I had a couple of goals when I came here. First, I wanted to complete detailed paintings of princess dolls in a manner recalling 17th-century Flemish portraiture. For me, the unusual pose of the portraits, featuring dolls facing away from the viewer, suggest ambiguity about the lives of girls – individual and collective – for whom the dolls serve as stand-ins. I intend to make a number of these portraits to push the representative nature of the dolls (symbols of human girls). I am also spotlighting the variety found in the dolls and characters, which are all manufactured with different appearances and personalities according to the understanding that each girl will find a character to whom they relate.
In counterpoint to the portraits, I wanted to do an installation for the first time and I wanted it to express all the complicated feelings and thoughts I have about the role of princesses in our mass culture. As the installation grew from a few twists of tulle and beads, my thoughts on the subject unfolded in new and contradictory directions. At times I was thinking of the creative energy of little girls for whom fairy tales are entry points to imagined worlds all their own.
At other times I was thinking about the violence of those stories, which are often cleaned up in our Disney versions, but not always. Remember the terrible scene when the evil stepsisters tear Cinderella’s dress apart?
I also thought about tremendous sense of entitlement we see at work in our culture, a vapid attitude that everything is “about me,” which can be seen on many reality TV shows from Toddlers and Tiaras (all about me and my kid) to Jersey Shore (all about me, me, ME). And of course there is the feminist exhortation, that to raise a “princess” is to produce a female locked forever in a tower of idealized expectations.
But ultimately, I think this body of work is about the earnestness of childhood pitted against the forces of mass consumerism. Children crave explosions of color, fantasy, and a good story. These elements are part of growing up and really, what culture can or should abandon its myths? They are a vehicle for childish imaginings and explorations. They do teach us what to expect from life – struggle, sacrifice, and self-discovery. The danger comes when the focus is exclusively on the trappings- long shimmering hair, beautiful satin and glitter. Or when the accumulation of plastic dolls and other playthings, along with endless DVD purchases, expensive movie tickets and trips to Disney World (enough to break a middle-class American bank account) overwhelm the lessons they teach.
Maybe the kids will be all right. As long as they are taught well and there is substance and variety to their interests, who can really tell how they’ll turn out? The title of the installation is Sidelong Watching Rainbows Form, which is a line from a poem I wrote. It refers to a moment I remember from my own childhood, of drinking water out of the hose in the backyard in summertime and seeing rainbows form in the spray out of the corner of my eye. Childhood is full of moments like that, when you are reminded that you are alive and in the world. These moments are the antidote to everything that is artificial and commercial in our lives.