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ART REVIEW : ‘Bad Girls’: Feminism on Wry : Tone Bemusedly Subversive in West Coast Edition of N.Y. Show

TIMES ART CRITIC

“Bad Girls West” is a good show because it acknowledges the continuing significance of a pivotal dynamic that has operated within contemporary art for a quarter-century. But it’s not a great show because it seems unsure of--or perhaps just unconvincing about--how that dynamic currently functions.

The dynamic is feminist. The current artistic mode of feminism is said by the show’s curators to be marked by a playfully subversive sense of humor. If there’s a feminist anthem celebrated here it’s “Girls just wanna have fun,” Cyndi Lauper’s joyous hit from several years back.

The exhibition, which is at UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery through March 20, is a West Coast version of “Bad Girls,” organized by Marcia Tucker and currently on view at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. The independent UCLA edition, assembled by San Francisco-based curator Marcia Tanner, includes 41 artists, many from California. Videotapes by another two dozen artists are also being shown.

“Bad Girls West” is light and lively, and some of the work is in fact hilarious. At the entrance, Erika Rothenberg has set up a table soliciting donations for “America’s largest oppressed minority"--yes, men, who make up only 48% of the population, but whose homeless numbers surpass women 10 to 1; who commit suicide at a much higher rate than women; who are required to expose their breasts when wearing a bathing suit, and more.

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Lauren Lesko has upholstered a Freudian psychoanalyst’s couch in cuddly black lambskin, wickedly shaved into a traditional poodle cut; the loony recliner rests delicately atop a red-brocade Victorian pillow. Lesko makes sly buffoonery of the Viennese doctor’s convoluted sexual take on women as man’s (subservient) best friend, while subtly recalling all those erotically available odalisques who populate Western art from Titian to Manet.

The show includes weak one-liners, too, such as Rachel Lachowicz’s small reinterpretations of Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal, which she has cast from lipstick and returned to the wall. “Boy art” made with “girl material” just doesn’t resonate much.

Whatever laughs might be had, the curatorial insistence that recent art with a feminist core is characterized by how funny it is isn’t really matched by the work in the show. You might groan at the corniness of Nancy Dwyer’s “Big Ego,” which spells out ego in huge letters made from inflated nylon--rather like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade float--but funny isn’t the right word.

Nor is there anything particularly hilarious about Laura Aquilar’s documentary photographs, which are dour self-portraits, or in Jeanne Dunning’s remarkable, thin sheets of flesh-colored latex, each with a simulated mole or tuft of hair, which likewise examine supposed physical “flaws.”

One person’s pratfall is, of course, another’s bodily injury. Yet the mood of the show is more wry than funny. The bemused tone doesn’t seem to represent an effort to reform the dismissive stereotype of feminism as “shrill” or “aggressive” or “hostile.” Thankfully, this isn’t art designed to catch more flies with honey. Rather, like Cyndi Lauper’s song, it suggests the degree to which art, including feminist art, has merged with entertainment.

A curatorial focus on artistic humor takes advantage of a central function of entertainment, which is to speak to and reinforce a sense of commonality within the audience. The pervasive tone of wry bemusement in the show comes from recognizing and acknowledging a kindred spirit. Being a “bad girl” turns out to be a way of being a “good girl.”

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Being a bad girl also turns out to be a way of being a good boy, as evidenced by the work of Ken Aptekar, Charles Gute, Manuel Pardo and, especially, Jerome Caja. Caja’s wonderfully eccentric little genre paintings made with eyeliner and nail polish rather than oil paint unburden the pompous load carried by Lachowicz’s grave lessons of art history. For feminism has not just had an impact on artists who are women, while questions of gender aren’t merely determined by biology.

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Several other artists are shown to good effect. Among them is Kim Dingle, whose raucous paintings of wild little girls, all dressed up in crinolines and patent leather shoes, replace decorum with a head-spinning mix of joy, terror, violence and play.

Judie Bamber’s drawings of female vampires and Playboy magazine sex-kittens meld surgical precision with lacerating insight, while Megan Williams’ dreamy pastels are part nightmare, part wet-dream. And Marlene McCarty’s blunt descriptions of sex and sexuality are made from heat-transfer patches applied to canvas--a sly merger of ironing and painting.

Two installations are notable. Jean Lowe uses the frothy conventions of Rococo decoration to gussie up a room full of blunt pictures wittily devoted to animal husbandry down on the farm (no Marie Antoinette with a porcelain milk-pail here). And Theresa Pendlebury and her alter ego, Jane McElheney, have furnished a Victorian drawing-room entirely in life-draining black; it’s funereal quality is oddly matched by a liberating sense of having created a blank slate.

Perhaps the simplest of the show’s most compelling works are Lesko’s fur collars from coats or dresses, which are placed high in the corners of several galleries. Titled “Lips,” they are both serious homage and satirical retort to the search for a purely female imagery, which characteristically centered on the vagina in first-generation feminist art of the late-1960s and 1970s.

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High in the corners, Lesko’s furry sculptures metaphorically transform the enclosing walls of the gallery into spreading legs, defining the environment in which both visitors and works of art mingle. Her work knowingly asserts that, in the United States, the arts have long been perceived as a feminine rather than a masculine arena.

The feminization of American culture, which dates to the 19th Century, has had complex consequences for artists. In part it has meant that, in a culture that also devalues women, significant art practically demands to be hyper-masculine. If it’s not, it’s tainted.

What does this mean for women who make art? What does it mean for male artists who are gay, and who are devalued by our culture because they are seen to be “like women,” or for lesbians, who are not surprisingly made invisible?

And, as Rothenberg might wonder, what does it mean for any man who makes art?

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Lesko’s work, like “Bad Girls West” in general, keeps these crucial questions front and center. It’s worth doing, because the answers are no joke.

* Wight Art Gallery, UCLA, (310) 825-9345, through March 20. Closed Mondays.


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