Post-Feminist Femmes

When the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood lost its in-house curator, Samantha Salzinger, last year — she took up teaching at Florida Atlantic University — the loss was not just the institution's but that of the Broward County art scene as well. Salzinger had brought much-needed vision and vitality to the museum, which teetered on the verge of becoming marginal. Under her guidance, it served such stimulating fare as "Fat Painting" and launched a juried biennial that, while uneven, continues to stir things up.

And so it was with great anticipation that I approached "Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice," the center's current exhibition, for which Salzinger serves as guest curator. I really, really wanted to like the show. This time out, however, the center's former star promises more than she delivers.

The exhibition, according to Salzinger's introduction, "examines the identity of the contemporary woman" by way of "female artists using the medium of photography to investigate the notion of what it means for a woman in a post-feminist society to be a stay-at-home mom, a beauty queen, or compete in 'man's' work." But the show includes only three photographers whose collective take on what might be termed "third-wave feminism" (I'm stealing the designation from the current issue of ARTnews) mostly skitters across the surfaces of the subject.

Not quite half of the center's big main gallery is devoted to half a dozen large color prints in a series called This Stage of Motherhood, by Gail Albert-Halaban, a New York-based artist preoccupied with Salzinger's "stay-at-home mom." In one image, a young girl is perched atop a dining room table; a young boy of roughly the same age, in what appears to be a pink tutu, sits at the same table while a woman (presumably the mother) looks on in the background.

Another shot features a pair of women who may or may not be mother and grown daughter — they're both pretty, youthful-looking blonds — intently watching something we can't see in a kitchen/dining room. In the background are brown-paper lunch bags labeled with male names, as in those of the young boys we see elsewhere in the photo.

Most of the other images are so similarly generic that almost anything could be read into them. Only one photograph has much resonance on its own: a shot of a Caucasian woman eating while, in the background, a woman who looks to be Hispanic tends to the diner's baby.

Albert-Halaban's work is in sharp focus, with crisp, saturated colors, in dramatic contrast to the eight pieces that make up Rachel Papo's Serial #381713. Papo, an Israeli who now lives in Brooklyn, takes a more journalistic approach in her shots of young women fulfilling their mandatory stints in the Israeli army.

Papo seems less concerned with focal clarity — to the detriment of her work, I think — than with capturing on-the-fly images. Those images, however, come across as arbitrary, random: an armed young woman with a Coke and a pack of cigarettes, another on a street drinking a beer, a cluster of half a dozen soldiers standing at a lunch counter. As illustrations for, say, a magazine article, these photos might pack some punch. Here, they don't add up to much of a statement.

Around the corner, in the center's three smaller galleries, "Sugar and Spice" finally starts to pay off with the work of Colby Katz. (Full disclosure: Katz is the staff photographer for this newspaper. I have met her once.) For her Darling Divas series, Katz draws on her years of chronicling the rarefied world of beauty pageants for young girls — as in the world inhabited by Jon-Benet Ramsey before her untimely death.

Perhaps Katz has an edge over the other two photographers in this exhibition. Her images don't really require anything beyond themselves to put forth a point of view. I suppose it would be possible to look at the show's grouping of a dozen of Katz's portraits of wannabe divas and think "How nice!" But I suspect the more common reaction would be along the lines of "How revolting!"

Katz shoots her young subjects not exactly in close-up and not exactly from a distance. She settles, instead, on a midrange perspective that yields distinct advantages. We get close enough to see how horrifically made-up and coifed these children are, and we're at enough of a remove to appreciate how their little gowns and bathing suits sexualize them far beyond their years. (A few of the girls look vaguely uncomfortable, grimacing rather than really smiling.)

There's nothing else in the show to equal this series, but the long, narrow gallery also features a handful of larger, matted and framed photos under glass, all of which contribute to the overall impact of Katz's installation. In one, a little girl in an Asian-looking sheath, a crown, and flip-flops stands in front of a love seat, wearing her crown and embracing a trophy that's almost twice as tall as she is. In another, a slightly older girl, also crowned and gowned, sits on a bed holding a pug puppy.

In some of the most compelling images in the show, Katz presents a couple of shots that speak volumes. In the first, a little aspiring beauty queen is perched between two morbidly obese women — from the look of them, mother and grandmother — who are kissing her but also smothering her with affection. You get the distinct impression that suffocating, rather than supportive, is the word that applies.

A few feet away, another shot gives us a clearly miserable infant, nearly swallowed in her blue and white crinoline getup, crowned with an absurd-looking bow. This image could easily be inserted into a dictionary to illustrate the word humiliation.

For anyone too obtuse to get the point, the small gallery adjacent hammers it home. A pedestal in the center of the space is topped with a tiara that one of these young slaves to style might covet. Nearby, two bejeweled gowns hang on molded white plastic forms that taper at the top, not into the expected mannequin heads but into generic hooks. The depersonalization is complete.

One wall of this space also features comments from some sort of Internet site where beauty-pageant moms can vent (complete with the typos that anyone familiar with online commentary will recognize). One woman haltingly admits that she is haunted by the specter of pedophiles who might be tantalized and tempted by these little Miss Americas. Others defend their territory by rationalizing that the pageant circuit is just another way for mothers and daughters to have fun.

Such sentiments are echoed in the final gallery, where a looped video plays, with Katz's photos accompanied by commentary by the moms, their kids, and others. We learn, for instance, that some of these girls are exploited as early as six or nine months of age. If you think this is normal, I don't want to know you.

Ultimately, Katz's contribution to this exhibition is so much more powerful than that of the other two artists that it's easy to wonder why this isn't a one-woman show. At its best, "Sugar and Spice" confirms that Salzinger still knows what she's doing, and that's worth remembering.

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Michael Mills