New York

Mary Klein

A.I.R. Gallery/Amos Eno Gallery

Mary Klein’s performance Blue Tongues, 1993, was a wry, Hollywood-fashion-show parody of patriarchal power. A coolly errant sister whose unassuming appearance and pleasant demeanor belie her ability to catch a few philosophers of femininity with their proverbial pants down, Klein set about undressing figures ranging from Freud to Lacan to Krafft-Ebing and even Jesse Helms, rebuking their authority on “normal” female behaviors by revealing it to be as artificial as polyester. Slides detailing images of women from canonical paintings were projected past Klein’s contorted figure on a gauzy scrim, while an offstage voice delivered a presentation of ideas strictly tailored to exclude women who don’t “fit” archaic standards of femininity. “This season,” the phlegmatic narrator said, “Krafft-Ebing’s evening collection features slinky gowns cut to restrict movement and encourage heterosexual behavior . . . Freud’s designs . . . continue to dominate styles inside and outside the home. Add these glamorous designs to your wardrobe and you’ll be the envy of the town.”

At one particularly resonant moment when she noted how “even dead mothers can be bad mothers,” Klein made excellent use of a pink feather duster as a handy erotic tool for lesbian households. While unearthing the deeply imbedded, age-old notions of sexual availability by which men devalue and disempower women, Klein struggled to mitigate the forced invisibility of lesbian women: “From the male perspective the Lacan collection emphasizes that you women are not one, you are not you, but you are my male desire. Therefore you are me, and you don’t exist. But if you are me and you don’t exist, where am I?”

In Why are you a dyke?, 1991, laconic narratives displayed above chemical flasks, each containing either small objects, milk, or urine, critiqued the validity of posing such a question. Other pieces in Klein’s installation, DEFINITIONS—Do Not Originate In Dictionaries, 1991–92, included large spheres split in unequal parts beneath circles of Plexiglas engraved with text, as well as a semiotic lightbox display with phrases or strings of words like “bitch, witch, homo, strumpet, sapphist, harridan, wench, freak, dyke, tart, starlet, or queer.” In these works Klein literally raises femme/butch stereotypes from the margins of political discourse to unblinking eye level.

Still, she gave little play to a younger generation of women who have chosen fashion codes of their own to make themselves very visible in their art and on the street. Overall, however, Klein’s work was, if not entirely subtle, impressively ingenuous. What can only be described as ladylike poise and general good humor relieved her polemic of the whining stridency that often characterizes such work. Deftly conflating painfully conscious personal experience with the blatantly sexist analyses of what women “really” want, she showed that a redefinition of the feminine ideal, on female terms, is the only sensible way out of the “designer” labeled closet.

Linda Yablonsky