Grrrl power

Flat is Beautiful’ video is the gem in GSU’s girl

Girls and girl photographers have been on the art world’s hot list since the sexy young photographers and their often sexy young subjects were featured in Gregory Crewdson and Jeanne Greenberg’s zeitgeist-solidifying New York show Another Girl, Another Planet.

The girl exhibition at Georgia State brings some of this female-centered work to a local audience, exploring appearance, power, rites of passage and other issues with a special resonance for girls. The exhibition is an interesting but often fractured collage of ideas about the art world notion of womanhood’s embryonic stage, and it unites some big guns like Justine Kurland and Nikki S. Lee with some lesser known voices in grrrl studies.

Kurland’s work is some of the most powerful in the mix for its assertion that girls are not just the marketing hook of porn sites but are mysterious, psychologically deep and in-control figures with a mythic importance. Kurland places her young women far from the limitations of home and hearth. Instead they are photographed in Jeff Wall-like, psychologically loaded tableaux out in wild, random, nature. Challenging our reflex belief in the good, well-behaved girl, these empowered lasses act out mind games involving nudity and a timid-looking boy in “Boy Torture,” or play with smoke bombs in the desolate, weedy patches beneath bridges that girls are warned since birth to avoid.

Another photographer who suggests an edgier, empowered dimension to the girl psyche is Julie Moos. Moos’ “Friends and Enemies” photographs pose two girls side by side in a series of work about the often brutal Queen Bees and Wannabes dimension to female relationships. There are inklings of something profound about female power and steely wills beneath stereotyped ideas of girl passivity and fragility in Moos’ work. Unfortunately, these inklings are hard to detect from the small evidence of two photographs in girl.

The slim pickings are more problematic in other areas, the most obvious case being Nikki S. Lee. Viewers not already familiar with Lee’s work will find the scant two images on display in girl cryptic. The Korean-born conceptual artist’s work entails the artist infiltrating various groups — punk rockers, retro swing dancers, strippers, Latino homegirls and yuppies — assuming their tribal wear and then photographing her ability to “blend.” Though Lee’s work seems most often about identity, it is an interesting idea to include it here for the elements of masquerade and female costume as they relate to the show, though those ideas never quite emerge from such a small sampling of Lee’s work.

The show’s undisputed heaviest-hitter, the girl tract that cuts beneath the surface and gets down into the mire of female subjectivity, is filmmaker Sadie Benning’s haunting, dark, experimental video “Flat is Beautiful.” Benning uses her hilariously low-tech Pixelvision Fisher Price technology to moving effect in this 56-minute character study of lonely 12-year-old Taylor (Sammy Steel), who’s emotionally abandoned after her parents divorce.

Benning intermingles tracking shots of the girl’s depressing, blue-collar neighborhood with Taylor floating like a ghost from school into the substitute womb of her bedroom where she plays with her porcelain animals and primitive video games. Benning’s performers wear crudely drawn paper masks to convey their emotional paralysis and give a sense of the Everygirl dimension to this remarkable work. “Flat” is a grueling, depressing sense memory made vivid through Benning’s shrewd use of evocative pop culture madeleines — Mr. T, Mr. Coffee, Kristy McNichol, macrame — that capture the profound alienation of adolescence heightened by an adult world too obsessed with its own troubles to attend to the generation it has sired.

As a whole, girl is hit and miss. There is often too little work by the assembled artists and not enough to thematically unite them beyond the surface depiction of girlhood. But there are also gems in girl like “Flat is Beautiful” that deliver something worth believing in: that girls are more than muses, whose mystery lies not in their sexual allure but in their defiance of the narrow role society has staked out for them.