Art Papers May/June 1999
Andrea Leckberg & Sherri Wood: The Dainty Show
a review by Woody Holliman for Art Papers
Imagine a tantalizing platter of cream puffs or fruit tarts. Now imagine them stuffed with roofing nails, or laced with battery acid, and you'll be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the seductive, stinging irony of "The Dainty Show," a delightful collection of recent work by local artists Sherri Wood and Andrea Lekberg. Working with the apparently innocent artifacts and rituals of little girls' lives--plastic dolls and doll clothes, pink party dresses, candy wrappers, toy ovens, sewing, cosmetics and crochet--the artists have concocted a politically pointed and darkly funny parody of traditional feminine virtues. Together they explore the social construction of gender, sexual desire and consumerism in women's lives.
Entering this exhibit is like stepping in front of a feminist funhouse mirror, which transforms our familiar stereotype of sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice into something grotesque and altogether unfamiliar. One might even think of it as a Home Ec class gone terribly awry: on one wall we find a row of carefully crocheted, pink and white "Tampon Cozies," (Wood) with telltale string dangling from one end. On the opposite wall, we're confronted with an absurdly monumental, frilly cake in the shape of a vacuum cleaner ("Vacuum Cake," by Lekberg). And nearby, we discover a series of explicit pornographic images of women in which breasts and genitalia have been decorously overlaid with lace embroidery ("Sheer Fantasy," by Wood).
The title of this exhibition alludes not only to the patronizing use of the term 'dainty' as an adjective for women, but also to its more old-fashioned designation of "a choice food or delicacy." Not only the vacuum-cleaner cake, but also a set of doll clothes painstakingly assembled from old candy wrappers, a bizarre series of kitchen aprons, and a set of pastel vinyl carrying cases for a little girl's kitchen set (with a miniature oven, kitchen sink, and refrigerator) make frequent reference to the centrality of food in women's and girls' lives, as they are socialized into their "proper" roles as wives and mothers, and learn to transform even their own bodies into objects of delectation for boyfriends and husbands.
For better or worse, the appropriation of childhood toys and games has practically become its own genre in contemporary art, with the influence of artists such as Mike Kelly and Charles Ray. Perhaps there is a growing consensus among artists that what appear to be the most innocuous artifacts of childhood are in fact the most insidious and influential forms of social control we experience in our lives. In any case, most of the toy-inspired art I've seen revolves around boy toys, so it's refreshing to see an exploration here of female toys and female childhood experience. if it's true, as Freud postulated, that "the child is the father of the man," then it must be equally true that the child is the mother of the woman.
Consider Lekberg's "Ceremonial Dress": a girl's pink dress with clear vinyl pockets sewn on the front for her nail polish, nail files, and fake plastic nails. The plastic nails are molded into an elliptical and unmistakably vaginal configuration, and the artist has strategically situated them in the lower center of the dress to reinforce that association. This overtly sexual reference in an otherwise innocent childhood plaything is unnervingly funny.
Even more unsettling is Lekberg's piece entitled "Girl," a pouty plastic doll dressed in an elaborate and eerily erotic outfit of transparent vinyl clothing. Her vacant stare is not unlike the gaze of a real-life fashion model, and one marvels at the artist's transformation of such and unremarkable plaything into a sexual fetish.
Perhaps the most haunting and enigmatic piece in the exhibition, Lekberg's "Dream" comprises a tiny brass bed mounted to the wall, with a full set of doll clothing arrayed on the wall above. A plastic doll is tucked into the bed with a silver quilt fashioned from the Teflon fabric of an ironing board. Her wardrobe is painstakingly crafted from the same eerie silver fabric, and a tiny doll's wig--also, inexplicably, in silver--hangs from the bedpost. The metallic, flame-resistant, Teflon fabric implies that the doll is being armored, protected from some unknown or unnameable threat. Her ominous repose seems almost more like death than sleep, as if she's been entombed with her favorite outfits.
The appeal of this show can be attributed in part to the artists' exquisite, almost obsessive attention to detail in the creation of each piece. Lekberg and Wood are actually highly skilled in cake decorating and sewing, and some of the other traditionally feminine arts. So each of these pieces is beautifully crafted, even when the reality it points to--social conformity, sexual repression or eating disorders--is decidedly ugly.
Wood's "Fast Food Aprons" are meticulous imitations of aprons she's collected from thrift shops, but the usual fabric has been replaced with wrappers of fast food franchises, emblazoned with their logo-types--as if Mom is no being sponsored (like Michael Jordan) by corporate America. They point, comically but wistfully, to the vanishing role of home-cooked meals and family dinner hours, as the pace of our lives accelerates and more women find it necessary to work outside the home. Women's hard-won access to the capitalist workplace, as "breadwinners" alongside men, is a mixed blessing, because they're still being expected to bake the bread and feed it to the children with little help from the men in their lives.
Clearly, these artists aren't simply ridiculing their mothers' lives, or their role in cooking for, cleaning for, or clothing their families. If anything, they're implying that these women's contributions to society have been systematically ignored or devalued. Their mothers' generation, after all, had to live through the anti-feminist backlash at the end of WWII, when Rosie the Riveter, whose personal strength and economic independence had been a source of national pride during the war, was suddenly considered a liability as the GIs came home and demanded their old jobs back. Women were summarily drummed out of the capitalist workplace and pressured into full-time roles as dutiful wives and mothers. This is the era when male "experts" created the science of Home Economics to enforce that division of labor and inculcate proper feminine virtues in little girls. And that is exactly what we see parodied in this exhibition.
Sheer Fantasy is probably Wood's edgiest piece in this show. A collection of explicit, pornographic photographs of women is overlaid with delicate lace embroidery that obscures their genitalia and breasts, at the same time as its undeniably vulva-like patterns and openings reinforce the sexual nature of that imagery. In a show which is filled mostly with dolls, doll clothes, aprons, and the like, the inclusion of this sexual imagery might seem out of place. But in fact, this entire exhibit is about the socialization of girls into their "proper" roles as full-time wives and mothers, subordinating their own ambitions and desires to service the needs of others-- and that certainly includes the sexual needs of their husbands. What also interests me here is the oblique implication that there is something erotic in the art of embroidery itself, perhaps not too farfetched and idea to expect from an accomplished quilt maker such as Sherri Wood.
Taking the decorative impulse to another unexpected conclusion, Wood has created some of her own doll pieces: "Tattooed Baby Dolls" whose otherwise naked bodies are tattooed with elaborately embroidered homages to military service, Mom, and all the other themes dear to the heart of a drunken sailor. The incongruity of these delicate female dolls and their macho tattoos is like so much else in this exhibition, absurdly funny and thought provoking.
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