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Tire Iron 14: Lauren Kelley

Usually it’s easy to see where an artist is coming from; good work states the artist’s viewpoint clearly, bad work mostly falls into some recognizable category. Parody is the exception. Its strength is in deception; on making you believe one thing right up until the punch line, when suddenly the whole thing is cast in a new light. With Lauren Kelley’s Shields show at DiverseWorks Subspace I’m stuck: I can’t find the right punch line, yet it’s difficult to believe there isn’t one.

Lauren Kelley, Bubblegum Wig, 1999

It’s either a screamingly funny parody of African American feminist art, or so crude it stretches belief. It would be easy to email the artist and ask, but I’m not going to; the most interesting thing about the show is the questions it raises, whether intentionally or by accident.

Lauren Kelley, Rice Wig, 1999

A row of outré wigs are displayed on lavender shelves as if in a funky hair salon. Elaborate yet clumsy, each wig is a conglomeration of iconic objects, some specifically African-American, some more generally feminine: black power hair picks, fried chicken, fake nails, bubblegum, rice. The plywood shelves and life-cast heads that the wigs rest on are so poorly crafted they verge on folk art, yet retain curious hints of sophistication: rather than resting on their necks, the heads are cut off at the chin or lips, recalling both Benin altar heads nearly smothered in jewelry, or John the Baptist’s head on a plate. The wigs themselves are god-awful clumps of resin, but the plastic fried chicken legs do an amazing job of simulating the real thing.

The video is no help. A series of young women strike self-conscious poses as they model the outrageous wigs, wetting their lip gloss and making eye contact in what is either a grotesque parody of commercial advertising, or just grotesque amateur modeling. Corny commands like “don’t gnaw on my brain,” “Use your teeth” and “don’t put me on a plate” are superimposed across the screen — either a wicked send-up of the quasi-logical rhetoric of political action, or just quasi-logical political rhetoric. All set against a light, jazzy soundtrack. It’s nearly seamless.

Searching for the giveaway I couldn’t find in the work itself, I resorted to Kelley’s resume. No folk artist, Kelley has an MFA and BFA from prestigious art schools. I guess she’s black, although her resume doesn’t mention it; it’s almost impossible to imagine a non-African-American artist daring to tackle this type of content.

Kelley’s work flirts with trite messages on gender and race while mocking them. The ambivalence of her mixed messages speaks volumes about the complex, contradictory motives that drive and derail contemporary African-American art. It’s not a strictly serious comment on hairstyle as an expression of African-American women’s identity, nor simply an ironic comment about the overuse of such stereotypical ideas. The wigs are funny — no doubt about that. You can’t overturn a bucket of fried chicken on someone’s head without a laugh; but what am I laughing at? The artist, women with outlandish hairstyles, or the current state of African-American feminist art?

All images courtesy the artists and DiverseWorks.

Bill Davenport is an artist and writer from Houston.

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