Bad Girls For Goodness' Sake

FEMINISM HAS BEEN GOOD FOR THE ART world. And the art world has been relatively good to it. Historical reappraisals of painters from the baroque's Artemisia Gentileschi to the early modernism's Lyubov Popova and the emergence of new generations of important contemporary artists have benefited museums, galleries and alternative spaces. At the same time, those institutions have begun to exhibit women's art at a rate fast approaching equity. Much feminist art created over the last 25 years is, however, dour, strident, dense and homely in part because women artists had a lot of angry stuff on their minds, and in part because nearly everybody's art during that time has been dour, strident, dense and homely.

Now things are lightening up with "a new generation of artists, many in their late 20s and 30s," or so claims an exhibition entitled "Bad Girls" at New York's The New Museum of Contemporary Art (in two consecutive parts through April 10). Well, it's lightening up a little. Director Marcia Tucker, who organized the show and wrote one of the catalog essays, asks us to imagine the "transgressive potential" of "a lesbian cross-dresser who pumps iron, looks like Chiquita Banana, thinks like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, talks like Dorothy Parker, has the courage of Anita Hill, the political acumen of Hillary Clinton, and is as p---d off as Valerie Solanas [who tried to murder Andy Warhol in 1968]." While there's no single talent among the 34 artists in "Bad Girls Part I" (or, presumably, those in a sister show, "Bad Girls West" at UCLA through March 20) who meets those specs, several take a stab at one or another of the alleged virtues. While you come away from the exhibition not knowing whether a true bad girl is (in the words of writer Jamaica Kincaid) "the slut you are so bent on becoming" or a flannel-shirted, vegetarian ecofeminist guerrilla, you can be damn sure June Cleaver isn't one.

The good stuff in "Bad Girls" is wickedly simple. Portia Munson's "Pink Project" is a huge tabletop of pink products from innocent toddler toys to dildos, arranged as a glowing, fleshlike cityscape. They remind you how many purchasables are pink, supposedly to appeal to females. Elizabeth Berdann's "10 of My Best Facial Features" comprises 10 tiny oil paintings, each on a copper mirror, of such items as the artist's tongue, eye and hairline. it's hard to tell whether they add up to a beauty or a beast, and that's Berdann's point. And Renee Cox's larger-than-life-size, Soviet-style photograph of her nude self-and her child, held almost like a weapon-dares you to make a distinction between heroics and erotics.

But the bad stuff-and there is a ton of it-outweighs everything else to the point where "Bad Girls" collapses onto the bosom of that old bogy person, humorlessness. Mostly it's The New Museum's fault, and mostly because it can't refrain from relentlessly instructing the audience, instead of letting people discover and enjoy on their own. The show is carved up into such stultifyingly academic topics as "Carnival and the Body" and "Burlesque and Gender Transformation." There's also "Humor," but humor, one of the ubiquitous wall texts solemnly states, "is a way of creating solidarity within and between groups and of distancing oneself from one's own oppression." If that's a cue to giggle, then we've wandered into the wrong exhibition, one probably called "Correct Girls."

One artist, Sybil Adelman Sage, is billed as "a Hollywood comedy writer with particular interest in the fine arts." Her contributions include printed witticisms like, "It was bad girls who ... discovered that the average backpack holds more yet costs less than a Chanel bag." There go two careers. "Bad Girls" accentuates the leadenness by embellishing its brochures and invitations with such real gems as Mae West's "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before," and Bette Davis's "When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch."

In a rear gallery, Nancy Dwyer has ringed an area of the floor with Gilda Radner's "It's so funny I forgot to laugh" lettered over and over. Within the area, portable tape players sit on tables whose parts vertically spell out f-a-r-t. The tables stand next to chairs and footstools whose profiles are, respectively, an "b" and an "a." Daring to sit and listen, you're treated to, among other things, the Yeastie Girlz' "FCC Rap." You can also hear Bessie Smith, way back in 1925, belting out "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle." All of which raises the inevitable question: why do prefeminist hussies, who lived back in troglodyte times, seem to have so much more oomph than today's bad girls? Perhaps it's because in those days, when there was an evangelical tent meeting, genuine sinners came hollering down the aisle to repent. "Bad Girls" is more like doctrinaire repenters tiptoeing down the aisle to sin.