Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jennifer Dalton at Winkleman Gallery

“The Colbert Report…had the poorest representation of female guests, at only 17.5%.”


While making travel arrangements for New York Archives Week, I was pleased to discover that Winkleman Gallery was only four avenues over on the same street in Chelsea as the Artists Records in the Archives Symposium where I presented yesterday on social media.

The title of Jennifer Dalton’s exhibition at Winkleman caught my attention. Cool Guys Like You is a nod to the 1988 movie, Heathers. It was one of my favourites in high school, not so much because my name is Heather but because it critiqued the popular girl clique (to which I was diametrically opposed). Living in a rural area during the pre-Internet era, I even managed to find the Heathers soundtrack, which I held onto until Toronto musician David Lush had a goth garage sale in Parkdale. Anyway, back to the movie: Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a jaded student who purges her high school of the queen ‘megabitch’ (one of two named Heather) along with a few sexist jocks, after being lured to the dark side by her psychotic boyfriend, Jason, played by Christian Slater. When she battles him to try to dismantle a bomb and finally washes her hands of him, she says, “You know what I need? Cool guys like you out of my life.”

Among several text-based works in the show, there is one in which Dalton addresses the movie explicitly by commenting on gratuitous shower scenes and wardrobe changes. Although the show continues in a feminist vein, the title Cool Guys Like You does not refer only to men. In fact, in the press release, it is used as a gender-neutral colloquialism aimed at talk show personalities. Dalton commends Brian Lehrer, Terry Gross, Leonard Lopate, Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose, Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart for featuring “impressive, fascinating, intelligent guests” (1), but she is nonplussed about the number of women and ethnic minorities they interview. From the first piece in the show, To Whose Opinion Am I Listening? I learned that The Colbert Report, which I logged a lot of hours watching while living in the US, had the poorest representation of female guests, at only 17.5%. (2) In response to this disparity, the press release asks, “WTF?” Fortunately, Dalton’s exploration in visual terms is more nuanced. For one thing, she displays the data “lovingly by hand” (3). Pie charts with pencil contours and painted pastel interiors (shown here) reveal that Colbert is not the only culprit: the lion’s share of guest spots (65%+) for all these American shows go to men. Thus, the artist questions whether she would be better off not watching them.

Another way Dalton represents this problem is with horizontal rows of celebrity photos, categorized not by the talk show on which they appeared but by their vocation. In What Does An Important Person Look Like?, male guests have gold frames and female guests have—you guessed it—silver frames. (There is a surprise in one photo of a mixed-gender band with a part-silver, part-gold frame). While this might seem redundant in light of the pie charts, it is novel in introducing race as a second factor to consider in this winnowing of guests. For example, in the realm of politics, Condaleezza Rice was the sole female interviewed on any of these programs last year. Using screen captures of their interviews rather than graphs highlights that Rice was in the company of surprisingly few politicians of colour.

Politics takes centre stage in a graphite piece that could easily be called Uncool Guys, but is instead called Libido-based Idiocy and Assholery in Modern Political Scandals. Republicans and Democrats are represented along the border by the usual star-adorned elephants and donkeys, with the addition of prominent phalluses. Bill Clinton is smack dab in the middle of the timeline of impropriety. Each politician has a letter or letters following his name, which is explained by a legend. Arnold Schwarzenegger acdm, for instance, refers to “betrayed and humiliated wife,” “lied to and/or about his own children,” “creepily pursued much younger people and/or subordinates,” and lastly, “when push came to shove, lied like hell!” Here, Dalton moves from observation to unabashed judgment. Personally, I tend to extend back to politicians the spirit of Pierre Trudeau’s statement, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” (4). Maybe it’s because certain lotharios like JFK seem to slip under the radar, preserving their reputation as—what were those qualities Dalton identified?—impressive, fascinating, and intelligent. Also, I’m sympathetic to the confusing crossroads life presents, represented by a piece called Only in America (or, I Can’t Trust Myself). It is a set of two machines—the type you find in shopping malls with five-cent candy—that contain temporary tattoos. One machine has a sign that says, “When you are afraid of something that usually means you should do it” and its counterpart says, “When you are afraid of something that usually means you shouldn’t do it.” While it’s hard not to chuckle at the piece picking apart Democrats and Republicans, I do wonder if pulling such big punches detracts from the seriousness of the rest of the show. Then again, the tone may be spot on, if you consider the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street protests and related dissatisfaction with the government.

Dalton details the idiocy and assholery, to borrow her phrasing, to which she is subject as an artist. Another text-based graphite work lists common questions she hears. Ones like, “What have you got against men?” and “What does your husband do that you can afford to do this?” raise the proverbial red flag. Others are more ambiguous, like queries about what it’s like to work with certain men such as gallerist Edward Winkleman. On the one hand, asking this defines a woman in relation to a man in a position of power, which is uncool. On the other hand, it seems like a reasonable question that a sincerely interested partly might ask. Its inclusion among more obviously irksome questions suggests annoyance on the artist’s part. Here’s my question: would the possibility of provoking a knee-jerk response discourage talk show hosts from inviting feminist artists, or feminists in general, to be guests? I ask that as an artist who is similarly driven by having a “bee in my bonnet”. (5)

On my way out, I slipped my hand into an opening in a grey box and lowered a lever as instructed. Had I been a man with larger hands, I would have walked away with ‘cool’ stamped in a lovely black script. However, it only printed ‘ol’ on my hand, which seemed dangerously close to ‘old’ and a cruel reminder that even now, coolness eludes me. And yet, had I been successful, I would have found that coolness is both messy and temporary.

Cool Guys Like You closes October 15.

(1) Press release, Winkleman Gallery
(2) Since I spent the past two days watching presentations about artists using archival material, I wanted to point out that this is yet another example (in case any of my symposium colleagues are reading). Dalton was able to access online archives for all of the talk shows except The Colbert Report, for which she relied on Wikipedia data.
(3) Text taken from To Whose Opinion Am I Listening?, 2011
(4) December 21, 1967, House of Commons, Canada
(5) Press release, Winkleman Gallery

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