Fun with phalluses

Damned if she does, damned if she don't.
Los Angeles-based Susan Otto faces the same speedbumps other female artists face in this post-feminist age, but she tackles them with a finely tuned sledgehammer. She pounds away at social constructs, at the notion that the female voice is a tired one, with the tools of rhetoric, humor, pragmatism, and irony.

Sometimes it works, splitting and crumbling the concrete roadblocks like brittle clay, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes that jarring lump of scrutiny or dismissal lives on, intact and sneering.

As an individual whose creative expressions are rooted in personal experience, a common denominator among artists, Otto is acutely aware that she's a chick living in a man's world. If she addresses that reality in her work, men and critics and even a lot of women will look and say, "Ugh. Another strident bitch." If she doesn't address it--if she downplays it or sublimates it into work that comes off as non-gender-referenced, then she's lying about her feelings--which takes all the purge out of her process. Which renders art moot, because great art is about the purge. And Susan Otto, ultra-educated, duly noted artist of feminist perspective (or shall we now call it "gender awareness"?), will have none of that backing down stuff.

There's a mighty conflict between first and second impressions at Otto's current Dallas show. When you initially walk into her one-person exhibit, Romeo is still dead at gallery: untitled in Exposition Park, it's impossible not to read the overall vibe as political. And with every wall touched by her work, it's equally hard not to feel besieged by a female cynicism on the part of the artist. In her multi-media displays, men are mocked. Women are mocked for worshipping men. Women are mocked for their own self-consciousness (which, in effect, is created by the "male gaze," is it not?).

Yet, individually, the works are subtle and smart, and sidestep any label by way of a light-heartedness not associated with socio-political statements. Take a closer look at each piece, and slowly they seem more intimate, even affectionate. Non-threatening but questioning. It's that familiar dichotomy, then--the fight between a viewer's gut reaction and a viewer's ability to think about what he's seeing. Otto is winking at you. Do you get her jokes?

gallery: untitled is a small space, and the two main entry walls--the tallest and widest in the gallery--are covered with 56 large drawings of snakes. Titled "Reptile Experiment #1," it's a collection of works by men--all kinds of men--each asked by Otto to sketch a snake any way they want to. Some of the drawings are awkward, some are graceful, some are meek, some are heavy-handed; the men have signed the works with their first name, age, and occupation. While this may come off at first as some trite Freudian mockery of the male ego and the manifestation of their feelings about their own genitalia, a closer look tells a bit more. These guys are funny. They know what Otto is getting at, and they either challenge her posit by drawing with arbitrary abandon, or they join in her game by playing into stereotypes.

Mike the 35-year-old banker has drawn his snake as roadkill; Milton the 30-year-old scuba diver has drawn a fat, rolled-up thing with spots; Kevin the 27-year-old animator has drawn the simplest and plainest of the lot. Tony, a 31-year-old doctor, draws his snake with a human face and receding hairline.

Whaddya know? Instead of Otto's project making the men look obtuse or self-serious, which was never really her point, the male subjects reveal something far more thoughtful about themselves and the way they're perceived--by society, by women, by the very woman who asked them to draw such a phallic thing.

The next two pieces, on interior walls, are from one project though titled separately. The first, a three-by-four-foot digital print--textured, distorted, saturated with heavy electric reds and blues--shows the slumped and skinny silhouette of a lone guitarist: the anonymous Rock Star. "Romeo! Humors! Madman! passion! lover!" it's called, and the quasi-heroic stance of the musician says it all. He's in shadow because, as a newfangled and sensitive indie-rock type, he's not allowed to preen too much. Yet he's worshiped and he knows it. He deserves to be on reverent display, even if it is in a Dallas art gallery, and women who look upon him should swoon and drool like Pavlov's dogs accustomed to his brand of importance. As a symbol of the cult of celebrity, of the blinding madness caused by fandom or groupiedom or even honest appreciation for the visceral power he evokes with his music, he epitomizes what's goofy and pathetic and cool about rock and roll in all its testosterone.

The eight smaller photos on the opposite wall, collectively titled "Stills from a Silent Film (Nice Dreams)," are variations on the larger image: The same hero stoops, solos, sweats, and meditates over his guitar strings (or at least these familiar antics are implied), and the series flows with grinding deliberation. Kinda like a rock video. Which is exactly what Otto was watching when she snapped these photos off her TV. Her darkroom manipulation of the colors and shapes only amplifies the cartooniness of the image and its implications. The Rock Star is a "nice" dream for both women and men, though presumably for vastly different reasons. The woman wants him in her bed; the man wants to live vicariously through him.

(Some added irony: The true identity of this man? He is Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist-synth player for Radiohead, and interviews depict him as a very shy and unassuming character, far more concerned with the music than the trappings of stardom. Even more ironic than that: Susan Otto herself attended the Radiohead show in Dallas the night before she caught a plane home, and she waited to meet the band, and she showed little Jonny her photos of him, and sold some of these images to a Capitol Records rep, and...and...Get it? Who's winking now? Probably a shitload of rock fans who realize that Otto's brand of rock mockery and anti-groupieness seemed to turn inside-out in the face of the actual Rock Star. Only a guess.)

Otto doesn't always hit her mark. An adjacent wall frames two small video monitors flickering with images of a woman who: one, violently chops at her own short hair with a pair of voracious-looking scissors; and two, uses a razor blade to carve a heart shape into the tops of her feet. Both images are in garish porno color, and in both the woman remains disembodied and faceless. Looping of the images makes her two processes repetitive and eternal. Titled "A Woman Without Mercy!" it is, in fact, Otto mutilating herself. Ah, the price of art.

By the title, we can assume that Otto has transcended the obvious statement about women sickly screwing with their bodies in the name of self-improvement. Instead, she's making fun of such hysterics. But we still have to reckon with the triteness of this tongue-in-cheek jab. Joke or not, the concept is tired, and here it feels impersonal, despite the immediate effect it had on her own appearance. Bald head, bloody feet. So what? What issue has she pierced that hasn't been dragged through every self-help book and talk-show forum in America?

The last piece, spread over the two innermost walls of the gallery, is a series of 12 morphed photos of romance novel covers. The would-be familiar images of corseted heroines swooning in the arms of muscular heroes lack one thing in each--the muscular hero. Blotted completely out of the faded 1970s prints are the towering, gleaming men, which leaves an insipid, doe-eyed woman grasping at thin air. "Don't Leave Me This Way" is a light jest, as much about the syrupy drama that invades pop-culture as the stagnation of age-old romantic notions. But don't think too hard about this one. Otto would rather you laugh than analyze.

It might have been nice to see these works individually--to take them out of the company of their siblings so that each could stand on its own without the overwhelming "I am Woman" onslaught that they present when viewed together. Those nasty little aforementioned speedbumps have a way of derailing even the most patient viewer (e.g., my own attitude about the mutilation piece).

There's a handful of women who have gained unchallenged respect in the creative industries, women such as Laurie Anderson, Cindy Sherman, and P.J. Harvey. They've forged something so new and distinct that, despite the female undercurrents, it's uncategorizable. These artists have cornered their innermost concerns and dragged them into the daylight, and being a woman is only a part of their larger experience.

Their method is calculated and honed; the impact of their finished products--whether subtle or harsh--could never be denounced as shrill, trite, or cliched. Otto's work grazes this territory, but the sheer diversity of her media and her determination to stay the gender course dilute her potential. Otto once wrote: "Show me a woman whose primary experience of womanhood is her cunt, and I'll show you a woman who doesn't get out much." I say, show me more women artists whose primary experience as humans isn't driven solely by their gender.

Nonetheless, Otto uses that sledgehammer with impressive skill: Her craftsmanship is beyond reproach, her ideas are cleverly multi-layered, her sense of humor is intact.

Hack away, Otto. The fewer speedbumps, the better.

Susan Otto: Romeo is still dead. Through April 25 at gallery: untitled, 3603 Parry Ave, Dallas. (214) 821-1685.

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