Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why You Should Know about The Virgin Dress

"Good" art affects the beholder. The English literature professor who became my thesis adviser once illustrated this relationship with a triangle, wherein the left base angle was the artist, the right base angle was the audience, and the top vertex angle was the art itself. The triangle's sides were the connection networks made between artist and audience. In his definition, art needed to convey something - be it an emotion, a concept or a technique - in order to be effective.

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to catch the "Sad Girls Club" series, an exhibition by The Virgin Dress (aka, Brooklyn-based Nigerian-American illustrator Chioma Ebinama), in the hallway of a Bed-Stuy brownstone apartment. Only a short while after absorbing the first few "girls" in the series, the little typebars I have for cerebral synapses began banging-out a blog entry about why the exhibition qualifies as "good." Take the following Sad Girl:

Together we're everything

A well-coiffed white woman with large, defiant eyes tearfully clutches her Louis Vuitton purse. It is ambiguous as to whether the caption addresses the audience or the bag; however, the often satirical focus on privilege and consumerism throughout the Sad Girls Club exhibition makes me believe the latter. We rely on our possessions - and on the act of possessing possessions - for our happiness. The absoluteness of the caption dramatizes this in a hilarious manner.

Neither angry nor sassy

In the above Sad Girl, Chioma turns her attention from the privileged to the marginalized, confronting racialist stereotypes about black women with a universal expression of intense, human despair. I attribute the illustration's power to its bluntness: the image of a crying black woman paired with knee-jerk judgements black women frequently face should compel one to re-examine their latent prejudices.

The Sylvia Plath Death Scene

According to the artist, this was drawn following a conversation with a friend about the death scene in Sylvia, a biopic about Sylvia Plath. In the film, Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow) closes her eyes after turning on her gas oven. In actuality, Ms. Plath was found with her head in the oven. Chioma’s friend argued that there was no way to depict the suicide as it actually happened without it looking absurd. Chioma disagreed and drew the above drawing.

Regardless of the backstory, the illustration remains an effective critique of stifling, sexist, and thoroughly-American mid-century Modernism. The philosophy that kept the public and personal spheres separate was culpable for the marginalization and oppression of women. For some women of Sylvia's time, such circumscription probably did make some ruminate other uses for ovens besides tv dinners and Thanksgiving turkeys. That said, the dark humor in this illustration is boldly apparent, from the funky wallpaper to the large, baffled cat in the window.

Another member of the Sad Girls' Club fleshes-out this dark humor further:

Food diary

An almost naked Amy Winehouse sits on a scale, head buried in her arms, surrounded by dancing, anthropomorphic food - one of which gleefully advertises the amount of calories it contains. The juxtaposition between a deeply unhappy human life and consumer culture makes the latter look absurd and irrelevant. The food dances around Amy, perhaps imprisoning her, and when complimented by the scale, it is impossible not to consider the rampant body image problems plaguing women in western societies; Amy herself struggled with an eating disorder which likely contributed to her death.

The blithe, dancing food entrapping Amy suggests that she had likewise become part of consumer culture. Unfortunately for her, in this lifetime, there was no escape. Her fame/infamy kept some writers from seeing her as someone who had suffered in the spotlight, and a rash of callous, mean-spirited articles, like this one, filled the tabloids.

"That's exactly what happened," I said to the artist.

For all the Sad Girls:
For other works by The Virgin Dress:

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