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Queering the Feminine Through a Many-Layered Lens

Chatterbox, 2015
Liss LaFleur, “Chatterbox” (2015) (all photos courtesy of the artist)

There is a dance — an intimate choreography between what a viewer sees in an artwork and what the artist intended it to mean. Additionally, the signifier we place in front of artists who are not white males often affects the way in which they are perceived. For female artists — in particular, female queer artists — working under that label of “other” or even (heaven forfend!) being thrust into the realm of “craft” can be inhibiting, but also often the impetus needed to create their work.

LaFleur
Liss LaFleur

In the case of Dallas-based artist Liss LaFleur, there are many layers to the meaning of her work, both personally and for the audience she is trying to reach. LaFleur’s work has evolved to evince a richness and a prismatic quality, and curators and critics are definitely taking notice: she currently has a solo exhibition at Conduit Gallery in Dallas and is included in a group show at the Czong Institute for Contemporary Art (CICA) in South Korea. LaFleur, an assistant professor in New Media at the College of Visual Art and Design at the University of North Texas, uses her work as an artist to influence the way she teaches her undergraduate students in the methods and application of new media. She was part of a Ford Foundation–funded initiative called OUT FOR CHANGE at the MIT Media Lab, exploring transmedia activism, and she was named one of “10 to Watch” in 2014 by Independent Magazine.

YOU BELONG TO ME 2015 Audio/video installation 1 projector and 5 rows of pink fringe in a wooden or steel frame suspended from the ceiling 6' x 3' x 8', 6:30 looped
Liss LaFleur, “You Belong to Me” (2015), audio/video installation, 1 projector and 5 rows of pink fringe in a wooden or steel frame suspended from the ceiling, 6′ x 3′ x 8′, 6:30 looped (click to enlarge)

When describing herself and how she navigates both her identity and her identity as an artist, LaFleur told Hyperallergic, “I am an interdisciplinary artist who uses performance, storytelling, and technology to focus on themes of domesticity, loss, and historic parallelism. I explore political identities and personal relationships around the instability of memory and representation.” As an artist who identifies as queer, LaFleur investigates the fluidity and transformative qualities of self-reflection and self-deprecation. The role of narrative is key to her work — she instrumentalizes her body as a means of communication.

LaFleur’s corporeality is evident in pieces such as “You Belong To Me” (2015), in which she filmed herself in a long black wig and a form-fitting black dress, slipping into the trappings of a sexualized femme and lip-synching to the doo-wop classic of the same name. The character that LaFleur assumes is part Betti Page and part Marlene Dietrich, with a big dollop of Cher. The film is projected onto rods of hot pink fringe, hung from a wooden frame and suspended from the ceiling. It conflates the idea of gender within the genre of doo-wop and creates a layered lens through which to view the woman. She is not seen in her entirety, as portions of the projection are lost in the holes between the fringe; add to that the hyper-feminine shade that serves as the screen itself, essentially fetishizing the idea of woman, rendering her inert and only able to lip-synch or “parrot” the man who is singing.

Still from "Chatterbox"
Still from “Chatterbox” (2015)

“Chatterbox” is comprised of a set of 3D-printed dentures worn as a prosthetic by the artist. Each tooth features a small hole, in which she inserts different charms throughout her performance, 3D-printed charms cast in silver and rendered as kitchen utensils: spoon, knife, fork, spatula, frying pan. These objects represent ideals of domesticity, the housewife, and the fetishization of female gender roles. During this assembling and dissembling of her mouth, LaFleur attempts to hum Leslie Gore’s 1962 anthem “You Don’t Own Me.” The piece is intended to be either performed live in a gallery or shown as a single-channel video, with the ephemera from the performance displayed on a black velvet tray.

“Chatterbox” is unsettling, jarring even — which is part of LaFleur’s goal. “I am interested in extreme acts that pull you in, as unconventional as they might be,” she explained. “’Chatterbox’ was the first time I digitally fabricated an extension of my own body. This became an exaggeration of otherness, a disturbance/discomfort that I could explore both within myself and with a viewer.” In this piece, which is featured in CICA New Media Art 2016: The 2nd International Exhibition on New Media Art, LaFleur examines the proclivities and behaviors associated with the oral and the tenets of feminism. The piece looks at the mouth as a multifaceted environment – one capable of pleasure, communication, and pain, as well as a space for the entrance of disease and one in need of hygienic practices. In tandem with this inspection of orality and feminism is the notion of the cyborg and the introduction of technology into our physicality. With the addition of wearable technology, and even surgically implanted technology, humanity seems as though it is on a swift course toward hybridity with machines. The work was inspired by Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,“ in which she states: “The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.”

QUEEN, 2015 9' x 2' x 4' Neon, motor, Dairy Queen sign
“Queen” (2015), 9′ x 2′ x 4′, neon, motor, Dairy Queen sign

Diverging from performance and her use of the body as medium, LaFleur’s “Queen” (2015) looks at the reclamation of fetishized and feminized commodity. The piece starts with a decommissioned neon Dairy Queen sign, subverting its feminization by altering the reading of the word. The sign flashes from “queen” to “queer,” questioning the role of the woman in consumerism, the notion of feminine identity, and the ideologies engendered in the South. Though the artist’s body is not visible in the piece, it is still very much a self-portrait, demonstrating LaFleur’s identity and her subversion of gender roles, not only as a gay woman, but also as an artist who inspects the nature of gender, commodification, and systems of power.

LaFleur’s work is at once in your face and delicate, choosing a mode of seduction that uses pastiche to lure the viewer in with a hint of familiarity — then jolting them into a world that questions the status quo. “Feminism is part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, ableism, and sexual orientation,” LaFleur said. “If the fourth wave of feminism is a digital one, feminist art can only be understood within the intersections of suppression and in the context of the marginalization of other groups and genders.”

TIPS continues at Conduit Gallery (1626 C Hi Line Drive, Dallas, Texas) through February 13. CICA New Media Art 2016: The 2nd International Exhibition on New Media Art continues at Czong Institute for Contemporary Art (196-30, Samdo-ro, Yangchon-eup, Gimpo-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea) through February 7.

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