Pink is the Color of Our Insides: 4 grrls: pt. ii at The Lunchbox
I came across “The Grrls” collaboration on Facebook first as Elizabeth Rath’s profile picture. In addition to being an art student at the Milwaukee Institute for Art and Design (MIAD), Rath is also a fashion model. It’s not entirely uncommon to see images of her pop up on my feed, mid-runway stride dressed head-to-toe in clothes I could only wish to pull off in my daily wardrobe, but something about this picture was different – familiar. Perhaps it was the theatrical makeup, the playfulness of the pose contrasted with a stark stare that might be expressing a subtle “fuck you”, but could also be just a simple case of “resting bitch face” while in the midst of a daydream.
In the same day, more images from the same shoot appeared on Facebook, but this time from collaborators and fellow MIADians Sarah Sickles, Marissa Macias and Melissa Johnson. It clicked. The styling and expression I recognized was from Johnson’s illustrious drawings of young women in spaces reminiscent of early 90’s platform video games. Most often in some form of fashionable undergarment, the characters in Johnson’s drawings are usually accompanied by speech bubbles – sometimes in conversation with one another or sometimes speaking directly to the viewer. These women are not unaware but they are unconcerned with our presence as they go about their business jumping rope, drinking High Life or simply lounging in their environments that may or may not be on fire.
Later I would come to find out that this collaboration was spawned from a practice in art direction by Johnson. She invited Sickles and Macias, both aspiring conceptual fashion designers, to talk about their current clothing lines and how they relate to the contemporary art world. An interview and photo-shoot would take place, using Rath as a model for each of their clothes in a Johnsonian world impregnated with the interlacing ideas of Sickles and Macias’s work. Rath, much like Johnson’s characters, does not model as a “fashion model” in this shoot. Her body is not a fleshy mannequin molded to show off a style, but is an active performer. An intensity shines through the still images as she sternly grips her braids, effortlessly sways them from side to side, or, gracefully yet awkwardly, dances with a floating pink balloon. Like Rath’s own performance practice, a sense of serious play catches us off guard; we don’t know whether to laugh or furrow our brows and thoughtfully scratch our chins. So we do both.
Now, as I sit in my studio while the grrls work in The Lunchbox, the four of them are posing for photos, laughing and discussing the way their different bodies fit into Sarah Sickles Pube Panties, a line of women’s underwear with beaded, pube-like strands on the outside crotch. Sickles work in fashion and photography features her body, as well as other young women, as a form of self-investigation. The Pube Panties are aesthetically beautiful with hues of pink and sparkling beads, but they simultaneously ask us as viewers to consider what we think of “the bush” these days. Does it make a woman “uncleanly”? Does having a shaved pubis recall pre-pubescence, and is therefore sort of perverted to prefer? These somewhat uncomfortable questions concerning the political female body are echoed again and again throughout 4 grrls: pt. ii and is what ultimately drew me (and the rest of After School Special) to invite them to do a second collaboration.
Upon approaching their installation, the intensity of a pink we came to describe as “melting strawberry ice cream” is as exhausting to the eyes as staring at a computer screen for hours on end. Along with the clothing displayed on hot pink hangers and the video of Rath moving about this created space to a slowed down version of “Heart of Glass” by Blondie, the way the space screams “GIRL” is aggressive, off putting, and kind of cozy. The uneasiness is intentional, and the grrls know that most of their viewers will be quick to criticize it. In fact, they hope you will.
As Macias put it, when talking about her own work, there is something about female sexuality that our culture finds frightening. Her ornamented utilitarian clothing line, though not always overtly feminine or reserved for the female body, aims to fight the idea that “gear” or functional clothing has to be void of fashion. In the video presented in the 4 grrls: pt. ii installation, Rath is dressed in a yellow ski mask with a gold patterned fabric around the eyes matching a halter bra and knee-high socks attached to sneaker soles designed by Macias and a pair of Pube Panties designed by Sickles. As she walks around the set, sometimes daydreaming upon a pile of clothes, sometimes caressing a cellphone, we are not sure whether we find her endearing or if she seems threatening.
Recalling the attitude of the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990’s (hence, the title of this show), this idea of creating a girl powered world bleeds from the pores in the walls, the fibers in the clothes, and the pixels in the screen in the 4 grrls installation. As the five of us sat on the ground just outside of The Lunchbox to discuss their personal practices and their collaboration, our conversation quickly led into a discussion about our own girlhoods. It seemed as though we all held a desire to reconnect with a side of ourselves we felt too ashamed of growing up. Now in our early twenties, we feel it’s time we allow ourselves to do so. “BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak,” says the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, the 4 grrl’s fashion their own ways to begin navigating the complicated cultural climate around feminine identity. Although the color pink is often thought of as an ultimately artificial color, it is good to remember that pink is the color of our insides.
Images courtesy of Sarah Sickles.