Visual Arts

Girls, Uninterrupted

Several years ago, I was soundly excoriated in the pages of this newspaper by a seriously disaffected letter writer from the arts community. She was incensed about a review I wrote concerning a downtown art gallery event that I found less than, shall we say, aesthetically enriching. In fact, she stated -- and I quote -- "[t]he art criticism in this town is pathetic, boring and childish." I suspect her charge included my art criticism, since elsewhere in the letter she specifically mentioned me by name.

According to the enraged writer, ". . . the art of writing for publications such as New Times . . . is to assist in the public's experience with the art and to help them understand where they can have these art experiences. . . . I challenge the art critics in this town to grow up and really support the arts, not tell us what they think is good or bad art."

The author of this indignant epistle happens to be Sherrie Medina, curator of a newly opened show at 6th Street Studios titled "You STILL Draw Like a Girl." It's a good thing for her that I'm completely impervious to verbal flaying and that I still totally disagree with her sentiments about the function of art criticism. Medina should know that, after all these years, I still criticize like a girl and am damn proud of it. If you want a PR flack, a calendar listings editor or a Chamber of Commerce information officer doing art reviews, I'm not your man.

Don't tell Ms. Medina, but I actually like her current curatorial effort. No, I actually love it. Set in different rooms, including a closet, of a recently renovated, turn-of-the-century house near Sixth Street and Roosevelt in Phoenix's newly energized downtown arts area, "You STILL Draw Like a Girl" is probably one of those seminal breakthrough shows that will be fondly remembered in this city's art history. Structurally, the show has obvious roots in the alternative arts scene of Los Angeles and a Pasadena bungalow/gallery called Bliss that first operated in the late 1980s. However, the art in this show is all Phoenix, though it includes the product of people from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York who have lived and worked here at one time and are irresistibly drawn to return to the scene of their past crimes.

"You STILL Draw" is a sequel to a 1998 exhibition Medina curated called "You Draw Like a Girl," which was limited to the work of female artists from Phoenix. That show was initially inspired by an old Nike commercial, in which two manly basketball players are on court playing one-on-one. From off camera comes a voice: "You throw like a girl." Shock and confusion registers on the players' faces. Ironically, the voice happens to belong to Houston Comets star Cynthia Cooper, voted several times Most Valuable Player of the Year for the Women's National Basketball Association. Once the male players realize who made the scurrilous statement, their defensive posturing melts away, even though a charge of doing anything like a girl usually connotes lack of ability or complete inadequacy in just about every culture on the planet.

Maybe it was vagina envy that prompted a number of male artists to lobby for inclusion in Medina's follow-up show, though I suspect admiration for the show's concept was more likely the motivating factor. Despite its appellation, the resulting exhibition delves into not only the capabilities and inadequacies historically associated with gender and inevitable gender bias, but also -- perhaps more interestingly -- into the very nature and definition of drawing itself. When the work does deign to delve into the yin and yang of sexual stereotyping, it does so not in the beat-'em-over-the-head, politically correct fashion of mid-'90s multiculturalism, but rather with a boundary-blurring inquisitorial spirit that asks more questions than it answers.

For example, in a collage piece, Darren Lewis straightforwardly draws himself in a tutu and appears in draggy raiment in another image. Yet another "drawing" is executed in snippets of gray duct tape while a pen-and-ink drawing features legendary Marge Simpson of The Simpsons animated cartoon series with a specially minted coin that loftily proclaims: "I will iron your sheets when you iron out the inequities in your labor laws." What is male or female, drawing or not drawing, art or not art, high art or pop culture, lofty idealism or simple smack-talking becomes muddled in Lewis' engaging work.

Gregory Sale's America's Telemarketers Think I Am a Girl revolves around funny hand-printed conversations the artist has had with telephone solicitors, who invariably think Sale, a male, is the lady of the house. Voice prints of these conversations, rendered in washy, blood-red watercolor, are threaded throughout written conversation panels, which easily provoke chuckles. The piece also brings to mind thoughts of the languishing National Do Not Call Registry recently held to be unconstitutional by a couple of rogue federal courts. Not to be outdone, Jon Haddock offers a three-part, digitally created cartoon panel, one image of which is titled You Die Like a Girl. Part of his continuing series on violence depicted through the seeming innocence of cartoons, these pieces are based on famous cases involving the brutal murders of transvestites. Haddock's creepy imagery of females shot through with holes and lying in puddles of blood, drawn in 1930s Minnie Mouse fashion, underscores the brutal fact that acting like a girl sometimes can get you killed.

Medina's show is also very much about collaboration among artists and the importance of constructive criticism that forces an artist to literally go back to the drawing board and approach a well-worn subject in a fresh new way (gee, sort of sounds like the aim of valid art criticism, but I digress). Painter Sue Chenoweth's painting/drawings are a perfect example of the power of appropriate criticism. Known for her visually complex, multilayered paintings that roil with competing ideas, Chenoweth was prodded by a preshow critique rendered by Gregory Sale, who encouraged her to sort through her teeming thoughts and concentrate on just a few. The four paintings Chenoweth produced with Sale's criticism in mind are nothing short of exceptional.

The elasticity involved in the very concept of drawing is brought home by the work of several performance artists in the show, who have given a literal twist to the making of drawings. For Los Angeles-based Angela Ellsworth, drawing can embrace mark-making with one's toes, as she did in 469 Kicks. Ellsworth's methodology consisted of dipping the toes of her combat boots into powdered charcoal and, Tae Bo style, vigorously kicking heavily pearlized paper she affixed to the wall of her apartment -- much to the chagrin of her upscale neighbors, who became impatient with her wall banging when they discovered that she wasn't building something functional and was merely making art. The artist also "drew" portraits of friends by sewing their images in black thread on fragile paper napkins (a not-so-subtle reference to the traditional housewifely chore of cooking and feeding), without benefit of any preparatory drawings.

Another performance artist, Mary Kay Zeeb, took more than conceptual risks in Droppings ("I don't draw," the artist admits, "but I'm really good at drawing people out"). During a visit to New York, she left photocopies of her own headshot in random places in Manhattan, printed with the invitation to "draw on me and return to me." To date, four people have responded, and one explained that it was against his upbringing to mar or deface photos of people, though his heavy scrawling on the back of Zeeb's photo ended up embossing her face. Ryan McNamara, a native Phoenician now living and working in New York City, collaborated with unknowing bar patrons who dared to illegally dance with him in several bars there (legally speaking, dudes can't dance in Big Apple dives without getting a ticket), creating Excuse Me While I Bump Your Holster With My Illegal Dancing. McNamara had strategically placed gun targets on the floor, which became randomly scuffed and "drawn" upon as the artist and participating cohorts boogied away.

As usual, teeming hordes of art types and fashionistas showed up for the opening of "You STILL Draw Like a Girl," cramming 6th Street Studios to party and preen rather than look at the art. I'd suggest everyone return to actually take a real look at what's on the walls, not at the people in attendance. By the way, when good art like that appearing in Medina's exhibition is available, why, oh why, should I have to tolerate or encourage the bad stuff?

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Kathleen Vanesian