MIAMI — &gallery is a small space that, if crowded, requires lots of shuffling and peering over shoulders. If it is empty, a visitor could view a show in its entirety from the entrance. This is not to say that it’s underwhelming, but rather compact, and that is how Maggie Dunlap’s work ought to be seen: however disparate her mediums, they speak to each other in a language rooted in femininity and feminism, one that traces young women’s rites of passage into adulthood, which are unequivocally horrifying but often beautiful. In Dunlap’s first solo show, Tender, each piece faces another, sharing their stories.
A photograph positioned near the door depicts a Ouija board mid-séance, surrounded by legs in patterned tights and bejeweled hands. “A group of young women coming together, this sort of camaraderie, can be seen as dangerous or scary,” said Dunlap, when I asked her about this image. Witchcraft is inescapably connected to women, and one of the occult signifiers attached to the mythically transformative period of adolescence — it’s an easy trope, the teen witch, but it is not without its particular history.
In Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), the film — based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name — displayed an inextricable connection between the teenaged Carrie’s first period and her burgeoning, terrible magic. To menstruate is to be degraded, she learns, and, as such, her new cycle is an unfortunate physical prelude to a dangerous metaphysical transformation. Carrie spends the rest of the film telekinetically breaking and moving various objects, always prompted by her anger, annoyance, and humiliation. In one scene, before leaving to her ill-fated prom, Carrie’s mother deems her a witch.
In Carrie, growing into womanhood, and the increasing emotionality that comes with it, is a clear catalyst for magical skill, which in itself is formidable. Dunlap, too, seems to understand the link between the blossoming femininity of teenage girls and a sense of mystical foreboding, but maintains that the impending threat is only rendered as such by those who’d rather not see women cultivating their power.
Newly out of adolescence herself, Dunlap photographs the aforementioned camaraderie of female friendship and its singular intimacy, recalling historical images of the witch’s coven. In pop culture, these circles of women frequently appear frightening or intimidating, perhaps because the traditionally shamed female body is reborn into something that produces miracles. However vulnerable a young woman becomes, once thrust into the harsh climate of adulthood — where conflicting messages about her sexuality, which began in childhood, culminate in a terrifying landscape — she now possesses the ability to do what pop psychology refers to as “taking back your power”: she can shamelessly, unapologetically own herself. This inspires fear in others, particularly men.
Other photographs from Dunlap’s Heavenly Creatures series feature youthful women, mostly her friends, and their historical ephemera — retainers, locks of hair — in tenderly staged settings, existing wholly and solely in worlds of their own making. Nearby, in a series of paintings etched in red, blood-like ink, Dunlap commands the viewer: “PUBLICLY NAME EVERY RAPIST IN YOUR COMMUNITY.” “ERASE THE NAMES OF EVERY MAN IN YOUR ART HISTORY TEXTBOOK (SEE WHO IS LEFT).” “LEAK YOUR OWN NUDES.” And, one Carrie might’ve heeded: “YOUR EMOTIONS ARE WEAPONS OF MASS DISRUPTION (USE ACCORDINGLY).”
Still more poignant is Dunlap’s embroidered work, both her lingerie (shown in photographs) and decorative needlepoint designs on linen: a pink Bic razor, a tampon, frilly underwear, the accouterment of BDSM. Next to a hand-stitched girl — who’s bound above her breasts with red string, ball-gag round her face — a caption reads: “What can I say? I’m a romantic.”
This image is not especially jarring, but by quite literally embedding it into the fabric, Dunlap flips the violence directed toward women on its head, exposing it and thus reclaiming the female body (and her own body). It doesn’t feel freshly controversial to utilize a skill long associated with women’s craftsmanship — and ideas of hearth and home — to create salacious imagery. Her point, rather, is to establish a small microcosm in which young girls summon spirits and direct each other to overcome patriarchy, where a pink razor is worthy of decorative honor and the experience of being the victim is redrawn. In this world, girls are sources of enchantment. They have, for now, taken back their power.
Maggie Dunlap: Tender continues at &gallery (6306 NW 2nd Ave, Miami) through November 13.
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