All Dolled Up
The Feminist Paper Doll Show at Offcenter
By Steven Robert Allen
Boys and girls both play with dolls, but boys rarely admit it. In the world of little boys, dolls aren't dolls anyway. They're action figures. If you squeeze G.I. Joe, he won't ask you to feed him or change his diapers, but he might very well tell you he's going to blow your head off with his machine gun.
The most commonly held conception of dolls is exclusively feminine—pink dresses, sweet perfume, long-lashed eyelids that close when you lay them down. That's why the feminist paper doll show currently on display at Offcenter Community Arts Project is such a fine idea.
When Offcenter put out a call for artists, they hoped to get a few male participants, and they did—emphasis on few. The vast majority of paper dolls here depict women and are created by women.
Aside from gender, the artists represented here are an extremely diverse bunch, everyone from young children to Marisa Fautz, a woman in her mid 80s who claims to have never made any art in her life but who somehow came up with some of the most eye-catching and bizarre two-dimensional dolls in the show. This kind of exhibit really exposes the originality of Offcenter's social project. This is anti-elitist art at its best, art that bravely challenges common notions of gender and society.
One of the most amazing pieces in the show isn't even a doll. Leighanna Light's dollhouse, located right next to the entrance, is an astonishingly ornate piece of work constructed of everything from old-fashioned eyeglasses to Scrabble tiles to strands of fake pearls to cut-up bits of tape measure. A fat Buddha sits on a couch on the first floor with a blue Parcheesi chip for a stocking hat. Light's surreal domestic house makes you wish you could shrink down to size and move in. (Could there be a better roommate than the Buddha?)
Other work in the show is more disturbing. Barbara Grothus' plastic-wrapped Lindy England doll—with accessories!—presents black comedy at its most grotesque. Jeanne Antone's doll of Laura Bush is creepy in a more subtle way, largely because the First Lady looks even more innocuous in pink old lady underwear than she does fully clothed on TV.
One of my favorite pieces in the show is Nina Ross' "Little Math Girl." Composed of a boyish cutout with a weird hat pasted over a head with pigtails, this doll is suspended inside a miniature chalkboard with only a domino and a stub of chalk for company. Symbols vaguely reminiscent of numbers are scrawled across the board. There's something both amusing and attractive about this strange little piece of work.
Mark Garcia, one of the rare men represented in the show, constructed a particularly intriguing androgynous doll in black silhouette. Garcia's doll floats beside silhouettes of skirts, blouses, dresses and other clothing on hangers.
There are so many dolls by so many artists it would be impossible to describe them all, and I'm told there are more being added almost every day. As an added bonus, on Saturday afternoon a panel discussion on feminist art will be conducted at the Downtown space featuring art critic Lucy Lippard, curator Tey Marianna Nunn, artist and activist Barbara Grothus, and Out ch'Yonda art and theater maven Virginia Hampton. The event will be moderated by artist Rose Buffalo. It should be a lively discussion.
Come on by. Listen to the panel. Gawk at the dolls. If you can build up the courage, use Offcenter's extensive art supplies to make one of your own. She'll enjoy the company.
The Feminist Paper Doll Show runs through March 31 at Offcenter (808 Park Avenue SW). A panel discussion called Beyond the Seventies: Critiquing the Impact of Feminist Art Today will occur Saturday, March 19, from 1 to 4 p.m. 247-1172.
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