Julie Zando, Abigail Child, G.B. Jones, Lutz Baker, Sue Williams and Nan Goldin
Curated by: Shonagh Adelman
10 March 1994 - 2 April 1994
Opening Reception 10 March 1994 8pm
Project Room Series:
April 7 – April 30, 1994
Girrly Pictures 2
Catalogue: Girrly Pictures
June 23 – July 30, 1994
Girrly Pictures 3
Lorna Boschman and Kiss + Tell
Catalogue: Girrly Pictures
September 17 – October 29, 1994
Girrly Pictures 4
Catalogue: Girrly Pictures
November 5 – December 22, 1994
Girrly Pictures 5
G.B. Jones and A.K. Summers
Drawings and Videotapes
Canadian and American Artists
Catalogue: Girrly Pictures
Girrly Pictures is a series of five exhibitions curated by Shonagh Adelman. The first exhibition of video tapes by Abigail Child and Julie Zando, opens on Thursday March 10 and continues through April 3, 1994.
Girrly Pictures explores sexuality and aggression. The artists – Julie Zando, Abigail Child, G.B. Jones, Lutz Baker, Sue Williams and Nan Goldin — use a range of aesthetic and formal techniques to draw out the intersection of power and sexuality. The first exhibition features Julie Zando’s most recent videotape, Uh,Oh! (1994) and two films by Abigail Child, Mayhem (1987) and Covert Action(1984). In all three works, seduction is a site of pleasure, danger and potential loss.
Uh,Oh! is a love story that takes the classic text, The Story of O, as its point of departure. An all female cast of cowboys stage sadomasochistic rituals in the basement of a diner. The waitress, Oh, played by Emanuela Villorini, falls in love with a cowboy, played by poet, Eileen Myles. Their ensuing love story is inflected by sexual and spiritual submission. The tape, like the novel, suggests that submission is the ultimate expression of romantic love and that this love generates a dangerous loss of ego which, in turn, evolves into spiritual ecstasy.
Covert Action and Mayhem are parts four and six in a seven part “detachable” series entitled Is This What You Were Born For? Child describes part four of this series as an examination of “the erotic behind the social.” Restaging the apparently innocuous gestures found in early silent film and home movie footage, Covert Action uses montage and repetition to string together a history without the story –a history sedemented in “fragments of memory” and preserved in the home movie archive. Inspired by de Sade’s Justine, Mayhem uses conventions of film noir to reveal the workings of narrative suspense and pleasure. Key lighting, dramatic sound and other film noir motifs of conjure the well worn chain of events–erotic and violent–and then confound expectations.
The fifth exhibition in the Girrly Pictures series features A.K. Summers’ video installation Topless, Dickless, Clueless and a selection of drawings and recent video by G.B. Jones, The Yo Yo Gang.
Toronto artist G.B. Jones’ drawings have been exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe. However, with the exception of an exhibition in Xtra magazine’s X-Tra Space, in 1989, the only place where Canadian audiences have had the opportunity to see these Tom Girl drawings has been through the homocore zine scene, in particular, J.D.’sco-founded and co-edited by Jones and Bruce la Bruce. This is the first “home town” gallery exhibit of Jone’s drawings. Having accrued the title “Jack-of all-punk-trades”–zine producer, visual artist, video and fllmmaker — she is also band Fifth Column’s self appointed “dyke from hell.”
Jones’ 1992 video, The Yo Yo Gang, stars a girl-gang who use yo-yos for entertainment and self-defense. Likewise, her drawings, many of them directly modeled on those of gay male pornographer Tom of Finland, depict the irreverence of punk crossed with homo subculture. Employing punk and S/M narrative motifs — leather, uniforms, motorcycles and prison scenes — these awkwardly rendered drawings of Iesbian sex in public places refashion erotic scenarios generally associated with gay male culture situating Jone’s work within the “sex radical” camp of current feminist sex debates.
Similarly, butch/femme role playing, S/M scenes and sex toys populate A.K. Summers’ black and white graphic animation. Topless, Dickless, Clueless borrows from characters Summers has developed in her comic strips, self published as a series of small format books titled Negativa. The main character, “a bald-headed butch top libra,” in hot pursuit of her femme counterpart, through lesbian bars, psychedelic backdrops and cityscapes, unwittingly falls into the lair of a telemarketing campaign out to conquer the “last frontier” — pussylickers. Playing with a range of ironies, Summers’ comic animation uses repetition and conventional cartoon sound motifs to spoof subcultural dyke life, satirizing dichotomies and inverting the constitution of absences (negativa)–topless, dickless, clueless.
Given the controversial place of power play within sexual fantasy in feminist discussions of sexuality and the current heightened juridical stakes of this pairing of sex and power– following on the heels of the Eli Langer trial and the demise of the exhibition of Lutz Bacher’s work, during the on-going Little Sisters trial in Vancouver–this work presents a timely and poignant challenge to social and aesthetic conventions.
essay by Shonagh Adelman
Published by Mercer Union, 1994
Girrly Pictures features an irreverent breed of feminist art practice fuelled by twenty years of political activism and discourse. Within the current contradictory climate of simultaneous sociopolitical transformation and back-lash, contemporary mainstream culture depicts dykes as chic and bad girls as good (or at least those who make good). Meanwhile, gay bashing is rampant and we are still eons away from decriminalisation of the sex trade industry. Girrly Picturescame out of a desire to exhibit contemporary feminist work which isn’t just in your face but sits on your face. A far cry from sugar and spice – disdainful of or indifferent to normative femininity and to the fear of turning men off, of being too bitchy – the aggressive tone of this work takes niceness out of the equation. These girls will be girrls.
While this prevailing interest in the relationship between sex and power hit its power stride in the mid 80s and continues to flood the publishing market, Hollywood and MTV, it has only recently gained some cachet within the hallowed halls of high art institutions – illustrated by the exhibitions, Bad Girls/Bad Girls West curated by Marcia Tucker and Marcia Tanner, mounted in 1994 at the New Museum and UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery and the ICA exhibition in London also called Bad Girls. Typically the term bad girl connotes sexual misbehaviour – sluts and whores, vamps and tramps. Occupying an active sexual role (whether work or play) the bad girl appropriates power.
As Tucker explains in catalogue essay, the American Bad Girlsshow brought together a range of feminist art which uses humour and goes “too far.” The controversial response to the exhibitions and particularly their titles points to the difficulty of using humour and hyperbole within a political context and of reappropriating the term “bad girl.” The exhibitions’ title and humorous premise were viewed by some critics as a co-option and trivialisation of feminist art. Taking on a bad girl persona is a complex position now, since it is so quickly defanged and commodified. Bad is good as long as it can be confined (as it is in the sex trade industry) or assimilated (as it is in Hollywood depictions of sex trade workers) – as long as it is titillating and not too threatening; e.g., at the end of Basic Instinct Sharon Stone opts for heterosexuality and drops the ice pick. Ubiquitous colonisation has effectively stripped the “bad girl” of irony and generally conjured up something along the lines of naughty but nice.
It comes as no surprise that a real bad girl like Eileen Wurnos, dubbed the first woman serial killer, is worth more (to the entertainment industry) dead than alive. While the demise of one bad girl is eagerly awaited by culture vultures, other bad girls are implicated in the incitement of violence against women including themselves. For instance, on of the (presumably male) respondents to Kiss N’ Tell’s earlier interactive photo series Drawing the Linewrote “I feel the need to rape some girls.” Kiss N’ Tell along with other artists in this series haven’t balked at the prospect of prurient or more pernicious responses to their work. They start from a position which overrides any squeamishness around the depiction of explicit sex and power play.
The controversial conference at Barnard College in 1982, “Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” marked an ideological split cast as the “sex wars” which hinged on a resistance to and rebellion against 1970s lesbian feminist orthodoxy. The ensuing debates revolved around the question of whether S/M (and to a lesser extent butch/femme and lesbian porn) duplicates or plays with oppressive power inequities. Although the ‘radical sex’ camp made forceful arguments against its detractors based on the consentuality of sex/gender power play, these arguments have tended to fall into some of the over determined assumptions they purport to critique – for instance, that S/M offers a libertarian promise of transcendence from sexual repression. Sex radicals, backed up against the wall by political imperatives, may have felt impelled to legitimate their sexual desires on ontological grounds which assume a self-determining, autonomous sexual subject.
The investigation of sex and power in the pictorial realm is important because of its dialogical possibility. While there are certainly examples of images which are anchored within a didactic frame, the work in Girrly Pictures makes no claim to “the truth about sexuality” and therefore evades a direct or percriptive correlation between political and psycho-sexual imaginaries. Although not all of the artists in this series of exhibitions are explicitly or even remotely aligned with a ‘radical sex’ perspective, they all employ a discursive approach using various aesthetic means to dramatise the impact of technologies of power on sexuality.
Kiss N’ Tell’s 1992 videotape True Inversionsexamines the way in which sexuality is mediated by personal histories and by political, moral and educational institutions. Sex scenes are intercepted by a range of captions which use key words – masturbation, unsafe sex and censorship – to signify a diversity of meaning and perspectives. For instance, the caption “uncensored” qualified by an addendum – the criminal code section, “unsafe sex,” “politically incorrect” – point to the regulation and complexity of the discursive field in which images of sex are made and looked at. The images are also periodically disrupted by keyed-in commentaries from the director and crew members who are identified by name and position. This device foregrounds a personal perspective which displaces the standard mode of anonymous, authoritative commentary. It also establishes the video production itself as an amalgamation of multiple points of view. In the same way that the crew’s inverted appearance in front of the camera undermines the illusionistic form of linear narration, fictional lovers are juxtaposed with real lovers who differ about the prospect of having sex in front of a camera. Keyed into the scene, the director questions the assumed speciousness of sex between the long-term on-camera-only lovers in contrast to sex between the recently coupled real lovers. True inversions uses Brectian and video art strategies to situate sex and images of sex within a pleasurable and contested field of vision.
G.B. Jones’ work, explicitly employing a ‘radical sex’ vernacular, represents sex/power play as an aspect of subcultural lifestyle. Jones’ super 8 film, The Yo Yo Gang (1992), is an out-of-sync potpourri of hand-held camera shots, zooms and jump cuts organised around the activities of a girl-gang who play and make war with yo-yos. Drawing on a West Side Storyparable of gang combat, Jones’ campy home-movie-come-experimental-aesthetic collapses art and real life, fantasy and lifestyle. Similarly, her drawings, many of them directly modelled on those of Tom of Finland, display a “homocore” taxonomy of punk and S/M motifs – tattoos, leather, uniforms, chopper chicks and prison scenes. The home-brewed anarchism of Jones’ aesthetic boosts the transgressive status if the content targeting conventions of art etiquette as much as social and political decorum.
Likewise, sex toys, bondage and discipline scenes as well as butch/femme role-playing populate A.K. Summers’ black and white animation, Topless, Dickless and Clueless(1994). The association of power with masculinity is inverted in Summers’ tape. Although the self-identified bald-headed butch top Libra is in hot pursuit of a futuristic femme, who continually eludes her, the femme is revealed as an undercover agent who eventually capture the protagonist, ties her up and tortures her by penetrating her pussy with extra-long fingernails. Playing with a range of ironies, Summers’ comic animation uses repetition and conventional cartoon sound motifs to spoof subcultural dyke life and satirise stereotypical dichotomies: butch/femme, clued-in/clueless, top/bottom (topped/topless).
Using narrated text from the classic porn novel, The Story of O, Julie Zando’s videotape, Uh, Oh! (1994), similarly takes up the rubic of ‘radical sex’ recasting the narrative of sexual submission in butch/femme terms. Contrary to Summers’ videotape, Uh, Oh! exaggerates the stereotypical correlation of butch/femme with conventional heterosexual power dynamics by retaining the names used in the original novel, casting O as a waitress in a roadside diner and Sir Stephen as a cowboy and using a man’s voice for Sir Stephen’s narration. Lesbian S/M dungeon scenes are intercut with airplane safety demonstrations invoking the importance of consent, suspense and trepidation in S/M practice. Like the title of the videotape, images of risk and peril – amusement park rides and O’s account of a recurring dream in which she is in an airplane on the verge of crashing – metaphorically illustrate the pleasure accrued from danger in masochistic fantasy. As in The Story of O, the ego-loss associated with masochism is portrayed as a euphoric experience symbolised at the end of the videotape by the image of a roller coaster ride shot from a subjective perspective accompanied by O’s description of free-falling.
While Zando represents the dynamics of sexual domination and submission as “the ultimate expression of romantic love,” Su Friedrich’s film, Rules of the Road (1993), tells a classically romantic tale of emotional obsession. In contrast to the trajectory of ego-loss in Uh, Oh, Rules of the Roadrecounts the familiar experience of emotional loss prompted by the dissolution of a relationship. Longing is represented by the off-screen narrator’s fixation on “a sensible family car” – a 1983 beige Oldsmobile Cutlass cruiser with a luggage rack and fake wood siding. The stark image of a pair of hands playing solitaire punctuates the camera’s fetishistic perusal of the endless gamut old station wagons. Provoking ecological concerns, memories of family outings and reflections on instilled puritanical values, the station wagon becomes a Mobius strip of associations. Recalling the vehicle’s genesis within the relationship, its absorbion of cigarette smoke as well as good and bad memories, the solitary narrator muses over the car’s symbolic association with a coupled past and future. The camera lingers over lurid detailing, while the narrator attests to the car’s deceptive appearance, fondly itemises its comfortable and efficient attributes. Glibly recollecting her disappointment with the car’s homeliness she professes that she was “consoled by the thought that it was unique.” And yet, the subject gaze of the camera, mimicking her vision, is over-populated with ’83 Oldsmobile wagons with fake wood siding. Anticipating the anguish of catching a glimpse of her ex-lover in the driver’s seat, she resists looking but finds her nemesis unavoidable. Ironically, perpetually frozen in her tracks by the procession of sensible family cars, she is constantly on the alert for the signature license plate, just as O, chained to the door frame, waits in rapt agony for the return of her cowboy. The car, its simultaneous elusiveness and prevalence, personifies the fusion of pleasure and pain provoked by longing.
Abigail Child’s two films, Mayhem (1987) and Covert Action (1984), dislodge and magnify undercurrents of seduction in social and cinematic narratives. Using found home-movie footage from the 50’s of kissing, romping and various kinds of frenetic interaction, Mayhem restages “fragments of memory.” Montage, repetition, abridged voice-over and cryptic silent movie-style inter titles creates a disjunctive barrage of peripheral moments without the adhesive continuity of a story. As one of the inter titles professes, “My goal is to disarm my movie.” Similarly, disarming both movie and spectator, Covert Action employs conventions of film noir to reveal and confound mechanisms of narrative pleasure and suspense. Recurring close-ups of women expressing apprehension, dread and panic, images of men walking/stalking and scenes of obviously stages sexual violence augmented by key lighting, dramatic sound and camera angles propel a familiar erotic and violent chain of events. The momentum of suspense is continually disrupted by match cuts, unexpected montage and auto-narrate sound bites. The gendered division of roles – female victim/ male aggressor – is inverted near the end of the film with the introduction of a vintage Japanese porn clip of two women having sex. During their frolic, a spying thief is caught, held at gunpoint and force to comply to their sexual demands. Although no doubt originally intended to cater to male fantasy, in this context, the scene explodes any singular or fixed meaning. Drawing analogies among the screen, the street and the bedroom, Covert Actionmanifests parallel and contradictory messages about sex and violence. Evolving a cinematic language based on repetition and metonymy, Child’s work scrutinising the paradoxical and repressed aspects of iconographic conventions.
Lutz Bacher’s work, surveyed in the compilation tape which takes its title from Susan Sontag’s text, “On Photography”, investigates the latent connotations of notorious events circulated through printed or televised mass media (William Kennedy Smith’s rape testimony, Jackie Onassis allegedly fleeing from paparazzo Ron Gallela, an interview with Lee Harvey Oswald, Jimi Hendrix destroying a guitar on-stage). Bacher’s 1986 Sex With Strangers, draws on a more obscure genre of circulated images, is a series of large scale black and white appropriation of simulated rape and oral sex imagery. The images are taken from a 1970s book which poses ambiguously as a sociological text. Though the images look like conventional porn, the original cations included in the appropriations situate them within the pseudo-pedagogical framework. While signalling that this framework provides a pretext for the circulation of “dirty pictures.” Bacher’s work also critically draws attention to the moral and cultural binding of sex with intimacy. Turning on the motif of estrangement, Sex With Strangersmarks the axis of pleasure/danger both as end-points and as parallel conditions of possibility. Without the provision of ballast, the viewer is put in a position which mimics the condition of estrangement. Like the women in the images, the viewer becomes involved with a stranger – the work.
All of the work in Girrly Pictures operates in relation to a narrative structure, whether deconstructing or reconstructing familiar plot-lines or working against the linearity or semiotic implications of conventional story telling. The title, Girrly Pictures, conjures the image of a pin-up and injects it with am aggressive and ironic nuance. It plays on the ambiguity around whether the girl makes the picture or the picture makes the girl. While the term girly typically conveys a softcore pornographic image of a woman made for a heterosexual male gaze, the work in this series reframes the picture without denying the endemic effect of patriarchal and heterosexualist power structures. Instead of dismissing or reessentialising the dichotomy – male/ subject/ gaze: female/ object/ picture – this work recasts the eroticization of power as a political, aesthetic, dangerous and pleasurable venture. Confounding the dichotomy, women are aggressive, angry, obsessive, masochistic, sadistic, pining, seductive, apprehensive; they are also smutty subjects/ objects of representation. Taking psycho-sexual dynamics within narrative as a point of departure, the work engages a mobility and interchange of subject positions. The diversity of perspectives and aesthetic practises illustrates a spectrum of approaches to the problem of integrating feminist theory and practise and to the red herring which continues to propagate an uneasy alliance between political and aesthetic concerns.
This catalogue is published in conjunction with Girrly Pictures, a series of five exhibitions curated by guest curator Shonagh Adelman and coordinated by Mercer Union.
G.B. Jones’ Feminist Home Invasion
Fuse Magazine, 1994
This past November, Toronto’s Mercer Union featured the pencil drawings of G.B. Jones, local punk-D.l.Y. queen and all-round iconoclast. Curated by Shonagh Adelman, the exhibit was the fifth in a series entitled Girrly Pictures and also included Jones’ 1992 Super-8 classic The Yo Yo Gang.
Seeing G.B. Jones’ work on display in an art gallery is like finding a well thumbed Penthouse catalogued and shelved at the Library of Congress. The juxtaposition of her snarky, punker-dyke subjects against virginal white walls, varnished floors and full-spectrum lighting resonates with a charming ambivalence and absurdity.
Jones’ series of pencil drawings feature female troublemakers committing acts of sexual misbehaviour. The first is a cruisy tattoo scene between surly biker babes and the second an S/M prison fantasy between two inmates and a guard who gets fucked and beat on by her captives. G.B. Jones’ drawings are not likely to be in Ms. magazine’s arts and culture section in the next two or three hundred years. To understand Jones’ subjects and representational strategy one must first acknowledle her blatant appropriation of Tom of Finland’s hyper fetishized gay male porn. Tom is the uncontested “father” of the modern homo-clone aesthetic. His realistic, cartoon like representations of hard-bodied (and almost always) white men are widely available and displayed throughout the Western queer-boy stratosphere. His slick, stylized drawings embrace a coarse, hierarchical plaxis of top and bottom, getting and giving. A host of horny cowboys, cops, sailors, leather boys, mechanics and construction workers suck and fuck their way to a heady climax in the boiler rooms, bars and workshops of a sweaty, macho man’s world.
Technically, G.B. Jones’ renderings are a bit more crude and a little less exaggerated than Tom’s. Her subject matter parallels his but with several signihcant departures. Jones’ models are rarely authority hgures–they are rebels and outcasts, female deviants (gay/bi/straight/ who cares) playing out forbidden sexual roles on the margins. It is worth noting that the roles of top and bottom or butcl and femme do not conflate with extemal norms of authority and power. In fact, these roles are inversely empowered in the role-playing depicted. For instance, in the sequence involving the prison guard and the two inmates, it is the guard who gets fucked and beaten by the prisoners. This is a critical variance from Tom’s drawings, which constantly reproduce and uphold conventional roles of authority and hierarchy within sexual practice. Tom’s cops and captains are, and always will be, compulsively “greek active.” The punker dykes of Jones’ drawings are refugees from the established moral and gender order. Unlike Tom’s subjects, they are not members of the military or police force and do not wield state-sponsored authority. G.B. Jones’ pencil drawings are a radical reconfiguration of Tom of Finland’s pornographic language of desire. Her out right hijacking of his craft “steals” the language of the “father” a feminist stratagy she furthers by conducting a full scale home invasion on the Great Mother (the iconized Andrea Dworkin) when she graphically depicts taboo sex and power roles between women.
Of course, radical sex does not necessarily equal radical politics — playing with power in the bedroom does not automatically entail sharing it in the kitchen or on the streets. And we also know that girls and boys are equally susceptible to this revolutionary lunch bag let down. Nevertheless, G.B. Jones’ clever inversion of Tom of Finland’s lusty gay male porn is radical and transgressive as a representational strategy. Jones’ studly, dyke-punk outcasts will always be getting more bang for their sex-radical buck than Tom’s father-fucking sailor boys rubbing each other’s power-inscribed dicks on the poop deck.
Jane Farrow recently relocated to Toronto after five years living in Vancouver and Halifax and currently pursues two-thirds of a life as an aspiring, unnameable something.