514 West 24th Street
January 12–February 25
by Johanna Fateman
In the neon pink zine-catalogue produced for this group show, curator Amy Smith-Stewart describes a heightened cultural hostility to women’s bodies fostered by contemporary mass media that traffic in “unattainable avatars” of femininity. Celebrity culture, reality television, and social networking are her particular culprits, and with “Campaign” she rallies against their imagemaking monopoly. But if the artists don’t present an alternative propaganda front, as the exhibition’s tongue-in-cheek title suggests they might, their disunited, often humorous challenges to “our prevailing depictions of women” still add up to an exciting chaos of dissent. Beyond the works’ common strategies (largely appropriation and collage) and recurring themes (fashion, porn, tabloid stars, and the nude), they reveal other surprising threads of camaraderie.
Kathe Burkhart’s Liz Taylor paintings are a perverse homage to misogynist projection. In Beaver: From the Liz Taylor Series (publicity shot) (all works cited, 2011), a deck of strip-poker playing cards silhouette the flatly painted Hollywood icon, and a shaggy length of fake fur, affixed as Taylor’s stole, underscores the obscenity of the red text that bisects the canvas like a protest sign: BEAVER. Burkhart’s painting shares a corner with a like-mindedly antivirtuosic, but quieter, piece by Amy Wilson. Reminiscent of a strange school project, Fashion for Co-Joined Twins is an expository text about the confluence of fashion and fascism beginning with the Nazi occupation of Paris, penciled on a series of brown kraft paper pages and illustrated with embroidered figures clothed in surreal designs for the conjoined. These works shine as stylistic oddities even among this very diverse gathering of work.
Jill Magid’s From a Distance You Don’t Look Anything like a Friend also sticks out—as a nonfigurative installation piece (a passage of appropriated text is impressed into the gallery’s drywall alongside an inverted neon arc), but also as a more oblique contribution to Smith-Stewart’s activist aims regarding “this world of interchangeable, digitally manipulated homogenous girls.” Magid takes her text from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s influential 2009 book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Online controversies surrounding law enforcement protocol, combat-based video games, and post-traumatic stress disorder populate the Internet rabbit hole of further research on Grossman’s ideas about desensitization and conditioned killing—perhaps an appropriate, if disturbing, maze to find oneself in when considering this show’s ultimate concern with the exposure and disruption of dehumanization in our particular moment of new media immersion.
Image: Jill Magid, From a Distance You Don't Look Anything like a Friend, 2011, letterpress, neon, dimensions variable. Installation view.