Barbie Dreams: Susan Bowers at Barrister’s Gallery

Charlie Tatum writes about Susan Bower’s reflections on childhood in her current show at Barrister’s Gallery.

Susan Bowers, Kiss Upon Kiss Grow Into Hand Sock Hard Rock, 2018. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

Susan Bowers’ new show at Barrister’s Gallery is like peering behind the doors of a Barbie Dreamhouse on a bad acid trip. Featuring crowded groupings of chaotic paintings and gloppy sculptures, “Queer Bubblegum Dream—WorldReality” takes Barbie’s all-American, saccharine image as a starting point to explore the ways that both cruelty and empathy are learned young—chronicling how we might spend the rest of our lives clumsily trying to untangle and understand these feelings.

The gallery’s front room features a series of portraits of Barbie and her Mattel-brand friends, bruised, battered, and bloody. The gloomy paintings, which feature the women in locales like Marrakech or a polo club, take cues from the rounded forms of Pop Surrealism, the figures’ heads oversized, their faces emotionless. In Kiss Upon Kiss Grow Into Hand Sock Hard Rock, 2018, one doll’s face is visibly injured, her mouth seemingly having been bound shut. Another stares blankly ahead in Barbie in Tangier, An Ancient Pissed Off Queer Indifference, 2018. It’s easy to read the works as a response to current conversations about the very real dangers of sexual assault and harassment or to place them in the long lineage of literature and visual art—from Madame Bovary to Cindy Sherman—exploring the banal societal expectations placed on women.

But in Bowers’ work, the women are dolls (in one painting, a fluorescent pink horse even nestles its muzzle against the figure’s chest), indicating that the artist is also interested in the relationship between children and toys. We don’t think twice about a child cutting the hair of a doll or yanking its limbs or throwing it around the room. Bowers’ works, however, suggest that this age, when young people are learning to care for belongings, and consequently other people, has more permanent implications and is not merely a stage one grows out of. These ideas are echoed in works that look at the relationship between children and animals like Puppies with Macramé, 2018, lifesize ceramic sculptures depicting the tiny animals lifeless, bound in pink rope. And in the mixed-media painting Don’t Be Cruel!, 2018, Bowers matches four crudely rendered “small animal mummies,” as they’re labeled, with a glitzy mirror that has been laser-cut in the shape of a hand-drawn poodle.

A selection of ceramic sculptures by Susan Bowers. Courtesy the artist.

Standouts in the show are Bowers’ slumping ceramic tubes of lipstick, standing about two feet tall each. Challenging the impossible standards driven by the beauty industry and instilled in girls at a young age through toys like Barbie, many of them are glazed with retorts and one-liners like “stop staring” or “fake it till you fake it.” Here, Bowers channels the forms of artists like Arlene Shechet and Kathy Butterly, who have long explored the emotive possibilities of clay, and the makeup towers are fittingly messy in the best way imaginable. And while the subject matter is often dark, it’s easy to get carried away by Bowers’ sensuous use of color and her dreamlike appreciation for kitsch. Placed atop paintings containing abstract swirls of gaudy pinks and blues, plywood sheets and mirrors cut in the shapes of kittens, palm trees, and ice cream cones evidence the artist’s fascination with the wonders of childhood and their aesthetic possibilities.

Though Bowers addresses the harmful ways that children, especially girls, are socialized to look and act in certain ways, she ultimately doesn’t provide any clear-cut solutions, and her avoidance of didacticism in art feels somehow refreshing. In her cryptic yet poetic artist statement, scribbled on a piece of paper in the gallery, Bowers shows that one might never find easy answers: “The idea of ‘innate’ and ‘learned’ are no longer viable descriptions. ‘Inside mind’ and ‘outside mind’ are no longer viable descriptions. I remember through emotions. The emotions are colors more vivid than any event I know can happen. I remember everything is sad happy.”

Editor's Note

Susan Bowers’ “Queer Bubblegum Dream—WorldReality” is on view through September 1, 2018, at Barrister’s Gallery (2331 St. Claude Avenue) in New Orleans.