Friday, October 30, 2009

What would mother say?


"It reminds me of the Victorian-era books written for women that cautioned against being enthusiastic in the bedroom, lest their respectable marriages turn into incessant orgies."

Dotty Attie’s What Would Mother Say? opened last night at P•P•O•W Gallery in Chelsea. As the title implies, the painting series has a cautionary tone. In linear fashion, the detailed works depict figures engaged in apparently worrisome behaviour (smoking, overeating, being affectionate with the same sex, playing ‘doctor’ as children, etc.). Each debaucherous act is represented in a set wherein the subject is male and another in which the subject is female. The subjects are initially shown as children, and later as adult variations of themselves, with liberties intentionally taken with likeness. Each has the same rhythm, with the series of images interspersed with smaller painted canvases containing the text “Keep That Up Her/ His Mother Said” followed by “And Who Knows What You Could Become”.

The male figures always get the better deal. Take, for instance, the set about playing with toy guns (Shoot I and Shoot II, both 2009). The male figure becomes a soldier but the female figure becomes a killer who receives the death penalty. The implication is that the mother asks ‘Who Knows What You Could Become’ in an encouraging way to young boys, and in a threatening way to young girls. It would seem that no matter what a young girl does, her sexuality will ultimately define her. Aside from the death penalty image, I think every conclusion of the projected female future ends in nudity, and usually of the scandalous sort. It reminds me of the Victorian-era books written for women that cautioned against being enthusiastic in the bedroom, lest their respectable marriages turn into incessant orgies. The message is that girls and boys/women and men cannot enjoy the same things without the females becoming disgraced. In her artist statement, Attie explains that her definition of feminism involves no barriers to action and no expectations. This exhibition, then, points to the absence of feminism, by highlighting gendered barriers and behavioural expectations.

The artist is only a few years older than my mother, so I was curious to see her perspective. I was curious to know what behaviour could be considered worrisome. In every scenario, the mother holds her hands to her face, expressing concern. In the scenes that follow, which the viewer understands to be in the mother’s imagination, the appropriation of images like Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara embracing situate the artist in my mother’s generation, which brings me inexplicable comfort. The worries of yesteryear seem so much more manageable than the problems my friends and I face.

Another reason that I wanted to see the exhibition was because of potential overlap with my own work. Last year, I had a show called When I Was Just a Little Girl…Que Sera, Sera? which considered how much of female identity is fixed from an early age. Although my work is first and foremost about gender socialization (i.e., girls as passive recipients of gender expectations), the more I read gender theory, the more I think my work may come to address gendered behaviour (i.e., girls actively shaping their gender). I am very interested, for example, in seeing how many little girls are dressed as fairies, ballerinas and princesses for Hallowe’en tomorrow, and how many of their older counterparts choose costumes with as little coverage as possible. I was even thinking of making a tally or buying up discounted girls’ costumes for a series. Keep that up and who knows what I could become?