“Design is all about desire…”–Hal Foster, Design & Crime
On first glance at Patty Carroll’s exhibition at PDNB Gallery, I immediately thought of Hal Foster’s 2011 book Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes). In it, Foster states that design encourages narcissism, promoting surface superficiality with a lack of substance. In Carroll’s worlds, the ornately designed scenes subsume the protagonists. She says that the anonymous woman “is both a victim of her obsessions…, as well as the creator” of her circumstances, further explaining that her scenes are loosely inspired by the game of Clue, where players guess the perpetrator, motive and weapon. These anonymous women have succumbed to their own desires, but the perpetrator is not easily identified. Who can we blame? Surely not design, as Foster implies, so maybe society as a whole?
The brightly colored photographs are full of delicious subversive humor. Cooking the Goose features a 1950s era kitchen in disarray with a woman’s smartly dressed legs replete with pink pumps sticking out of the oven. One arm protrudes through the stove burner, clutching a phone, while the other arm holds a ladle. The cooked goose idiom refers to “game over,” failure with consequences to follow. What are the consequences to domestic failure? In the 1950s and beyond, domestic prowess defined self-worth for many women. My mind also travels to the dark place of suicide by sticking one’s head in an oven, a fate suffered by poet Sylvia Plath, whose poems spoke about suffering, alienation and personal demise.
I’ve been watching the Hulu miniseries Mrs. America, featuring Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist who organized housewives in the state of Illinois to protest against the ERA and the feminist movement. I can imagine some of these characters as Carroll’s anonymous women. It’s interesting that all of the women’s faces are hidden in her photographs. It wasn’t until I saw the photos in person that I realized her subjects are mannequins — they are merely props in their own scenes of downfall.
Jello Mellow? is one of my favorite images. With a subtle nod to Sandy Skoglund’s color palette, a woman is slumped over a dining room table littered with red food — strawberries, apples, cherries and jello. The molded jello dishes remind me of my grandmother; later, when I would try to recreate her complex jello creations, mine always turned into a big jello mess. The question mark in the title perhaps alludes to a pharmaceutical-induced mellow with valium, aka “mother’s little helper,” which was so frequently prescribed in the day.
The exhibit is only up for one more week. It’s worth seeing the photographs in person to consume all of their lush details.