I Love Little Girls

They make me feel so

(from Poughkepsie Journal) 1988There's no self-awareness to the girls of Katy Grannan, and even less for the young ladies of Daniella Rosell. What they do have is self-esteem. It never, ever occurs to Grannan's girls that they don't have what it takes to get out of their shabby lower-class circumstances; they don't know they have fucked-up teeth and poverty in their eyes. They don't know that standing there in their midnight-blue polyester bridesmaid dresses before the plywood paneling, they're not figures of glamour, but of pity.

And for Rosell's Mexico City misses —their hair as gilded as the Louis XIV furniture in their walled mansions—it never, ever occurs to them they might not be entitled to their excessive lives; they've no idea how vacuous their faces are. They didn't know—until the backlash in the Mexican media after the photos were published—how badly they would come across, in their tennis togs, feet saucily propped up on the taxidermied lion in the rococo den.

The workshops and assemblies our PTAs paid for in the late '80s worked. We all esteem ourselves mightily now. We are all princesses. Girls rule!

"Girls Night Out" is happy to help foster our delusion.

The work spilling out of the Orange County Museum of Art is the work of 10 mostly youngish women, a couple of them stateside (New York and LA) and the rest from Mexico, London, Paris and Helsinki. All work in either large-scale, saturated photograph or shockingly well-made and un-dull video. And almost all show the secret lives of girls.

Boys are so much more straightforward.

A lot of catalog space is given to the hardships of growing up girl. For all the psychic turmoil of trying to come secretly to womanhood (secretly because parents seem to think their girl kids should fixate on unicorns forever), it's a surprise more of us didn't become Carrie or Charlie from Firestarter. And yet the artists themselves seem postfeminist; everyone seems to take for granted that we have arrived, that our needs and wants will be recognized and met. The pert little girls don't know they'll be ground down into dowdy women who resent those same girls for their pertness and freshness, and for their mystery.

Salla Tykkä lays it out baldly. Her short film Thriller takes a lovely girl child running and breathing hard over the Halloween soundtrack in some godforsaken Finnish forest. The girl is unable to consummate her love for an older man—we don't know exactly who he is to her—and so, naturally, she becomes murderous.

She's Lolita. She's Poison Ivy. She's NAMBLA, folks, and she's unflinching. The piece is hypnotic.

And Sarah Jones is there as well. She shoots two upper-class sisters in their natural habitat. It's a staid, tasteful space—it's nothing like the embarrassing excess inhabited by Rosell's girls. And the girls, too, are staid and tasteful. Their makeup is attractive, and their pedicures are fresh. And they pout, and they sulk, their faces masks. They're not at all awful, but they're certainly not about to let us into their adolescent heads. They're sphinxy minxes, trying to keep the secret that their bodies have become lethal weapons. Their parents wouldn't be ready.

Rineke Dijkstra has several of the exhibit's strongest works. Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992 shows a girl who's still on unicorns. She's not beautiful, but her skinny body's not causing her any confusion yet. She's shy, posed like Botticelli's Birth of Venus in a baggy bathing suit on the shore of the Baltic Sea.

The Buzzclub, Dijkstra's endless video of kids dancing for the camera before a white wall, outside discos in Liverpool and the Netherlands, has the unique ability to make one actually want to stay in a room that's blasting techno. It's goofy and awkward and delightful.

Most of the works work. Some are overly ambitious—watching a dancer attempt to slow the movements of a triple axel so it takes an hour to perform is somewhat like watching Sting have tantric sex, and some architectural studies and photos of women behind bars are overly cluttered and lack visual power. But with my personal biases and interests, there are three I can't shake: Rosell's gaudy portraits speak to that base part of me that wishes ill on the overly rich; Grannan's sad pathos of the awkward underclass polarizes with pity—and then shame at my own condescension; and Elina Brotherus' self-portraits, completely lacking in the self-esteem we've had shellacked on us here, are utterly naked and Prozac-free. I'm surprised we don't have to sweep her off the floor.

Rosell shot her girlfriends and relations in Mexico City's and Monterrey's privileged class. They were shot as they wished to be portrayed: in tiaras and gold lamé and one-shouldered crop tops amid all the effluvia their parents' money has bought. One has a stuffed-animal room, imitating, perhaps, the inimitable Spellings'. Their hair is uniformly yellow, while the uniformed maid's is brown.

Grannan put advertisements in small-town newspapers in the Northeast, advertising for models to be shot in their own homes. The Pennsylvania and upstate New York girls and young men who answered seem to have nothing left to believe in but their own beauty and glamour—two things they most certainly haven't got. Is Grannan exploiting these kids, who proudly pose with lank Hessian hair in polyester panties? I don't know: Richard Billingham's fantastic photos of his drinking, fighting, spitting family in "Sensation" were roundly decried for their exploitation, but I just thought they were real.

Grannan doesn't seem to mock her subjects, but does she pity them, and is that worse? Is she as appalled as I by their parents' living rooms, with their paneling or their excessively patterned wallpaper that hasn't been changed in decades? Is it the utmost in elitism to feel sorry for someone merely because they don't have taste? According to my interactions with American Idol fans, yes, it is. But doesn't that same wallpaper seem to evince the fact that they have no hope of escape? They and that wallpaper will remain forever.

Brotherus, meanwhile, exploits only herself. Her whole Paris apartment is wired with tripods so she can shoot herself whenever she's at her gloomiest, and that seems to be a lot of the time. With her waif haircut and the adult acne scrubbing at her skin, she seems ready to melt into a boneless pile of melancholy. Brotherus would be a terrible roommate; she would really suck you down. But there's something about the nakedness of her face, of that acne on that raw skin; Brotherus is the least entitled woman in the show. She is neither pert nor mysterious; even the Iranian girls under ayatollahs show some joie de vivre. Not Brotherus. She's under no misimpression that her needs are recognized and met. Typical urbanites might sneer about vacuous, happy cows; you can be self-aware, it seems, or happy. Which would you choose?

"Girls Night Out" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Jan. 25, 2004. $4-$5; kids under 16, free; free on Tues.
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