please, Please, Please)? Perhaps she’s doing both, along with some tomboyish appropriation of her own.

Dana DeGiulio adroitly claims another kind of gendered power: her thick black wall splashes one-up Jackson Pollack. He’s canonical, but she exceeds the canvas and other parameters with painted ejaculations that shout anger, pleasure, and the power of performing artist. This is serious play, and messy.

Vexing and thrilling, Tomboy is worth the bite.

Participating Artists: 
Kelli Connell, Dana DeGiulio, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Mary George, Allison Halter and Leeza Meksin.

Therese Quinn worked as an exhibit researcher, developer, and evaluator for a decade, and is currently Chair and Associate Professor of Art Education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Erica R. Meiners Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, teaches, organizes and writes about LGBTQ lives, justice movements, and prison abolition.