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She's So Cold

But She's Beautiful--And Hopefully That's Enough In New Survey Of Contemporary Photography

LEG WORK: Katy Grannan's "Dee, Red Hook, NY"

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 10/4/2006

Girls' Night Out

At the Contemporary Museum through Nov. 26

If you came of age in the 1970s, weaned on neonatal feminism, you might find Girls’ Night Out, the Contemporary Museum’s current traveling show, disappointing if fashionable, even after undergoing an explanation. What undermines it is not the witty implication that the "girls" are getting together to act up and out, to go wherever they wish, but that it’s still an occasional event. The exhibition’s kitschy introductory image hustles up a complementary effect: a pretty blond nymph in a diaphanous, wet, and clinging frock. The photo was perhaps smartly selected to appeal to many drives and sensibilities--who might want to come for exposure to some of the emerging and established names in photography represented within: Dorit Cypis, Sarah Jones, Rineke Dijkstra, Kelly Nipper, Salla Tykka, Shirana Shahbazi, Katy Grannan, Elina Brotherus, and Daniela Rossell make up an admirably international list.

Contemporary Museum director and exhibition co-curator Irene Hofmann (with Elizabeth Armstrong, the deputy director of programs and chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art) writes in a press release that "the artists in the show focus on girls and women in self-conscious and transcendent moments irrespective of political correctness." The problems start if you don’t find Daniela Rossell’s blond nymph from her "Ricas y famosas" series--the show’s motif shot--transcendent: She is resplendent in blue gauze, and perched on a rooftop above a valley landscape. You could say that she is atmospherically transcendent--location, location, location--but compared to, say, Caspar David Friedrich’s lone man facing the challenge of his destiny, she looks like she’s arrayed for a fashion shoot or just self-determining enough for an adventurous lay.

Before knowing of feminism, I remember reading dark, desperate, dramatic novels like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and various D.H. Lawrence novels, shut away in my teenage bedroom. Even though it might ultimately mean throwing oneself in front of a train for closure, the masculine version of the femme-fatale role was the most available fantasy. Subsequent generations of girls may still dream that way, and this exhibition is, perhaps, for them. The show may further serve to point out that feminism is an incremental illumination--sort of like Buddhism.

Feminism must be a hierarchical doctrine that each generation grows to comprehend as its members move through their lives, rather than a seminal past episode that altered society. The argument that some of Rossell’s well-heeled or Katy Grannan’s blue-collar models can bypass object-hood is that they or another woman set up the pose and scenario and snapped the shot--a scenario that supposedly imbues the women with sexual power and autonomy that they wouldn’t have had if a man created them. If the pose remains seductive, that means that any lechery or absence of control exists not in the pose or the image but in the tricky environments in which they were made. Yes, it’s supposed to--given how much we rely on didacticism to discern art--but I’m skeptical that this exercise needs to go on and on, or that it plays out as some breakthrough in these particular images.

Instead, think of Girls’ Night Out as a teaching show on portraiture--self and other--rather than a curatorial tour de force. Most of the included images are iconic; one character dominates the scene, surrounded by a contrived backdrop. These environments and props are primarily what provide panorama to the show.

The show’s accompanying press materials claim that the determinant character of each photograph’s model is identified as powerful and affirmative, but you still long for some dramatic range. Most human emotion--joy, effort, fury, fear, deceit, even passion, such as Robert Doisneau, James VanDerZee, Margaret Burke-White, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Sally Mann have evinced in their turn--has been fundamentally avoided or omitted in the selected works. The models confront their viewers, almost without exception, with a solemn, inward, waiting demeanor.

To be fair, there is evidence of vulnerability and unease among the teenagers, as in Rineke Dijkstra’s hypnotic video of punkers isolated from one another and grooving uncomfortably for her camera in "The Buzz Club." And more, still, in Sarah Jones’ pensive, poignant studies of teen girls, or in the works of Elina Brotherus--who is the real exception with her vivid, touchingly defenseless self-portraits.

But throughout the glossy large-scale C-prints and videos, the collective mood of the assembled portraits is bored sexual brashness, introspective sadness, ill-at-ease awkwardness, or passive stillness of the ancestral sort--from back when portraits took a really long time to pull off. This ambiance might not negatively affect the exhibition’s results, except that it comes across as the only cerebral taste bud being stimulated. Does either modern feminism or modern photography really demand only candid pathos of their girls? If you don’t throw yourself at emotion, perhaps you are spared the train wheels--but is that transcendence?

There are a couple of psychologically stunning gems in the show. Jones’ "The Spare Room" is a wonderfully Freudian work. Two pubescent girls sit across from one another on two mismatched beds. The thin chenille bedspread covering the right bed drapes over a couple of low foot posts. In all the austere primness of this guest room furnished in castoffs, where a phallic suggestion would be an unthinkable embarrassment, Jones manages to create a piece that is so much more about latent sexuality than other more promiscuous interpretations of the subject.

Another succulent offering, found in the rear video theater, is Salla Tykka’s "Thriller," which follows more along the fairy-tale theories of Bruno Bettelheim. Chances are good that you will walk into the middle of this mysterious looped story, which was shot in a chilly Nordic birch forest. The accompanying disorientation of finding yourself lost in the woods actually exacerbates the story’s mood, placing you in the same state of gradually waning bewilderment as the on-screen young girl, who comes into her own sexuality amid the strange, complex activities of fathers and sheep. The mythological profundity of Tykka’s film comes from its ability to unveil the plot as the young girl herself pulls at its cord. But "Thriller," too, is essentially emotionless and passive--except for whatever instantaneous instinct it takes to pull a trigger. The girl survives, perhaps to later stare with languor into a camera.

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