ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When was the last time you felt like being a girl was actually fun? We’ve heard a lot of #MeToo lately — thankfully, because of course, me too — and while we’ve been contemplating the basic and largely unrelenting indignity of trying to be simultaneously respected and also female in a world built by and geared toward male pleasure, it has really started to feel like being a girl is the worst.
But Pre-Fab/Post-Fab: Art in a Readymade Era, a pop-up exhibition at University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery from three of Detroit’s brightest young women artists, reminded me that being a girl is wonderful. It’s fun. Especially when you’re a really weird girl, as are all three of the contributing artists: Heidi Barlow, Shaina Kasztelan, and Bailey Scieszka.
Barlow and Kasztelan both create 2D/3D compositions through the reconfiguration of cheap, readymade materials. Kasztelan’s works are more figurative-narrative (albeit psychedelically so), often leveraging the pop culture cache of her materials as a symbolic language, while Barlow uncannily provokes an emotional reaction in the viewer through her formal arrangements of informal materials and texture-on-texture-on-texture. Both embrace colorful palettes and an artificial, even chemical finish in their works (and in their process — ventilation, girls! Ventilation!!).
Scieszka is arguably one of the weirdest performers in all of Detroit, and I mean that as a compliment of the highest order. She stages elaborate performance art pieces and videos — and even a bafflingly bizarre billboard — often in the guise of her alter-ego, Old Put the Clown. One might, at first encounter, imagine that Scieszka is simply a master of insane costuming and the street corner crazy person rant (surprisingly hard to sustain for 15-30 minute stretches of performance), but her performance pieces often incorporate pre-recorded elements, which means that in reality, Scieszka can convey precisely choreographed interactions as surprising and extemporaneous. Her work has a passionate following in Detroit, and her opening-night performance at the Pre-Fab opening drew a crowd of fans and stunned onlookers.
It no doubt represents a bit of a risk for UMIH Gallery Director Amanda Krugliak to bring this trio of oddities into her institution. Barlow, Kasztelan, and Scieszka lack the gravitas of the traditional “fine art” aesthetic — which, too, is meant as a compliment. I am tired of the expectation that women tone it down in order to be taken seriously. I am tired of a culture that demands we remove facial piercings so we can interview for jobs in which we’re paid less than our male colleagues and less than we’re worth. Girls want lots of things, among them respect, success, admiration, safety, and visibility. And, in the immortal words of Cyndi Lauper, they want to have fun. It’s refreshing to see an institution recognize and celebrate these female artists on their own terms, even when they choose the weirdest, funniest, junk-storiest, moodiest, girliest aesthetics around.
Pre-Fab/Post-Fab: Art in a Readymade Era continues at University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery through Friday, February 23.