Bad Girls: Institute of Contemporary Art London

Review Bad Girls: Institute of Contemporary Art London 7 October - 5 December 1993. Using glamour, virginity and stardom to attract as wide an audience as possible to a show of supposedly anarchic women artists all hoping to confront notions of sexuality and gender was a smart, if questionable, move....

All through Autumn 1993 on every London underground station there appeared bridalised portraits of Catherine Deneuve set against a heavenly blue and cotton wool sky backdrop. The poster read 'BAD GIRLS' (are coming!) and was an advertisement for the Bad Girls season at the ICA.

Using glamour, virginity and stardom to attract as wide an audience as possible to a show of supposedly anarchic confrontational women artists all hoping to confront notions of sexuality and gender was a smart, if questionable move, the shared territory being sex, a sure crowd puller, simultaneously alleviating any fears on the part of the prospective viewer that this was a show produced by an unruly host of unplucked, chip-on-the-shoulder, 'feminist hysterics'. A promise of post-feminist chic made by a group of new and not so new women of confidence and intellect.

On the opening night the crowds flooded in relentlessly, the bar furniture had to be removed and a wild party ensued in the upstairs rooms well into the night.
Everyone loved the poster; it was even offered as a free gift for new membership applications ... but few were mad about the show. In a sense it was the poster that set the show up to fail. Catherine stole centre stage and the work seemed to function as somewhat lumpen props, in a similar way that art in movies (often the derivative work of a final year art student) can appear to be caricatured, dated and a little ridiculous.

Despite this initial disablement several of the artists' works survive on closer examination and the show fulfils something if not all of its promise. To my mind Helen Chadwick and Rachel Evans produced the more interesting and complex work on offer. Chadwick's Loop my Loop is a backlit cibachrome transparency on which a long blond lock of hair forms an extended knot with a pig's intestine. It's as if Catherine spent a dirty weekend on the pig farm and got entangled with an LA performance artist. Unlike much recent work which has aimed to shock, this piece hits you in the gut and the intellect with surprisingly disturbing consequences, conjuring up visions of long haired Titianesque nudes directed by Cronenberg. In Glossolalia laid out on a circular wooden plinth/table are twenty-four tailed furs (one for every hour of the day and night - keep at it darling!) Protruding from the centre is an open topped cone-like edifice made of bronze-cast lambs' tongues. As an absurdly bestial 'hermaphrodite' this piece functions in a similar way to Loop my Loop, arousing and seducing the viewer whilst simultaneously subverting traditional categories of the 'masculine' and the 'feminine'.

Rachel Evans, a younger artist in the show, presented a group of four large drawings from her series of Fantastic Drawings. Each drawing, delicately yet slickly wrought in light pencil marks, pictures the artist with another, once a female, three times a male, in various idealised settings. From the titles we learn their names, Joan, Robin, Robinson and Jesus. The first image we come upon, Fantastic Drawing no. 10 (Joan & I at the gates to Paris leaves us in no doubt that Joan is none other than Joan of Arc. The crop-haired Rachel, clad in jeans and leather jacket, clasps the similarly attired 'Joan' beneath the gates of Paris (in reality the gates to London's Royal Academy) as they each gaze tenderly yet knowingly into each others eyes. There is a similar yet possibly less knowing exchange taking place in the scenes of Rachel with 'Robin Hood', 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Jesus Christ', all presumably drawn from photos of Rachel with her friends. These drawings take us back to the story book and history book s/heroes of our schooldays when the construction of our fantasies and desires had not yet been laid bare on the operating table, when history was History and Literature was just a story at bedtime. There seems to be a vogue for 'infantilism' coursing through the younger London art scene. London's Thatcher generation fed on a diet of 'bad' politics and leftover clichés from the older generation's theory binge seems to be going in for a bit of rebirthing. Evans is doing it more poignantly and intelligently than most.

The four other artists in the show are Nicole Eisenman, Dorothy Cross, Nan Goldin and Sue Williams.

Nicole Eisenman's work is reminiscent of much early '80s new figuration, more specifically the branch of the movement in which women made reconstructions of established male art often 'rewriting' classical mythology.

Eisenman paints directly onto the wall, aiming to recreate the heroic history painting, with women as castrators, killers and revenge seekers, taking their pleasure in destroying 'Picasso's' Minotaur only to produce perfume from its blood à la Paloma (Paloma Picasso's cologne for men, 'Minotaure' is out in the shops), a 'genius' at father exploitation. One cannot help but feel that Eisenman is in turn exploiting Paloma to add spice to an otherwise boringly didactic piece. Eisenman's less 'heroic' pieces in the catalogue appear to resist the one-liner temptation. Mother's Choice shows mother and small son, 1950s style, in the shoe shop with small son trying on mother's shoes in the low level mirror. Mother and the two male assistants look on approvingly whilst the viewer witnesses a humourously distorted re-enactment of the so called mirror stage, the boy seeing only the lower half of his trousers with his feet inserted into his mother's buckled high heels. In this work involving complex flirtations with times innocent of sexual politics, Eisenman, a young artist from the U.S. seems to share something of the sensibility of Evans.

In Dorothy Cross' sculptures cows udders are amalgamated with, in one piece, a dressmaker's dummy, entitled Bust, in which the dummy is partly covered in cowhide and sports four large nipples, whilst in another piece a cow's udder hangs beneath a Victorian silver-plated dish cover; breast feeding or what!? Cross says, "It's about giving the udders another life and of course it's a joke, because in the south of Ireland we mispronounce 'other' because we don't have a soft 'th'. It's an overlap of becoming something 'udder'."

Jan Goldin, an American photographer has spent many years photographing her friends and lovers in varying stages of glamour, breast operations, AIDS, or just at home. Her work has been purposefully snapshot-ish since the 1970s in reaction to the early 70s obsession with technology and as a reaction against formal values in art. Goldin presents an alternative to the family photo album, presenting us with not always 'smiling' shots of the straights, gays and drag queens who have passed through her life over the last few decades. She says "I used to think that I could never lose someone if I photographed them enough. I used photography to stave off loss. But with the recent deaths of so many of my friends I've realised the limits of what can be preserved." This reminds me somewhat of a story related to me by a Japanese friend of how her grandparents used to think that refrigerators kept things fresh forever. Ok, I shouldn't be too cynical, it's a positive accessible project, possibly gaining from its lack of 'smart' conceptualising.

Another American in the show, Sue Williams makes large scrawled cartoonish paintings, a grungy Kruger with a big bone to pick. The catalogue insists that this work is not simply a retrogressive return to early feminist battles, but goes on to advise us of the dangers of assuming these battles to be prematurely won.

On of her works Victim Ranting reads, "I wish in no way to suggest that women are victims. It's just that someone beat the living fuck out of me." In another work Williams invokes the pornography debate (Are you Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn? 1992) using images of horses, arseholes and a lot of text (jokes) to take the piss out of art, intellectuals, men and inevitably the whole debate itself. Spiritual America 1992 is aimed at Richard Prince. The lower half reads, "Every time you tell a joke a feeling dies."

In her humour against sexism approach Williams relentlessly tickles our laughter buds but I've seen a lot of this stuff in the new comic books so why aren't those in the ICA too?
So 'girls' all we can do is get 'worse' or 'better' or maybe talk about something other than sexuality and gender 'cos we do that anyway. What d'ya say?

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