"Cool!" I said as I approached an interactive installation piece in the dark back room at Gallery Project. I cranked a wheel, and a short humanoid sculpture — with simple metal-frame legs, white baby shoes, and a bowl tipped sideways serving as both head and body — rolled its way toward one of two doll-size armchairs at either end of a long table. The new exhibition, Gender Agenda, includes works in various media by twenty-one local, regional, and national artists on the theme of gender identity. Knowing this, I'd been prepared to gaze quietly and thoughtfully at a sensitive, difficult display. But I was delighted to find myself playing instead. When the little sculpture got to the first armchair, a projection filled its head/body bowl with a surreal image of a woman's hands zipping a jacket up over an exposed spine. Curiosity kept me turning the wheel, which took the little thing — a child, I now thought — down to the other end of the table, where the projection showed another jacket being zipped over a large blinking eye. I got it: the armchairs were parents, and the projections, images of vulnerability and protection, were not the truth of the child's body but a reflection of parental values. Or so I thought, until I realized I was the one turning the wheel and operating this machine of gender training.
Although not all of the pieces were as fun, involved, or provocative as this one, they retained the same playful panache. In one series of photographs, the artist stuffed her entire body into a white T-shirt, creating the illusion of sundry deformed bodies underneath. Not only did she comment on the malleability of the human form, but she also seemed to be having a really good time doing it. (I couldn't wait to get home and play with my own T-shirts.)
Another photo collection, vintage images of cross-dressing women, had me picking out which outfit I'd most like to try: the Oscar Wilde tuxedos won, but the bad-ass cowboy hats came in a close second. In the middle of the gallery, a mannequin wearing a huge red and white dress splayed out in a target design on the floor continued the theme of dress-up. Although an interesting fashion-art concept, the all-too-familiar argument about women as targets of ridiculous, inhibiting fashion put a damper on the effect.
Going to Gallery Project often feels like going to a hands-on museum for adults, and the videos and literal toys in this exhibition strengthen that effect. However, some darker pieces — like the crocheted hangings that allude to domestic violence, or the drawing of a man pointing a gun at a cross-dresser while he/she dances — leave a residue of complicated social critique that will have you coming back to see them again before the show closes on Sunday, September 14.
[Review published September 2008]