Girl, Manipulated

The digitally tweaked photos of "Carly TV" are technically impressive but to what end?

A little girl, her pouty lips slightly parted, lies stretched out provocatively in shadows that fall like a lattice across her body, while a ghostly TV image hovers above and behind her. In another picture the same girl sprawls on the floor in a blue bikini and a platinum blond wig, her hands poised on the floor as if she might be preparing to slink toward us. Behind and above her is a detail from what appears to be Jacques Louis David's famous painting The Death of Marat, although the face isn't quite right.

No, these aren't the latest Calvin Klein ads, they're large color photographs from "Francie Bishop Good: Carly TV," a strange and unsettling show now on view at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. As the show's title indicates, all the pieces on display share two common denominators: the presence of Carly, the artist's niece, now age ten, and a similarly ubiquitous large television screen, both in the artist's Pennsylvania living room.

According to one of two essays in the exhibition brochure, this one by Bonnie Clearwater of the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami (the other is by Museum of Art curator Ginger Gregg Duggan), Bishop Good's series of "Carly TV" photographs came about by accident. "After taking several pictures of her niece in her living room, she realized that the television set was as dominant as Carly in the composition. The effect was so disquieting that Bishop Good decided to increase the tension by digitally manipulating the television images."

Francie Bishop Good's Blue Dress (2000) shows us maybe a bit too much of her niece Carly
Francie Bishop Good's Blue Dress (2000) shows us maybe a bit too much of her niece Carly

In some of the computer-manipulated images, Carly shares her space with public figures. Big Show, for instance, features the stern, imposing visage of the Ayatollah Khomeini so familiar from the 1980s. The screen in Carly TV, Walkover includes the face of New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. For Clinton Mask Carly wears a garish caricature mask of Bill Clinton's face.

Occasionally other living beings infiltrate a photo: A real man lurks in the shadows to the left of Carly and her TV in Corner, while two girls join her for Soap Opera, which also includes what looks to be the face of actress Helen Hunt on the TV screen. Couch, Dog's Shadow introduces two canines into the equation. A dog identified as Petie pops up here and there.

Carly TV, Viagra Kissshows Carly mesmerized by an ad for the notorious sexual wonder drug. Clearwater has this take: "Although the commercials for Viagra are discrete [sic] and meant for a general audience, one still wonders what the impressionable young girl is gleaning from this scene." I have enormous respect for Clearwater, but this seems to be reading a bit much into such an ordinary shot.

For the most intriguing shots, Bishop Good fills the television screen with images appropriated from the history of painting. An oil by the great Jan Vermeer is quoted in Couch, Dog's Shadow, while a Mark Rothko work turns up in Gray Dress with Rothko. And for Carly TV, Marat, the artist goes a step further and superimposes her own face onto the David masterpiece. She also sometimes mimics the visual elements of the paintings within the photographs themselves, particularly in the lighting.

As both brochure essays note, Bishop Good is obviously exploring ways of seeing and being seen in these photographs. Clearwater posits, "In addition to Carly's gaze, there is the gaze of the photographer and by extension that of the viewer, as well as the incessant gaze of Big Brother television." Duggan likewise acknowledges that "[t]he reversal (the watched becomes the watcher) serves to strengthen the psychological impact of the work."

Fair enough. But to what does all this add up, you might ask? Not much, I'm afraid. On a purely technical level, what Bishop Good has done is fascinating: the blurring of distinctions among various forms of media and the internal echoes that ricochet through the pieces. But the creative process here is a lot more interesting than the results. After a while the repetitiveness no longer reinforces the themes of the series -- it merely becomes monotonous. The pieces become as generic as their titles.

As for Carly herself, she apparently went from being almost oblivious to the camera in the early photographs to being quite the ham in later shots, doing a backbend in one, crawling toward the camera in another. And Bishop Good supposedly neither coaxed her into her suggestive poses nor chose her props, which include wigs and hats and other items of clothing.

A friend of mine dismissed "Carly TV" as kiddie porn. I wouldn't go that far. Still there seems to be something vaguely exploitative about the use of a child, even a willing child, in such a context to score aesthetic points.

I went to the Museum of Art specifically to see the "Carly TV" exhibition but once again found myself seduced by another show elsewhere in the museum. In this case, it was "The Art of the Puppet: Bread & Puppet Theatre," which occupies the galleries at the top of the staircase to the second floor.

If you think of puppetry as involving cutesy performances aimed at kids, banish the thought immediately. For the Bread & Puppet Theatre, founded in New York in 1963 by German artist Peter Schumann and now based on a farm in Glover, Vermont, puppetry is a guerrilla art, a form of political statement comprising painting, sculpture, dance, music, and drama.

More to the point, according to Schumann, puppetry is a vital form of theater: "We sometimes give you a piece of bread along with a puppet show because our bread and theater belong together. We want you to understand that the theater is not yet an established form, not the place for commerce you think it is, where you pay to get something. Theater is different. It is more like bread, more of a necessity."

Whatever. Sociopolitical theory aside, Schumann and company have created some breathtaking larger-than-life puppets, some of them so large they have to be operated from the inside by several people at once. (The troupe often recruits large numbers of volunteers, children as well as adults, to assist in its performances.) For this exhibition the figures have been arranged in a handful of sprawling installations that are essentially remnants, documentations of the live performances in which they were once used.

The puppets for Oedipus Rex, for example, were originally part of a 1995 performance, complete with symphony orchestra, of the opera/oratorio by Igor Stravinsky. Here they command a small gallery to themselves. Sixteen life-size ones, clad in white robes and featuring eerie faces with eyeholes, are lined up at equal intervals in the center of the room. Others, including a bride and groom, hang from the walls. It's a commanding installation, as is the one in the adjacent gallery, Birth, Crucifixion & Resurrection of Archbishop Romero, commemorating the assassinated Salvadoran cleric.

The Bread & Puppet folks work with cheap, simple ingredients -- fabric, wood, clay, papier mâché -- and an intentional crudeness, a rough-around-the-edges quality gives their work a volatile intensity. Their creations have a visceral power far surpassing that of a lot of much more polished art.

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