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Little Terrors 

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Kim Dingle

at the Renaissance Society, through December 29

By Mark Swartz

I don't know all that much about children's literature, but it seems you can break it down to two categories: the kind that attempts to improve kids and the kind that shows what really goes on in their minds. Parents who subject their kids to the first kind are saying: I don't know a thing about you, but this stuff is supposed to work. The other message is: I know what you're thinking, and believe it or not, there are folks out there who not only have more depraved ideas than yours, they write them down.

Sometimes it's hard to tell one from the other. R.L. Stine's enormously popular "Goosebumps" books pretend to explore the dark side of children's imaginations, but they pale beside the works of Edward Gorey, whose Gashlycrumb Tinies tells of 26 children--one for each letter of the alphabet--and how each was killed. ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears...")

The first genre is a reactionary form even if the messages offered are liberal. An example is the relentlessly uplifting Free to Be...You and Me book, record, and television special by Marlo Thomas and friends from the 70s. I'm thinking especially of a song called "William's Doll," about how the other kids shouldn't ridicule William for wanting to play with a doll: the boy should be encouraged to give in to his nurturing, characteristically female urges. But what if William wants a doll so he can chew off its nipples?

Kim Dingle challenges and ridicules the notion that playing with dolls is a domesticating, sedate, complacent activity. No matter what Marlo Thomas expects, children don't just play mommy (or daddy) with their dolls, they often strip them, dismember them, use them as weapons, and enact all kinds of bizarre and sick fantasies. You can put dolls to any use imaginable. In most of her paintings and in her installation Dingle presents her signature doll, Priss, and her companions fighting, shooting, stabbing, and lynching one another.

Dingle knows her art history, and the arrangements of her figures sometimes echo the war paintings of Reni, Goya, and Picasso, whose heavyset nudes of the neoclassical period these babies particularly resemble. The references aren't self-conscious or distracting; in fact they give the compositions a certain gravity that counterbalances their inherent silliness. Dingle's stuff is very funny, but the messages are sophisticated and political. She doesn't protest violence; she acknowledges that violent urges come upon boys and girls alike. And in addition to gender equality--what might be called the right to kick ass--she addresses race relations in America and the myth of the west.

Dingle's Priss is custom-made, and in one piece her midsection is tattooed with cowboys and Indians; elsewhere, in a tidy bit of appropriation, Dingle seats one of her baby dolls atop a galloping horse in a reproduction of somebody else's painting. Her satire is well aimed. Where were the pretty little girls out west, she asks? Did they get to massacre the Indians too, or did they have to stay home and cook?

When it comes to race, Dingle is a little more confusing. In the elegantly rendered Two Girls, One With Head in Heaven, the latter is a black girl, and her head doesn't look like it's in heaven but like it's been obliterated by brown paint the same color as her flesh. She's wearing nothing but panties, socks, and shoes, while the other girl, who is white, is wearing a dress. The white girl might be grappling with the black girl or comforting her. The central image in Wild Girls Under Blue Sky is a white girl brandishing a knife and chasing a black girl. The Priss Room Installation features Priss and a black doll standing in a crib inside a nursery room that's been utterly trashed--wallpaper torn and scribbled on, mutilated stuffed animals scattered about. To understand the piece, it may help to know that Dingle lives in Los Angeles just east of downtown.

Priss reminds me of the Hole song "Doll Parts," where Courtney Love wails, "I want to be the girl with the most cake." Priss is the holy terror, the little bitch, the one who puts on a nice smile for the teacher but bites you when the teacher walks away. She wants to take what belongs to her, plus a little bit more. I keep calling Priss and the other figures "dolls" because that's what they look like to me, but Dingle sees them as children. "She's not a doll," Dingle insisted in a recent interview in Bomb magazine. "She's Shirley Temple as a psycho pit bull."

I could see Mattel or some other toy company having a look at Priss and thinking they were onto something good. Pretty soon there would be shrink-wrapped Priss dolls, fists clenched, tattoos flashing, on the shelves of a certain major toy chain that has become notorious for its price-fixing practices. Surely a Saturday cartoon would follow or--God forbid--a full-length Disney feature, with Priss's voice provided by Marisa Tomei. They'd pasteurize Priss the same way they've pasteurized everything from Alice in Wonderland to The Little Mermaid.

Dingle is playing a dangerous game, creating an icon with such marketing potential. For all her subversive intentions, what's to stop this nightmare of the American psyche from becoming one of the plastic toys in a McDonald's Happy Meal? As with all things once subversive, soon enough a tame, homogenized version will come out. As always, the line between satire and sellout is thin and tortuous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Two Girls, One with Head in Heaven" painting.


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