New York

Kim Dingle

Jack Tilton Gallery

Surrounded by teddy bears and lawn geese, chubby baby girls romp against cheery wallpaperlike grounds in Kim Dingle’s series of paintings, “the priss papers,” 1994. But Dingle isn’t after a storybook, nurseryroom atmosphere. These pictures are lushly and pleasurably naughty—a sure sign that somebody has been toying with desire. This is not the work of a well-behaved artist who colors inside the lines. Taking the girlish activity of drawing into the traditionally masculine realm of painting, Dingle’s line is all sensual brushwork. This hybrid of drawing and painting makes for unconventional imagery that takes on an engagingly illustrative, even decorative, appeal.

While infants have long been deemed suitable subjects for women artists—most famously Mary Cassatt-they have traditionally been represented in a state of bland innocence. Dingle wreaks havoc with such standards. Her babies are clearly sexed and sexual individuals. They’re also colored—from pink to brown to black—and some even sport spectacles. In one painting, three have ganged up on the geese and are quashing the life out of them. In another, a veritable population is rolling (happily) about in its own “smeary brown” stuff. Collectively these enfants terribles call to mind a premodern childhood, one in which children were allowed to behave like bawdy little beasts—pissing, shitting, eating, and playing with their genitals. However, Dingle’s girls are also pointedly contemporary. Having busted out of their bassinets, these babes are ready to move out into postModern culture with—one hopes—an irrefutable sense of self-determination and female prowess.

Their painted personae were given fleshed-out form in an installation that transformed the back gallery into a day-care center from hell. The artist commissioned a real kid to go wild with crayons, which resulted in a band of colorful scrawls encircling the walls. In a flotilla of cribs—lined in paper like animal pens—stood Dingle’s own hellions: life-size baby girl dolls wearing identical party dresses and cat’s-eye glasses. They’re a scary lot, bad seeds all, best viewed through the bars of their cribs. And though this part of the exhibition was entertaining, it was also rather unnecessary. The strength of Dingle’s art lies in the inversion it performs on pattern and decoration painting, attracting the eye through sheer sweetness of surface then delivering unexpectedly barbed and satiric pictures. By comparison, the installation—which bypasses the come-on phase and goes straight for the jugular vein—seemed at once heavy-handed and slight. By depicting them as nothing more than horrible monsters, Dingle risked rendering the girls innocuous, even ridiculous, whereas “the priss papers,” seductively records transgressive acts against a sweetly feminine background, pointing to a bright, even mischievous, feminist future.

Ingrid Schaffner