Feminine Tropes & Fairytale Myths

To equate photography, still or moving, with the objects which are portrayed by the artificial eye of the lens is as silly as believing that everyone sees (e.g., comprehends what he sees) just alike. Vision is a psychological as well as a mechanical process. Even the most “objectively” made documentary is a psychologically prejudiced form of vision, automatically persuading one to see as it sees. -Parker Tyler,Declamation on Film (1961)

In her new photographs & installations at U-turn gallery, Molly Donnermeyer employs the trappings of modern American domesticity while alluding to timeless folk stories. In doing so, her current exhibition, “I Must Be Brave, You Must Behave” is a visual meditation on the mask of femininity. The artist draws a parallel between two tropes of womanhood: the fairytale myth & the modern woman of post-war America, via titular plays on words and the use of fashion to set a theatrical stage.

Of the thirteen pieces included in this exhibition, two are installations, eleven are photographs, and at least eight have some obvious allusion to iconic fairytales. Titles include The Princess and the Prick (The Princess and the Pea,) So I May Climb the Brunette Stair (Rapunzel,) and What Red Lips You Have (Little Red Riding Hood,) as well as references to other lesser-known folk stories. While sampling these traditional narratives, Donnermeyer juxtaposes corresponding images of post-WWII domesticity with a dark twist.

The first piece one encounters upon walking into the gallery (which one might easily miss without the accompanying title list), is her small-scale installation Mirror, Mirror Beneath The Floor, which is indeed, as the title suggests, mirrors placed underneath a standard-size floor vent. They are the kind one might find on a woman’s vanity table, used as a tray for brushes and other grooming accoutrements. The vent itself is dirty with the typical detritus present in any household floor vent, and the mirrors are set up at such angles as to make it almost impossible to see one’s reflection within. This first piece sets the stage for the accompanying works. It is subtle, disembodied, and references conventional tropes/ideals of femininity.

Six of Donnermeyer’s eleven digital large format C-prints capture the artist’s image, and these are the most successful pieces in the exhibition. Although her face is often obscured or cut out of the frame, the artist’s body occupies traditional domestic spaces in unconventional ways. For instance, she awkwardly leans over a fireplace screen, facing the viewer in Cinderella Dressed in Black.

Like Cinderella (who was named after the ashes she sat amongst,) Donnermeyer occupies the wrong side of the screen. That unheimlich quality is the dark twist mentioned above. A slight touch of the macabre exists in each work, lending a disconcerting aura that is similar to the dark fairytales of Neil Gaiman or Edward Gorey.

In Coffee Cake Table Coffin the artist lies barefoot between the glass top and bottom shelf of an octagonal coffee table wearing a gossamer sheath—evoking the sleeping beauty in a glass coffin image so often found in fairytales. What Red Lips You Have features a feral-looking Donnermeyer biting a brightly pattered curtain-like floral fabric while wearing matching red jacket and lipstick. In all of the aforementioned images, the artist underscores the armature of womanhood by employing fashion to help tell her story.

Even when supposedly undressed, Donnermeyer illustrates her narrative via style and accoutrements. In Never, Never Nude, the artist sits in a peach-tiled bathtub, her exposed back to the viewer, wearing a dangling cluster earring of pearls, & a nude-colored slip. Her skin tone, clothing, jewelry, and the towel she rests her arm upon blend together in tones of the same color. The subject’s paper towel-covered head is just disconcerting enough to be off-putting. Although we see no face, we are privy to an ostensibly private act. This theatrical ability to dress for the performance makes Donnermeyer so successful.

Donnermeyer’s visual aesthetic is deeply rooted in post-war America. The interior architecture, furniture, and appurtenances reinforce the dream- or memory-like effect of the photographs. They seem like they happened in the past but it is unclear to whom. Additionally, the slips, pleated full skirts, color palette, and even her bare footedness could be seen as a photographic homage to the era. Like Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, (1975) Donnermeyer employs domestic utensils in inappropriate ways, such as holding kitchen knives like a bouquet in Best Bouquet for Today.

Even Donnermeyer’s largest installation, The Dress is Always Greener, composed of a vintage wardrobe on its side with countless pieces of emerald women’s clothes spilling out of it, points to the artist’s use of fashion to explicate her visual narrative of envy. Like a frozen gesture or the aftereffect of a violent act, clothing in various shades of green spew from an open door of the armoire, undulating amongst heaps of black dirt. The effect is a riot of color and a forensic interest in each clothing item. Textures, pattern, & tone of fabric provoke an intimacy of looking. Is that a skirt? Jacket? On the reverse side of the wardrobe, Donnermeyer propped a medium sized mirror, too low and small to view one’s own reflection. Here again, the artist uses metaphor and displacement to strike a visceral chord. Although her titular reference is an oft-repeated English proverb (not a fairytale) the use of a wardrobe arguably makes allusions to both the material trappings of American culture and the mythological world of Narnia.

Like a combination Sophie Calle & Joke Robaard, Donnermeyer utilizes fashion in her photography as a metaphor for emotion and memory in “I Must Be Brave, You Must Behave.” Her orchestrated captured moments rely heavily upon the armor of femininity (hair, lipstick, clothing, domestic accoutrements, etc.) while underscoring their mythology. The artist thus successfully lays claim to the chasm between feminine tropes of post-war America and fairytale myths.

– Maria Seda-Reeder

I Must Be Brave You Must Behave: Recent Work by Molly Donnermeyer at U-turn Art Space2159 Central Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45214. October 2-30, 2010.
Poetry reading featuring Matt Hart, with selections from his new book, Wolf Face, Saturday, October 16th, starting at 7 pm



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