New York

Dana Hoey

Friedrich Petzel Gallery

Two young women stand at the water’s edge. The one in the foreground is still, out of shape, her shoulders hunched, her pallor accentuated by an unflattering black bathing suit. The tanned, muscular girl in the sleek red bikini, farther from the camera, has apparently just struck her. Though the title of Dana Hoey’s Bikini Brawl, 1995, may sound like a scene out of Baywatch gone berserk, the photographs in the artist’s solo debut put women’s interactions with one another on display in highly staged tableaux to address the construction of gender identity. In these sixteen 40 x 30-inch prints, the pointedly contrived nature of Hoey’s technicolor dramatizations calls to mind the stylized images of nineteenth-century predecessors such as Julia Margaret Cameron while partaking of the glossy artifice of contemporary advertising.

Hoey’s work also follows performative strategies advanced by feminists like Judith Butler, for whom the critical task is not to establish a point of view outside of constructed identities but to expose (and contest) the artifice of patriarchal constructions of femininity by parodically replicating them. Like Cindy Sherman’s more surrealistic photos, with which they share an excess of affect, Hoey’s representations are suspended somewhere between the mise-en-scene and the recording apparatus.

The works on view from 1995-96 showed women engaged in pugnacious, even sinister activities. A Lesson for Bobo, 1995, is staged in a high-school bathroom where two teenage girls confront a third as she emerges from a stall. In Timeless, 1996, a kidnapping seems to be in progress as one woman dramatically shoves another, tied and gagged, into the front seat of a car. A woman vigorously asserts her dominance by pinning another to the ground in Secretariat, 1995. These scenes betray traditional images of women as passive subjects, using melodrama to bring underlying power relations to the surface. Hoey, however, does not resort to clichés of bitchiness as manifested through verbal exchange. Instead, she subversively places these women in physically confrontational roles that have traditionally been gendered as male, inverting fantasy and cultural cliché.

This was nowhere more evident than in the oceanside rout of Bikini Brawl. Hoey is clearly playing with the cliché of the wimp having sand kicked in his face by the muscle-bound stud. Additionally, her choice of the beach as a stage for this encounter suggests a site where male body anxieties approach female ones. But does this carnivalesque gender-role subversion also play into a certain variety of straight male fantasy?

In sharp contrast to these photographs, the sinister elements are conspicuously absent in Hoey’s more recent work, replaced by scenes mostly in the stagey manner of family travel snapshots. In these more static images, the viewer is left to construct a narrative. Hikers, 1997, depicts a family outing of five casually dressed women leisurely walking across a verdant field. A hike is also implied in Stream, 1997, with three teenage girls in shorts and anoraks resting and taking advantage of the cold water of the stream to refresh themselves. Survivors, 1997, features two middle-aged women—survivors of what, one must wonder—enjoying a lively display of camaraderie in a field of tall grass. In Sick Girl, 1997, a young woman lies in bed with a companion perched sympathetically next to her. Here the melodrama of the earlier works is replaced by banal, even trite memories—private moments that have significance only if one knows the stories behind them. Their juxtaposition with Hoey’s hostile encounters raises a nagging suspicion that perhaps those stories are not so quotidian as they look.

Alexander Alberro