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April 6 - May 6
It’s getting old—young women and girls being appointed our go-to champions of bravery, pluck, solidarity, or whatever. If only all of us could be as unafraid as Fearless Girl, or as incomparable as Kendall Jenner in her desire to quench a cop’s thirst—would we then overcome? Put a smile on, these corporate mockups of girlhood seem to say. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Thankfully, Eva O’Leary’s portraits of adolescent girls, currently on view in the artist’s first solo show in New York, honor a more complex reality. Framed at close range and mostly shot through a two-way mirror against a glowing, internet-blue backdrop, O’Leary’s subjects aren’t exactly self-possessed. (Were you as a teenager?) With mouths relaxed and gazes a bit distant, the girls have been captured in a quick moment, likely unaware of the camera’s shutter. There’s a wariness in their wide-eyed, blank expressions: O’Leary has been careful not to let any cautious instincts or—gasp—self-consciousness go undocumented, as they so often do on social media. No filters here—blemishes, acne, and the true texture of skin have stayed put.
And yet, as Linda Nochlin wrote, “realism and loveliness are not mutually exclusive.” Many of the girls have long hair, which O’Leary lets fill the frame and take on a striking, Pre-Raphaelite quality. Faces are divinely illuminated, with highlights from the strobes landing softly on cheekbones and foreheads. Bright headbands, lipstick, and treated hair create densely saturated, almost painterly swathes of electric color. Nearby, O’Leary has projected videos of her subjects onto opposite walls (Concealer, 2017). The girls remain still, but their eyes dart, and their hands sometimes fiddle. The energy contained within these tiny, nervous gestures is both magical and startlingly real. That’s the problem with Fearless Girl—it props up a false ideal of a feminine character who prioritizes sangfroid over self-preservation. But is there no truth in beauty? Luckily, O’Leary has shined a light.