“Serious Vanity,” the title of this three-woman show, refers mostly to its outstanding painting, “Mirror Mirror,” by Cindy Bernhard (born 1989) which portrays Snow White’s stepmother as she studies her face in a late-Rococo-early-Walmart vanity mirror. The green pallor tells us she is jealous, the arched eyebrows tell us she is haughty, the cold stare tells us she is cruel. But what about those cute puppies? They’re in her arms, on her bed and enshrined in framed portraits on her dresser. And what about that low-rent dresser and the queen’s humble headscarf? She’s not really a queen at all—just an ordinary white girl who wants to be loved and is anxious about her status in the kingdom. The narrative quotes a melodramatic fairy tale, but is much more ambivalent about good and evil. The image resembles a Disney animated character, but the painting transcends the tacky craft-store materials that were used in its fabrication. There’s at least as much pathos here as bathos. Rather than hating on the evil queen, we might empathize with those conventional women who feel compelled to compete for value in the eyes of the world.
The queen does not appear in Bernhard’s two other paintings, but we still get her cute, pampered pets. There’s a cuddly bitch with manicured paws and a kitten being teased by a lady with long blue fingernails. Titled “Dangle Dangle,” the piece succinctly captures the energy of pet play, comparing well with Vittore Carpaccio’s “Two Venetian Ladies”: “Love me, love me, love me” seems to be the message of all three. It’s plaintive and pathetic, but who doesn’t need to be loved?
“Kiss Kiss Kiss,” the subtitle of Phyllis Bramson’s “Ladies in Waiting,” suggests a more cynical view of gender roles, appropriate for an artist with nearly fifty years more life experience. Quoting female attractiveness as displayed in European art museums or Asian gift shops, the central figure seems to be asking viewers whether any of it makes any sense. In “Cinderella, the Other Story,” a parody of yet another Disney fairytale, the central character tries on the crystal slipper. Instead of being noble and handsome, the prince is ugly and lecherous as he fondles her leg and sucks on her knee. Yuck! It looks like the wicked stepsisters are going to have the last laugh after all.
The seven pieces by Hale Ekinci are quite different. They are distant from American popular culture and gender issues—indeed, they are distant from America itself. The artist grew up in Turkey and is responding to a more repressive society. Her figures are locked into the formal monochrome group portraiture that the artist photo-transferred to a linen support (bedsheets). She enhanced the images with colorful paint and embroidery, while obliterating the faces with a black netted veil. There’s nothing personal about these stiff, anonymous figures other than the artist’s playful manipulation of them. She often gives them silly party hats. What’s most apparent is the intense skill of execution, especially in the thinly painted floral backgrounds.
As the three artists borrow from popular culture to mock and critique social conventions, they fit well within the fifty-year tradition of Chicago Imagism. They’re the smart-ass kids who don’t accept the brain-dead conventions of the adult world. Sensitive design and skillful use of materials proves their serious intent. So does the sense that all three are expressing the reality of their own lives. Just don’t look here for the rapturous visuality that might validate a gender identity rather than just critique one. (Chris Miller)
“Serious Vanity,” One After 909, 906 North Ashland, through August 31.