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Julie Farstad: More More More!

at Zolla/Lieberman, through December 6

During her last year of three in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Julie Farstad says she "really wanted to paint again." She'd stopped after the first year, troubled by "this conundrum--what is my voice?" and started making installations and reading theory instead. During her third year, her parents were moving out of their home in Elmira, New York--where they'd lived since Farstad was born, in 1974--and offered her some of the Madame Alexander dolls they'd given her and her three sisters.

The dolls had been a source of both fascination and frustration for Farstad--her mom had forbidden her to handle them "because they would get dirty and messed up, and that would decrease their value." But at age six or seven, Farstad started drawing them in secret: "I'd sit up late at night, feeling that I was doing something very taboo." By the time she received her graduate degree, in 2000, Farstad was aware that images of dolls had become commonplace in art. Still, the associations they had for her helped her resume painting once she took dolls as her subject. She felt freed "to paint something that's been made into a big cliche" after reading Arthur Danto's After the End of Art.

Farstad's eight large doll paintings are the strongest pieces in her show at Zolla/Lieberman, which also includes 21 other works: smaller paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, an installation, and a sound piece. All eight depict the same baby doll, based on photographs Farstad took of it in many poses. The dolls enact little scenarios related to childhood or motherhood, many of them kinky or nasty, against backgrounds of solid colors: red, blue, purple, yellow. In Play Nice With Kitty--in which one of the two figures seems to be riding on a stuffed kitten--the dolls' glowing green outfits form a sensuous contrast with the reddish pink background. In Bad Bad Girls, one doll bends over suggestively while the other lifts up her skirt--is she about to spank or undress her? Kissy Kissy shows three scenarios against a pink backdrop. Reading from left to right, the first shows a large doll kissing a smaller one, suggesting mother and child. In the middle, two large dolls hold two smaller ones together so that their lips touch--mothers making their babies kiss. And at upper right, a larger doll is spanking a smaller one. Farstad's mix of affection and aggression heightens the impact of both, suggesting that love, pain, and power are intertwined.

The real strength of these paintings though, lies in Farstad's technique. After sanding the gesso and primer on her canvas to a smooth finish that hides the weave, she applies multiple thin layers of paint to create both the figures and the backgrounds, relying on an ancient method taught her by Maria Tomasula. This gives even the solid colors luminosity and depth; rather than bounce off the surface, light seems to come from someplace within. Farstad says the gold-leaf backgrounds of late medieval paintings were one influence, but while these were supposed to depict "a divine space," she wanted her backgrounds to represent "a psychological space." And her hot yet resonant colors do call up not only individual emotions--consider the green background in Ultrajealous Playground Drama--but a generalized infantile chaos: Farstad's figures float in a sea of bold, undifferentiated passion. Influenced by the writings of Julia Kristeva on "the oral phase...how the initial trauma of learning that you're separate from the mother's body is the impetus for identity development," Farstad combines bright unmodulated colors and half-formed humans to suggest the period when the infant is separating--which would explain the anxiety-ridden mother-child pairings.

A similar emotional chaos is evoked by Farstad's installation, The Cheap Trick of Desire. The walls of an entire room are covered with hot pink frosting, smeared on thick, and a row of cupcakes on shelves is inscribed "You want me you need me you beg me," letter by letter on hot pink icing. The sound track includes Farstad singing the pop song "I Want You to Want Me." Viewers are asked to remove their shoes before entering the room--which seems the world of an out-of-control child, where "hot" passions have been smeared all over the walls.

Farstad's doll paintings are arguably still more perverse, with the same figure shown in different sizes to signify adult and child, and with dolls more often engaged in games of domination than expressions of affection. In the drawing Taking Her to Bed, the figure could represent a girl holding her doll or a mother holding a child's hand in four different vignettes--but rather than gently leading it, she seems to be dragging it or pulling it off its feet. In the fifth and final vignette, three dolls lie in a heap as if dead.

In the paintings the dolls' eyes are closed. Echoing feminist theory, Farstad says this is because she doesn't want the figures "to give the viewer satisfaction." But her choice also suggests they represent beings who are less than fully conscious, children who are going through scripted motions without any inner awareness--in other words, who are half dead. Using dolls, with their less than fully formed faces and distorted shapes, to represent living beings also creates tension between the animate and inanimate. And the depth given to the figures' skin throughout pulls against their inanimate nature, giving them weird hints of life.

Several events in Farstad's childhood help explain the multiple associations dolls call up for her. The same mom who bought her dolls in frilly clothes saw herself as a feminist and "almost never dressed us in dresses and little girl stuff," Farstad says. "My mother's feminism also had nothing to do with being sexual individuals."

Farstad had a baby brother who was born prematurely and died after three months at home, when Farstad was seven. After the death the parents began taking in troubled foster children, and Farstad would eavesdrop on what the social workers told her parents, which included accounts of horrific abuse. "One girl's father made her eat her own shit, and another had all her ribs broken when her father threw her against the wall--she was paralyzed and made retarded for the rest of her life." And on a sleepover with a girlfriend, Farstad learned that her friend's stepfather had been sexually abusing her: "I was terrified--what if he comes in tonight?"

Farstad's most interesting painting, Happy Birthday Forever, is also the most ambiguous. Against a baby blue background, the central vignette shows a doll lying on a birthday cake, two others pulling up her dress and holding her legs apart, and a fourth brandishing a spatula/meat cleaver. Suggesting a corpse on a dissecting table or a child about to be sexually violated, this body is put on display in the same way as the birthday cake--or the nicely wrapped present sitting between two dolls at the upper left. The posed figures seem to invite our gaze, but looking at the child on the cake makes us uneasy. It's a commonplace of feminist criticism that looking can be an act of aggression, but Farstad shows us how creating images to be looked at can also constitute aggression. And knowing her childhood inspirations reminds us that what some girls live through is much, much worse than Farstad's fantasy scenarios.

In these paintings Farstad suggests that the mothering impulse--expressed in her desire to manipulate her dolls as a child--can be destructive, and her identical dolls with their eyes closed become perfect metaphors for children stripped of individuality by their mothers or by the culture. At the same time, the light reflecting off their skin is not the familiar glare of flat mass-culture artifacts but has a mysterious, almost spiritual depth, suggesting that even a doll can have a soul--and perhaps the individual, despite assaults, can keep her own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.

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