New exhibit at Pittsburgh's SPACE takes on bullying
Borrowing its title from the 2004 Tina Fey movie “Mean Girls,” the current exhibit at SPACE, Downtown, is every bit about what the title implies — bullying.
“Bullying among girls has become an epidemic in our society,” says the exhibit's curator, Jill Larson. “This show is about women and girls bullying each other, being mean and unkind to one another.”
For the exhibit, Larson chose 10 female artists to address the issue — six from out of town and four locally. Their works range in media from drawings to video, but each underscores the effects of bullying, from the mild to the most grievous, such as “bullycides” (suicides prompted by excessive bullying.) Two pieces by Brooklyn-based artist Traci Molloy — “Prototype: Bullycide (Girls)” and “Prototype: Bullycide (Boys)” — tackle the latter issue head-on.
Hung side by side, each is a composite portrait — one of boys, the other girls — Molloy created by layering together separate headshots of American girls and boys who committed suicide last year after being bullied by their peers. Out of each larger-than-life portrait, Molloy cut text that lists the names and ages of the suicide victims who comprise the images in alphabetical order, and lay the cutout letters beneath the portraits on the floor. The two portraits together make for a powerful and poignant installation.
While Molloy's pieces are evidence of the fact that bullying transcends gender, the remaining works are decidedly female-oriented.
Randie Snow of Brighton Heights chose to address bullycide with her installation piece “Die.” Made up of 32 individual last rites crosses (a Catholic cross filled with two candles, Holy Water and scripture passages), each represents the life and death from suicide of a young girl — the youngest being just 8 years old.
The customized crucifixes hung on one wall spell out the word “DIE.” The initials of the victims are also on the crosses, which were assembled to include objects that relate to each of the individual's lives.
A common bullying tactic among girls and young women is to construct a cheap sense of power through dominance and exclusion, i.e., the creation of a cliqué or an “in” crowd. Consequently, girls tend to see the “in” crowd as glamorous. This power dynamic is represented in the triptych “We Are Not You” by Sonja Sweterlitsch of Greenfield, in which three beautiful blonde young women have been painted by Sweterlitsch, life-size, in glamorous dresses looking downward with smirking glances.
It is a mindful social critique, especially considering that all three women depicted are real people, including the artist herself, and all three are Pittsburgh artists who this reviewer knows personally to be very thoughtful and kind individuals, far from the image their painted portraits convey, proving, above all, how much looks can be deceiving.
Lilly Cannon of Atlanta displays several delicate acrylic and graphite portraits with similar intent, but in this case they are of imaginary young women inspired by the idealized representations in contemporary fashion magazines.
Rendered on sealed, white-washed books, each portrait is intentionally sparse, having few clues about the subject. Splashes of color, the thickness of the book and the derogatory titles given to each function like puzzle pieces to a more-complex whole. In this way, Cannon emphasizes the lack of knowledge that defines and influences the behaviors of adolescent girls in our society.
The show culminates with a two-channel video piece by Jenn Gooch of Lawrenceville, titled “Do The Left/Right Thing.” In it, Gooch pits herself, depicted here in workout gear, boxing gloves and mouth guard, against an 11-year-old version of herself dancing in, as she puts it, “modest dresses.” In one video, she is boxing with the camera while repeating the lyrics from “Fight the Power,” a song by American hip-hop group Public Enemy. In the other, the full-grown Gooch is dancing in modest dresses as if an 11-year-old girl.
In her statement, Gooch writes: “When I was young, the mean girls were beautiful, tough and could do the Roger Rabbit. I was not one of these girls.”
The video offers a lighter moment in an otherwise-heavy-hearted exhibit that is a must see for anyone faced with the issues it confronts.
There will be an talk by the four local artists in this exhibit — Sonja Sweterlitsch, Randie Snow, Jenn Gooch and Vanessa German — in the gallery at 1 p.m. March 23.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.