JENNIFER DALTON Cool Guys Like Youby Abbe Schriber
WINKLEMAN GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 9 – OCTOBER 15, 2011
A recent article on the proto-feminist website Jezebel testifies to the pure power of the visual in, for instance, prime-time television: At this year’s Emmy Awards, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show won an award for writing, and out of the 16 staff writers standing onstage, two were women. It was a powerful and tacit statement, and after all the critiques and accusations of sexism leveled at Stewart over the last year, the one that perhaps hit the hardest simply by virtue of visual testimony. Stark representation is also at the heart of Jennifer Dalton’s exhibition of new work at Winkleman Gallery, Cool Guys Like You, in which she takes Stewart and other darlings of the liberal mainstream news media to task for their lack of female guests.
Dalton gently shatters a few idealistic beliefs about select personalities—Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Maddow, among others—that, “in the larger sea of fear-, humiliation-, and tragedy-based media,” as she puts it, have long been refuges of sanity for many of us. Compacted into the gallery’s front room, the show brings together four framed pencil drawings, a wall-sized installation of 137 small inkjet prints (all of guests from The Daily Show), a large bar graph painted in candy-colored acrylic, and two free-standing sculptures. The most successful works here remain open-ended, requiring viewers to proactively engage and grapple with the evidence Dalton puts forth.
While the lack of female presence on these shows is obviously problematic, what Dalton is really getting at in Cool Guys Like You is the dissemination and consumption of information in a saturated, round-the-clock media glut. How our selection of information plays into our subjective political beliefs has been written about at length, as has the profound influence of “mock” cable news shows—but what are we willing to compromise when it comes to cultural influence, and those we actually respect who have it? Can we stomach the fact that even the most cogent political commentators have internalized gender and racial bias? If not, what do we do?
Dalton grapples with these questions in the complex large-scale bar graph “To Whose Opinions Am I Listening” (2011). Appealing in its vivid stripes, and prominently positioned at the front of the gallery, the graph measures both the number of guests per month in 2010 on Dalton’s favorite shows, and the percentages of guests that were male. In that year, even Maddow and Terry Gross interviewed vastly more men, at 80.5 percent and 79.5 percent, respectively. Insistently flat and two-dimensional, embracing, as Dalton’s work often does, a deliberately lo-fi classroom aesthetic characterized by careful handwritten script, the piece intentionally rejects any semblance of new media imagery, even while measuring its impact on the artist.
Directly opposite, but closer to the back, stands the strongest work of the bunch, “Only in America (or, I Can’t Trust Myself)” (2011), which consists of two side-by-side vending machines of the kind that, in a supermarket, might deliver a gumball or a plastic charm for a quarter. One machine, labeled, “When you are afraid of something that usually means you should do it,” deposited a temporary tattoo with the phrase “It is important to confront your fears.” Incidentally, on the day I visited, the amount of containers in this machine was significantly lower than in the other, which was labeled with the same phrase, except with “shouldn’t” instead of “should.” Loosely evocative of Hans Haacke’s now-legendary 1970 work “MoMA Poll,” shown in MoMA’s exhibition Information of the same year (visitors were asked to cast ballots into transparent boxes, based on their opinions of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s handling of the Vietnam War), “Only in America”feels less urgent, but subtly taps into the culture of fear promoted by mass-media propaganda. The piece implicates that distinctly American notion of independent spirit. Given the work’s placement in this exhibition, viewers drawn in by Dalton’s lure of “doing” what they were afraid of were likewise elbowed into awareness of their own bias and susceptibility to the larger cultural rhetoric.
Dalton’s research stirred up my anger and frustration with persistent gender bias, but the playful, at times saccharine nuances in the work weaken the seriousness of her critique. Even the press release for Cool Guys Like You takes the form of a sweetly tongue-in-cheek open letter, in which Dalton addresses the perpetrators by name (“Dear Bill/Brian/Charlie/Jon/Leonard/Rachel/Stephen/Terry”). One “cool” thing now, as Mira Schor has written, is lack of affect, an acerbic, ironic distance of the kind on which Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have built an entire empire. Yet even as she encourages us to see through that and other manipulations of how we perceive information, Dalton relies on her own brand of irreverent ideology. The drawing “Idiocy and Assholery in Modern Political Scandals”is deeply satisfying, rating male politicians on the nature of their sexual mishaps, on a linear scale with the two titular adjectives as its range. However, itreminds us that Dalton is submerged deep in subjectivities of her own; while she is to some degree aware of it, the piece prompts a continued questioning of our informational sources, even fellow artists and activists.
As its final clever gesture, Cool Guys Like You uses the film Heathers as inspiration for its title. Almost too flippant—bordering on pop psychology—the metaphor extends to the masochistic syndrome of needing to feel validated by the few media sources for which we were holding out hope. Dalton’s work is important for saying things that need to be said (and often aren’t), but it is perhaps the slightest bit impeded by her predilection for the polemical, and aesthetically, for whimsy. In the end, I’m not sure whether we’re meant to kick those “cool guys” out of our lives and TV screens for good, but Dalton’s prize is information: all she asks is that we do with it what we will.