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Review: '#sweetjane' fuses art, a horrific crime to powerful effect

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"#sweetjane," the newest group of drawings, video and installations by artist Andrea Bowers, takes as its emotionally wrenching subject a widely reported 2012 news story. A drunken 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, was raped after a raucous party by two high school football players not much older than she.

Like Théodore Géricault grappling with the scandalous news stories of government malfeasance in the deadly shipwreck of the Medusa in 19th century France, Bowers' art has often merged piercing insight about current events with social activism. She continues that fusion here, to impressive effect.

The show is presented in two parts, one at Pomona College Museum of Art and the other at Pitzer College Art Galleries, both in Claremont. (It was organized by Rebecca McGrew and Ciara Ennis, Pomona and Pitzer curators respectively.) The school location is a pointed reflection of the subject's awful events.

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The title "#sweetjane" is similarly incisive. The hashtag format indicates the prominence of social media in the notorious Steubenville story, as well as to Bowers' consideration of it in her work. That's a digital distinction that an artist like Géricault, painting at the dawn of the mechanical newspaper age, could hardly imagine.

One reason Bowers' art gets under your skin in ways that socially minded work doesn't always do is that it is so conspicuously thought-through. You trust the artist as a guide through tangled thickets.

Take something as simple as the lighting for the Pomona installation. Inside the gallery's typical white cube, the light bulbs overhead are blue and red. Given this conspicuously red-white-and-blue space, outfitted with a loveseat where a visitor can sit passively to watch, an all-American environment is constructed.

The blue lights bathe one end of the room in the implied glow of a television set. The avalanche of broadcast and cable news coverage of the event ranged from factual and straightforward to sensationalized and inept.

The red lights at the other end add a lurid element. They also recall the nickname of Steubenville's pride and joy — the high school football team, Big Red.

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Bower's video, projected big under the blue lights on a wall, is a collage of news media snippets, both local and national. These are intercut with her own melancholic images, shot in the wintry Rust Belt town amid snow flurries. The gruesome story of the rape, including its context and the aftermath, is long and complicated, with countless twists and turns. But Bowers recounts it simply as a sketch, in the most general way.

A terrible crime was committed. Kids bragged about it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and in dozens of cellphone messages. Adults almost swept it under the rug. Protests arose. Social media was soon overtaken by mass media. Following a trial, the two perpetrators were remanded to juvenile detention.

The economy of Bowers' recitation of the story indicates that judgment about the horrific crime is not her goal. That would be grandiose, because what response other than sorrow, disgust and the need for justice could be defended?

Instead, "#sweetjane" goes deeper. The work juxtaposes — and thus helps to clarify — the strange, muddling contradictions now so commonplace in our digital media landscape.

For example, when it looked like the crime might go unexamined by authorities, the anti-establishment hacker collective Anonymous inserted itself into the proceedings. Bowers has printed three photographs of Anonymous members, their faces shielded by Guy Fawkes masks, on large tarps that ring the room.

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They function as a pictorial reference to social conscience. Anonymous is like a Greek chorus, commenting on the unfolding action of a drama of awful foolishness between ostensible gods and mortals.

Their anonymity becomes especially striking when juxtaposed with celebrity, today's coin of the realm. One blast of stardom is especially egregious.

A video clip from a local news show about the rape identifies Steubenville as a place with a history of sex-and-scandal notoriety. The town, we are informed, is the birthplace of celebrities Dean Martin and Traci Lords, one a boozy lounge-lizard and the other an actress who got her start in pornography.

The bizarre, irrelevant news clip goes by quickly, although Lords is subsequently interviewed about the rape on CNN by celebrity chat-show host Piers Morgan. (She acquits herself well.) But it packs a wallop at least as big as the infamous one that followed the reading of the court verdicts: CNN reporters lamented the lost promise of the two convicted young men, while their victim went unmentioned.

The tensions between anonymity and fame, privacy and publicity also escalate in a story where social media is pivotal, making the Steubenville rape a microcosm of larger forces in modern American society. Presumptions of what is private and what is public get turned upside down and inside out. In the Pitzer installation, which is best seen after the nearby one at Pomona, those conflicted presumptions blanket the gallery.

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The Broad Center's small, tall Nichols Gallery is lined with 56 large text drawings pinned in vertical rows on three walls. The fourth wall holds a small, meticulous drawing in colored pencil of Anonymous activists, each holding a public protest sign aloft.

The larger texts are transcriptions of digital messages written by participants and associates during the rape and in the days after. It's a paperless trail, which was retrieved from cellphones and tablets and submitted as evidence during the trial.

Bowers restores paper to the trail. She presents the digital text as negative space floating within vigorously hatched clouds, rendered with felt-tip pens in bruised colors of deep blue, turquoise and purple ink.

The formal technique is simple (if painstaking to produce), but remarkably effective. Her analog mark-making adds material weight and emphatic presence to a shocking and elusive digital narrative, which includes a text-message conversation between one of the pleading, dissembling rapists and his dazed and increasingly horrified victim.

The victim, identified throughout only as Jane Doe, was first violated in the flesh, then on social media and finally in the press. Drawing, emphasized in the gestural scrawls that Bower employs, is the artistic medium most powerfully propelled by intimate touch.

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That resonates, quietly yet powerfully, with the subject of sexual violence — not to mention with the abstractions of media violence, whether of the social or corporate variety.

As she often does, Bowers accompanies the exhibition with a table of take-away pamphlets and fliers on social services related to the wrenching theme. On the mezzanine at Nichols, she has also lined a wall with pages copied from a published guide to issues related to sex and gender produced for students by Skidmore College. She alternates the pages with sheets of reflective Mylar.

Seeing your blurred reflection while scanning the text illuminates its personal consequence and ambiguities. That's exactly what the assembled inquiries need.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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Andrea Bowers: '#sweetjane'

Where: Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Way, Claremont and Nichols Gallery, Pitzer College, 1050 N. Mills Ave., Claremont

When: At Pomona College of Art: Through April 13; closed Mondays. At Pitzer, through March 28. Closed Saturdays through Mondays.

Contact: Pomona: (909) 621-8283, http://www.pomona.edu/museum. Pitzer: (909) 607-8797, http://www.pitzer.edu/galleries

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