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‘Babes’ Aims to Demystify Expectations of Women

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Babes,” a canny group show at Mark Moore Gallery, features the work of six artists, each of whom playfully deconstructs the so-called feminine mystique. They present us with images of women whose physical attributes are as excessive as they are patently artificial.

David Levinthal’s vaguely menacing photograph of Mattel’s Barbie doll (the classic uber-babe) wearing a fluffy white wedding gown is placed alongside several other Levinthal images of nude plastic figurines (a headless, naked dolly brandishing a whip is particularly creepy). These glossy, disturbing images hint at desires that are far less wholesome than Barbie’s clean-cut lifestyle would allow.

Lutz Bacher’s deadpan replicas of Alberto Vargas’ naughty Esquire pinups from the 1940s up the ante, albeit only slightly, on the airbrushed Varga Girl’s artful combination of sexual provocativeness and girl-next-door winsomeness. Unlike Vargas’ speechless sexpots, Bacher’s babes are given something salacious to say. But her flawless remakes are a bit too seamless; it’s difficult to determine how (or even if) Bacher wants us to reconsider Vargas’ original works, or if, instead, she’s simply making a bid for their inclusion in the “bad-girl” art pantheon.

Ironically, two cheesecake classics by Mel Ramos--a blond seen through a keyhole and another leggy bombshell folded into a martini glass--succeed where Bacher fails. Although efforts to reposition this much maligned Pop painter as some sort of swingin’ proto-feminist are dubious at best, Ramos’ matter-of-fact juxtaposition of nude females with brand-name fruits, appliances and various commodities reminds us that most of the other Pop artists were unable (or simply unwilling) to think through women’s complex relationship to mass-media culture in anything more than passing terms.

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Mark Bennett’s sly series of collages satirize the plight of a fictional suburban housewife experiencing the triumphs and travails of Ford automobile ownership. Bennett picks up where the Pop artists left off, expertly skewering the conventions of 1950s advertising while laying bare the frustrations and perceived inadequacies that fueled an entire culture’s consumer fantasies.

Bookending this smart, sassy show are Andy Warhol’s portraits of Jackie Kennedy, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and Queen Ntombi of Swaziland. These regal women engage in fruitful dialogue with Catherine Opie’s large-scale Cibachrome photographs of well-known L.A. drag queens Vaginal Davis, Divinity Fudge and Justin Bond.

Opie democratizes “babedom” by demonstrating that, with a little attitude and the right costume jewelry, a person of any size, shape, color or gender can be absolutely fabulous. These cross-gendered babes are the real deal: They take what they’ve got, improvise the rest and flaunt the whole package for all it’s worth.

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* Mark Moore Gallery, 2032-A Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-3031, through Aug. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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