Girlpower and Boyhood

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This article is from 2006.

Strange things must have happened during the murky childhood of The List’s art editor, Alexander Kennedy. Here, some of them rear their ugly heads as he wanders around a new exhibition, Girlpower and Boyhood.

Surely every child kills large amounts of insects, makes graveyards and funeral pyres to honour their remains, and tries to invoke elementals in the back garden to make it rain? No? It’s not all tea parties and mud pies, you know. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ child, so the macabre aspects of his or her fantasy life should be allowed to roam abroad bare foot, with a dead bird in its hand.

Everyone has a story of how weird they were as children - from aborted attempts at patricide (paint stripper in Soda Stream concentrate) to doing filthy things with Barbie dolls and Action men, there is a memory of a memory hidden at the back of most of our adult brains. Girlpower and Boyhood at the Talbot Rice Gallery hopes to unpack and examine these dirty little secrets, in an exhilarating show which includes over 20 internationally acclaimed artists.

Two days before the official opening, a pageant of fantastical creatures leans against the walls of the cavernous gallery space. On the lower floor most of the works have already been hung, but the room upstairs resembles the attic of a madman, with paintings examining the stuff of Oedipal and Electra complexes turned to face the wall like naughty children. ‘Look at that one’s tail,’ says Pat Fisher (who curates the show with Lene Burkard) pointing to a print by Kiki Smith, ‘very bushy.’ We all agree and someone mentions Freud’s Schreber case (where a patient dreamt about wolves up a tree with enormous bushy tails) before anyone says ‘penis’ and we all start laughing like kids. This will be a humourous exhibition - there is no room for the unfashionably fashionable ‘uncanny’ here, the work is playful and celebratory. These works look at the fantasies of omnipotence, which the child’s wicked little brain harbours - ‘his majesty the ego’ as Freud called it - thinking it’s the centre of the universe and that everyone else is either an extension or reflection of that notion, or a toy for his or her libidinous pleasure. Upstairs, for instance, Sandra Scolnik paints figures in canvases that are all versions of herself, some older (her mum) and some younger (Scolnik as a child or her own child), all acting out little set pieces of psychic theatre and driving each other nuts.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the exhibition will work, even although there are still decisions to be made about what will go where and exactly what will be shown. The exhibition flows from extreme Technicolour to sombre tones, black and white paintings in ink and feathery line drawings, before opening back up into the intentional kitsch of an unrestrained palette. As viewers enter the main space, they face enormous canvases showing dark forests on one side and safe childhood homes on the other. Both options are shown to be magical places, with agates littering the floor of the forest, and the roofs of the family house ripped off so that coloured spheres can fly out into the wider universe: microcosm and macrocosm temporarily bridged over suburbia.

A large figure dominates the space, a hermaphroditic nature spirit with an orchid where its head should be. Move closer and see the intricate needlework that this sexy monster has been created from. A perverse, unformed sexuality dominates the show, but rather than a depressing sense of gender dysphoria, clichés and stereotypes are ripped asunder and gender euphoria reigns. The girl power the title refers to is closer to Carrie’s daemonic telekinesis than some badly understood post-feminist expression. Boyhood is more of a cult in the hands of Burkard and Fisher, an occult brotherhood where anything can happen in the forest.

Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, until 30 Sep.

This article is from 2006.

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