What Cute Means
October 18, 2007
By Danielle Kelly

Two exhibits explore the double-edge allure of art that makes you go, ‘Awww …’


At left is “Sad Kitty” by Stephanie Dowell.  At right is “For Your General Bliss” by Becky Bogard.

Mine is a complicated relationship with “cute.”

As in the case for many women, “cute” induces a tangled admixture of attraction and repulsion in me.  Unfortunately, if it’s fuzzy, pink, sparkly or looks like it needs a hug, I am all over it:  I call cute from a mile away.  The same goes for even my most punk-rock of girlfriends.  “Oh my gawd!!!!  That. Is. So. Cute.”  Yuck.  It is the source of serious internal conflict.  Regardless of which particular wave of feminism a woman has internalized, most I know struggle with the sensation that the celebration of the syrupy-sweet is a dance on dangerous ground.  She questions, among other things, whether or not she is sustaining the patriarchal paradigm that uses the lovably ineffectual implications of all things cute to keep her down.  Yet, the identification of such precious sweetness is her endowed birthright.  Who knows cute better than she?  We galls are nothing if not well-trained.  Two current exhibitions offer contrasting takes on the subject, one celebrating the genre and the other critiquing it as a social construct. 

Ceramic artist Becky Bogard decided to use the girlish vulnerability of this iconography to her advantage, tweaking expectations in such a way that implied liabilities of such imagery actually become advantageous and effectual.  Bogard’s exhibit Matters of Heart, on view at the Donna Beam Gallery, is populated with fantastical creatures in hushed pinks and blues that appear to be in a constant state of bliss.  Inspired by actual woodland creatures, the figures have an air of the familiar while being completely otherworldly.  The gallery is a Seussian landscape of pastel green mounds, accentuating the sensation that time has stopped mid-activity, that you are invading their world, and that the merriment will resume the moment you look away.  These almost-squirrels of subtle lavender have swirling glitter markings and diamonds on their backs instead of spots or stripes.  And they are all just so darned happy—so alluring, sweet and harmless!  They eat flowers; they frolic together; they bask in the general glow of one another’s saccharine glee.

But don’t be fooled—a closer look reveals a bit more complicated scenario.  They are not just happy because they are pink.  Yes, those two baby-blue creatures are doing what you think they are doing.  While some pieces are a bit more R-rated than others, these little guys are seriously getting down.

Each possesses in varying degree a sly, subtle sexuality.  For Bogard, “sexuality can be sweet and innocent all at once … which goes against the stereotype.”  One of the best pieces, “For Your General Bliss,” lands on the more romantic end of the spectrum.  Akin to the cover of a romance novel (actual sources of inspiration for the artist), two entwined creatures are in the throes of an amorous encounter surrounded by a chorus of butterflies.  A different kind of ardor, shall we say a kind of self-love, is addressed in the terrific “Handjobs for Heartbreaks” and “A New Romance.”  These sculptures lure the viewer in with their whimsical appearance and keep her there with sweetly erotic, transgressive meta-narratives.

Lovingly fabricated in a combination of techniques, they carry with them the immense affection of their maker, whose sincerity is inseparable from their own.  Bogard hand builds the main figures and then finishes them with a variety of underglazes, involving airbrushing and numerous firings.  Multiples, such as the butterflies, are slip-cast in earthenware.

“I like seducing the viewer and leaving them wanting more.  There is power in flirtation and vulnerability … it takes a brave soul to offer it for free.”  Bogard reclaims the assumed vulnerability of sexy-sweet innocence through what she characterizes as the benevolence of her creatures.  She believes that the scale of the figures combined with their formal dynamism recontextualizes cute, offering hope against the jaded cynicism lurking in the halls of contemporary art and life.

Stephanie Dowell seems more interested in a simple and unfettered celebration of “cute” as a genre.  Her show Kitty Glitter at Main Gallery is a Technicolor dreamscape.  One half of the gallery is devoted to elaborately rendered, psychedelic glitter-pen drawings on black paper.  This work neatly falls into a category that New York art critic Jerry Saltz has labeled “termite theory” (taken from Manny Farber’s famous film essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”).  Reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, these drawings spill over with fervent industry and contingent, obsessive mark-making.  Hit or miss, not all reward the privilege of patient viewing, but those that do architectural or landscape-like, masking an interior structure or system. 

Tiny psychotropic kitty-scapes occupy the other half of the gallery.  For this viewer, these small, elaborately conceived drawings are the real show.  The artist constructs collages out of found cat imagery and dreamy sickly-sweet flora and fauna, subsequently translating them into large-scale paintings.  She then photographs the paintings, scales them down dramatically, and works back into the prints with glitter-gel pens and colored pencil.  The result is a hallucinogenic pastoral of twisted little kitties, precariously negotiating the swirling brightly hued panoramas.  They appear by turns incredulously befuddled and completely unaware of their surroundings.  Kitty took the brown acid?  I dare you to suppress a smile standing in front of these drawings.  The process is convoluted and the work is strange in all the best ways.  As in Bogard’s work, it didn’t change my life, but it did induce an uncontrollable and inexplicable giddiness for the rest of the day.  My face still hurts from smiling.

So, what’s with cute?  The obvious and undeniable association is Japanese Kawaii culture, popular there since the 1970s and now a staple of the Western visual dictionary.  This ancillary leap seems restrictive and a bit too simple—with or without the influence of manga, Murakami, et. al., this iconography is entirely relatable.

Remember Little Golden Books or Richard Scarry?  Walking through Bogard’s installation, my thoughts wandered more to Victorian decorative arts, the ornate and elegant lines of which articulated a suppressed eroticism.  The artist herself believes we live in a time of sexual repression, and who could disagree?  We also live in a time of excess, and the baroque undercurrent of both exhibitions reflects and speaks to this condition of dizzying extravagance.  Consider Damien Hirst’s diamond-incrusted skull or Jeff Koon’s giant metallic balloon animals: highly regarded artists successfully trading in lavish too-muchness.

Ultimately, “cute” is just a word, right?  And for all its implied potential, it really is sort of a neutral term.  Not unlike “cool” or “hate,” “cute” doesn’t really mean anything, but relies entirely on context to ascribe as much or as little meaning as desired.  Saying something is cute isn’t really saying anything at all.  Similarly, the girlish-sweetness of these two exhibitions means as much or as little as the viewer projects.  However, by embracing all things “cute” with such genuine lack of pretension, both artists offer work that is refreshing and subversive all at the same time.  Particularly commendable in the field that takes itself so very seriously.  So grab your girlfriends, see some art.  I would suggest passing on the apple martinis.

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