Carnegie Mellon gallery exhibit screams for your attention

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Like the screaming singer of a punk-rock band, the exhibit “Alien She” at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University begs to be seen and heard.

And that's not without good reason. Much of the work on display by seven artists from around the United States and Canada finds its roots in the pioneering underground feminist punk-rock movement that arose during the early to mid-1990s.

Many believe the Riot Grrrl movement of artists, activists, authors and educators still exists and is as strong as ever, including the exhibit's organizers, Miller Gallery director-curator Astria Suparak and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts assistant curator Ceci Moss.

The exhibit posits that point in a great number of pieces specifically designed to shock and confront. They range from a dozen-plus macrame designer knock-off handbags to a trio of 7-foot-tall hyper-sexualized lady sasquatches, complete with overly emphatic genitalia.

Suparak and Moss say they chose the exhibit's title, “Alien She,” as a reference to a song of the same name by the 1990s feminist punk band Bikini Kill.

“The lyrics are about the negotiation of normalized gender roles, the uneasy line between feminist critique and collectivity, and the process of coming to a feminist consciousness, with the repeated refrain, ‘She is me, I am her,' ” according to their statement.

And that's where the exhibit's premise begins, with an homage to the band's influence via a glass-topped vitrine filled with cassette tapes, T-shirts and other mid-'90s punk band “merch” organized by country — from America, Brazil, England, Belgium and the Netherlands — to emphasize Bikini Kill's widespread influence.

Nearby video clips from punk shows play on a continuous loop next to a banner filled with an adaptation of the original “Riot Grrrl manifesto” that Kathleen Hanna, front woman for Bikini Kill, now 44, wrote when she was 21.

“BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody (sic) that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real,” reads the last line of the original. The summation of 15 lines that all begin with “BECAUSE” read like the grousing of a little sister, broadcasting her laments from the back of a minivan.

The exhibit progresses from there to the gallery's second and third floor, where visitors will find a more traditionally organized art exhibit.

However, here is where what begins as a display of youthful exuberance starts to deteriorate into something of a freak show that is more about sexual politics and lesbian subculture than female empowerment.

“Ladies Sasquatch” by Toronto-based artist Allyson Mitchell is just half of the original installation the artist created that consists of six massive “lesbian feminist sasquatches,” according to her website, and 25 smaller “she-beast sculptures.”

Cobbled and crafted from found textiles and taxidermy supplies, the beasts are “influenced by photographs found in Playboy magazines from the 1970s and by the bodies of real fat activists,” Mitchell says.

Displayed opposite are a selection of photographs and other documentation of the goings on at “The Feminist Art Gallery,” or FAG for short, a real-life gallery that Mitchell and her partner Deirdre Logue opened in their renovated garage in 2010 with a mission to showcase feminist art.

It seems like a lively joint — a backwoods clubhouse of sorts where boys, decidedly, are not allowed, or annoyingly tolerated at best.

Then there's Tammy Rae Carland's photo series “Lesbian Beds.” A fanzine editor, artist, filmmaker and owner of the independent lesbian music label Mr. Lady Records, Carland has created a photographic series that is poignant to a point. That point is reached when it becomes laughable with a photo that includes a crumply “Star Wars”-theme bedspread crowned with a Woody Woodpecker pillow sham.

The third floor is slightly more promising. Here, a 15-foot-tall barbed-wire fence clad entirely in hot-pink yarn by Brooklyn-based artist L.J. Roberts immediately confronts the viewer when stepping off the elevator. Titled “We Couldn't Get In. We Couldn't Get Out,” it's a physical manifestation of gay-rights protest, anchored on either side by banners created and used by the artist in actual protests.

Turn around and a massive hot-pink triangular banner that reads “Mom Knows Now” hanging next to the elevator shaft reminds you how trapped you actually are in this socio-political vortex of an exhibit.

Originally installed on a church steeple, to which a documentary photo included can attest, it is accompanied by wall text that characterizes the installation, both on the church and in the gallery, as “a coming out and a declaration.” No kidding, really?

Add to that a pile of “Feminist Body Pillows” covered in hand-printed T-shirts with slogans like “The Advantages of Being a Lesbian Artist” and “Live and Let Lez” created by various artists in a workshop led by Ginger Brooks Takahashi of Braddock.

The exhibit is slated to travel to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center next, where it is doubtful that it's likely to raise anyone's pulse. But, from now through Feb. 16, it's with us, riding in the back of our minivan, screaming for attention. It's up to you to pay it any mind.

As for me, all that kicking and screaming just makes me want to turn this minivan around and head back home.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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