New York-based artist Melissa Stern is a connoisseur of visual puns. So many of her mixed-media works in Strange Girls, now on view at Garvey/Simon, deftly play on their titles, offering a refreshing mix of humor and feminist critique. In “Gaze” (2018), for example, a pale sculpted figure looks down at its reflection in small mirror on the ground, while its hands are tied up from behind with string. The work reads as a metaphor for feeling handcuffed to what appears in the mirror, and how the male gaze entraps many women.
The visual juxtapositions in the show are gritty and funny, rewarding close looking. Many artists try to pull this off, but few actually succeed at being as funny as Stern.
“New Boyfriend” (2018) is a comic take on the messy thoughts that arise when a boy lover’s staying power earns him that official title and a special neurotic spot in your brain. The faux-naif mixed-media painting depicts what looks like the Wicked Witch of the West with Scrabble tiles for hair, holding a little mustachioed male figurine in her palm. The jumbled letters atop her head suggest a jumble of thoughts, while the placement of the figurine, which Stern found in Jodhpur, India, suggests the danger of putting a man on a pedestal.
“Tug” (2018) also uses a little male figurine to satirize gender dynamics. A western frontiersman, made of plastic, pulls at a fishnet stocking swaddling an enormous leg beside him. He’s obviously not big enough to get what he wants, but that sure doesn’t stop him from annoyingly trying, like how many men with cowboy complexes overestimate their abilities.
In “Gams” (2017), Stern brings back that old word for a starlet’s thighs. In this mixed-media collage, images of pinup models’ legs perch like dunce caps atop six women’s heads. It’s a clever comment on how a woman can be so objectified that her legs become her crowning achievement.
The title of Stern’s sculpture “Born this Way” (2015) occurred to the artist as a slogan a decade before Lady Gaga’s queer anthem. “Bitch stole my line,” Stern told Hyperallergic, a publication she contributes to as a freelancer. A dark sculpted figure hangs upside down, its torso replaced with a block of wood. Stern drew inspiration from the acrobatics of 19th century circus performers, struck by their feats of pounding nails into their bodies. The wood block frames the body as a target for incoming nails, suggesting how individuals born with certain anatomical characteristics they can’t control end up more vulnerable to misogynistic aggression.
“First Date” (2018) isn’t joyful because, let’s face it, most first dates aren’t. An old man of the sea in a trench coat smirks nonchalantly, seemingly unbothered by the severed head hanging from a gallows beside him. Too many men, this assemblage suggests, are more interested in their date’s body than the thoughts that spring from their date’s brain. This lack of interest is like a decapitation. A backdrop of nasty wallpaper invokes an old dilapidated diner, alluding to the terrible venues many men suggest for first dates.
By entitling the show Strange Girls, the artist intimates how many women feel alienated and estranged in their own skins. A visual culture inundating women with unachievable ideals of beauty doesn’t help. Nor do many men calling themselves feminists in word but seldom sticking to their values in deed. It’s easy to feel depressed. It’s harder, but healing, to laugh. Melissa Stern’s gritty satire makes this bullshit stink a little bit less.
Melissa Stern’s Strange Girls in on view through November 11th at Garvey | Simon (547 West 27th Street, Suite 207, Chelsea). On Thursday, November 8th, Mike Rosen will lead a poetry slam responding to Stern’s work at Garvey | Simon at 6:30pm. On Saturday, November 10th, at 12pm, Louisa Pancoast will perform a dance piece that responds to Stern’s work at Garvey | Simon, which will be followed by a talk with the artist at 1pm.