Local curator Jill Larson invited 10 women from around the country to create art about girl bullying. The resulting exhibition, Mean Girls, at Space Gallery, includes works in various media from painting and drawing to video and performance, all meant to cultivate discussion and build awareness about bullying among young American women.
Having once been a girl, I know how mean they can be. Cruelty, manipulation, backstabbing, physical and mental abuse ... and that was before lunch period. I try to look back in humor, but make no mistake: Girls can be twisted. And if seeing this often-downplayed side of girls expressed as art was an intriguing prospect, I still felt I had to keep my guard up.
Sonja Sweterlitsch's "We Are Not You" features three life-sized paintings of blonde ladies in white gowns. Reminiscent of classical portraiture, the figures are heroically posed and back-dropped in lush, textured gold. Their expressions and posturing are neither confrontational nor chaste, but aloof. In the context of Mean Girls theme, I feel irritated, not awed, by the ease with which my eyes trace down their long bodies, admiring their airy purity. The paintings are positioned against the gallery's backmost wall: They anchor the entire show, lending them an off-putting authority. The gallery's own "mean girls," I presume?
Similarly, Julia Cannon's untitled grid of 24 drawings of pretty faces suggests that Cannon has a quiet obsession with beauty. Each belabored pout and delicate doe-eyed look is a meditation of remuddled "perfection." To Sweterlitsch and Cannon, idealism and beauty become their nemesis, a figurative bully.
Vanessa German evokes quite a contrast with her three found-object statuettes. African masks are surrounded by meticulously arranged natural and man-made objects, giving each sculpture a tenderly crafted identity. Triangularly arranged with their backs to each other, they seem to guard the space between them, while simultaneously exposing their "guts." Too sentimental to be aggressive, these bodies instead become sources of both sacredness and defense; they are protective and protecting.
In "Do the Left/Right Thing," a two-channel video, Jenn Gooch delivers a victorious counterblow. On the left, dressed as pro boxer wearing headphones, Gooch punches the viewer head-on while whimpering, inaudibly through a frothy mouthguard, lyrics from Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." On the right: a re-enactment of the opening to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) featuring dancing Fly Girl Rosie Perez. Gooch sardonically captures Perez with clumsy but unrelenting accuracy. I laugh at her as bullying thoughts compulsively, if momentarily, control my mind. Gooch slyly transforms her viewers into bullies. But I get hypnotized. Her self-awareness starts to make way for genuine effort. With each pelvic thrust, each "Roger Rabbit" attempted in her primary-color bodysuit, she gets better, stronger, funnier. I was punched a good 100 times before I finally walked away.
Traci Molloy's photo diptych "Bullycide: Girls" and "Bullycide: Boys" functions like a memorial to those who have committed suicide as a result of bullying. The two large ghost-like faces are a composite of the victims' portraits forming indeterminate identities, one male, the other female. The intended anonymity creates a dramatic confrontation that is further intensified by how the name and age of each victim is physically cut away — subtracted — from the portrait. It's painful to see the ages, one as young as 9.
Other Mean Girls artists include Alison Stehlik, Andrea Sherrill Evans, Barbara Schreiber, Marian Barber and Randie Snow. The exhibition's interactive sculpture (untitled and uncredited) invites us to share our own bully stories. On two six-foot-tall cutouts in the shape of the universal "girl" symbol, we are asked to write our experiences in Sharpie: the bullied on one form, the bullies on the other. I would think most visitors would write on both.
After contributing my stories, I step back to read of my past crimes and victimhood and those of others. One statement reads simply: "Bullies are bullied too." This confession reveals something important: Mean Girls places most, if not all, of its focus on victimhood. Since bullying is commonly about power, aggression and pain, I wonder what the art of a bully would tell us.
Art is capable of ripping apart sanitized, newsbite-worthy stereotypes to expose how ugliness, like bullying, is constructed and perpetuated. Mean Girls definitely takes us in the right direction by showing how some women experience bullying while calling attention to the issue. Although virtuous and pensive, Mean Girls is too shy about taking us down the dark alley that can rattle us into passionate discord. On the other hand, perhaps I came ready to fight when I should have come prepared to listen.