Lauren Kelley: Collect them All! Soft Brown Narratives
Lawndale Art Center
Lauren Kelley, Big Gurl, 2006
In Lauren Kelley’s video Big Gurl, growing up begins when the narrator tells her six-year-old daughter, after being teased about her lips, that she needs to learn that “sucking it up” is integral to “standing on one’s own.” The characters in Kelley’s vignettes are played by brown dolls of various shapes and shades. In this opening scene, as her self-image becomes aligned with the perception of physical imperfection or difference, the child’s lips, animated in clay, grow until they quietly consume her face and the entire frame. Being a “big gurl” means recognizing the superficial self as seen through the eyes of an oppressor, internalizing this perception and perhaps feeling defined by perceived differences.
The narrator also recalls her grandmother who she says, “had a fabulous outlook on life though she was called worse things in her day.” In this statement, Kelley directly addresses the difference between current race and gender conditions and relations in the United States today versus pre-civil rights and feminist movements. This statement suggests that the grandmother’s terrain might have been more easily trod compared to today’s myriad, nuanced identities—both real and projected—which are harder to map.
The fact that Kelley uses mass-produced dolls marketed for their superficial differences frames her entire exhibition. They wear their ethnicity like costumes, and the differences in their appearance seem to prompt their roles. The most Barbie-doll-looking character, Mimi, is depicted as ambitious, while Shayla’s bleached curls and bright makeup match her uniform from “Queen’s Fried Chicken.” Her workday includes being constantly sexually harassed—by her boss, by a customer, by a man in the parking lot, etc.
Kelley appears to make this part of the daily life of an African-American woman. Do men, in particular, objectify black women? Does the emphasis on physical difference navigated by consumer culture cause a woman to make an object—a doll—of herself? And does the early lesson to “suck it up” make sexual harassment more pervasive or at least easier to stomach or compartmentalize?
Another character, Violet, literally “sucks it in” so she can walk down the aisle in an ill-fitting wedding dress. “Two hours later,” the narrator says, “she was wed to a brother who best fit her.” Smartly, this can be read in two ways: either the groom had better fit her or else, or he fit her best—better than anyone else.
Fit is a good metaphor for all of Kelley’s vignettes, as her female leads seek to negotiate their self-image by performance: through work, health choices, what they buy into and consume such as hairstyles, food and wedding accoutrements, including Violet’s groom. Kelley’s versions of female blackness are contained—inside one’s skin, in a restroom, a clinic, a greasy-spoon restaurant, a wedding dress—as well as within the heteronormative goals in a woman’s life that are sold alongside dolls in the marketplace.
Technically speaking, the fluctuating audio quality and texture of Kelley’s videos are quite distracting. Additionally, choppy animation makes the work difficult to follow at first but reminds the viewer that this piece is about play: this is about the “real” world these dolls reflect and assist in creating.
At times, this angle also makes elaborate sets and stage direction impressive and appropriate. Some striking scenes include the public restroom in which Mimi learns of her pregnancy, complete with locking bathroom stalls and shot with sophistication. Later she visits an overcrowded clinic elaborately furnished with miniature modular chairs and a wall of color-coded patient files.
While these moments give pause, the strength of the work is Kelley’s commitment to a fantastically complete world, much like one created by a child at play. She gives so much, however, that little room is left for the viewer. Contrarily, one of the digital stills flanking the videos, Backside Float, is quite effective, as interaction, by necessity, takes place between the viewer and the still.
In Close-up, Kelley alters a doll’s face, making her nose wider and lips bigger using modeling clay. While this makes the face look more specific, it ascribes an uneven texture that almost seems grotesque. It is a claustrophobic moment that makes one feel like pulling the sticky substance off her face, which is as impossible to do to an artwork as it is to a real-life physical feature, which may be the precise tension Kelley seeks to depict in her narratives—the tension between being narrowly identified versus the imaging of oneself, wrought by the visual for which Kelly’s protagonists seek visual cures. Each deceptively small gesture adds up to a “big gurl” problem that reaches far beyond the screen.