New York

Peggy Ahwesh

Whitney Museum of American Art

An irreverent mix of work by artists ranging from Pier Paolo Pasolini to the Electric Prunes, Peggy Ahwesh’s series “Girls Beware” was a retrospective of sorts, but one in which she juxtaposed her own work with film, video, and audio pieces that have inspired her over the years. This approach was particularly appropriate, since Ahwesh’s multilayered films and videos deploy a variety of materials, genres, narrative modes, and appropriative strategies. She often favors fugitive genres: for example, her “microcultural studies of friends and family”—such as Martina’s Playhouse (1989), The Pittsburgh Trilogy (1983), or From Romance to Ritual (1985)—are sophisticated home movies. She pays tribute to a kindred spirit, the filmmaker and cultural vagabond Raul Ruiz, with her “mental travelogue” The Fragments Project (1984–94), juxtaposing it with his labyrinthine satire On Top of the Whale (1982). Her most recent video, The Vision Machine (1997)—in which lyrics from pop songs and theoretical texts spiral into the imagination between scenes of women telling jokes—riffs on Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1925).

In planning the series Ahwesh aimed for “explosive and stimulating” juxtapositions. She notes that her videotapes Doppelgänger (1988) and Philosophy in the Bedroom (1987) and Andy Warhol’s Edie Sedgwick vehicle Lupe (1965) all “feature women performers with a seductive relationship to the camera who have the ability to reinvent themselves between the real and the fictional,” but one can’t help noticing the difference between Edie’s disturbingly unself-conscious imitation of ’40s film-star Lupe Velez’s “Seconal suicide,” and the active, questioning stance taken by Ahwesh’s protagonists. Most notably, Ahwesh’s refusal to use easy methods to seduce the viewer called attention to Lupe’s ruthless beauty.

Ahwesh is not afraid, however, of creating films that are visually ravishing—like The Color of Love (1994), which she crafted from a discarded ’70s hardcore flick in an advanced state of chemical deterioration. Much of the color had separated into cracked pools of lavender, fuschia, gold, acid green, and black—yielding a lush, semiabstract valentine both fleshy and ethereal. Two women caress a man who plays dead; they tease his flaccid penis with a knife, spread fake blood over his chest, and eventually make love over his body. Ahwesh rephotographed and reedited the original footage, so that the image, which slips in and out of legibility, appears to dance to the sound track’s haunting tango—slowing and halting to shots of the women kissing and a painterly close-up of a vagina. The Color of Love can be compared to Joseph Cornell’s found-footage films, but it is more sharply reminiscent of Ken Jacobs’ XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX (1980), a transfigured turn-of-the-century blue movie. While both Jacobs’ and Ahwesh’s films feature a threesome, instead of the “money shot” that forms the spectacular climax of Jacobs’ movie, The Color of Love ends with the dreamlike image of a woman pleasuring herself. The male figure’s nearly superfluous presence echoes another film shown in this series, The Deadman (1990), Ahwesh’s collaboration with Keith Sanborn—based on a Georges Bataille story—which also explodes pornographic conventions and conjures an indelible image of female desire.

The Color of Love is dedicated to Doris Wishman, a director of ’60s sexploitation flicks with Sadean undertones. The series included her Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), as well as trailers for Wishman “roughies” with enticing titles like “Another Day Another Man.” Roger Jacoby’s shimmering, hand-processed visual poem Dream Sphinx (1974) appeared in the same rich program, alongside Kurt Krens’ delectable kaleidoscope of limbs, genitals, food, and yuletide flotsam and jetsam, O Tannenbaum (1964).

In one of the series’ most satisfying juxtapositions, Ahwesh’s The Scary Movie (1993) formed an antidote to Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria (1977), a film whose vague plot ostensibly deals with witchcraft but is in fact merely colorful embroidery sewn around spectacular scenes of women being tortured and slashed. In Ahwesh’s short, two small, costumed girls play villains and goblins as stock horror-film noises—groans, creaking doors, spooky music—fill the sound track. At the film’s climax—or anticlimax?—the children, shrieking with delight, stab each other with tin-foil knives that crumple like shrinking phalluses. Ahwesh calls these exuberant girls “fearless”: she could be describing herself.

Kristin M. Jones