New York

Kim Dingle

Sperone Westwater

Not so long ago, angry women were all the rage, and, for Kruger, Holzer, et al., it was a clean burn. Kim Dingle belongs to that same generation, but in her case the emotions are messier and the work rejects any slickness. Not only is there nothing to read in the works, the messages are downright preverbal.

Dingle’s exhibition included one sculptural installation and six large paintings covered with the figures of girls and horses and decorative motifs like ivy all painted in a beautiful ultramarine, with bits of raw canvas peeking through. Both the all-over pattern paintings and the monumental central compositions share the same fluffy brushwork and white impasto touches of the rococo. Other artists have resurrected academic, low, or just plain unfashionable art in order to challenge modernist values of intellectual, formal abstraction or purity, as if looking to prove that nothing is too déclassé to convert into avant-garde art. But Kim Dingle not only fearlessly follows Fragonard in making lovely paintings (although one or two wobble in their handling of the figure), she keeps a straight face while doing so.

If the rococo (with perhaps a touch of California baroque) sets the formal tone here, the emotional pitch is one of classic primitivism. But unlike Gauguin, Dingle finds her realness in kindergarten rather than the South Seas. In the best painting, Untitled (Girls with Dresspole), 1998, she reenacts the Iwo Jima memorial, capturing a horde of little girls around a pole (with a fluttering white dress for a flag) in the act of claiming Lord knows what. As in the other paintings, the substance of the work deliberately sways in and out of sympathy with its style. Dingle’s little girls frolic, but they also chop down trees and wrestle mustangs—activities associated more with the Wild West than the suburban backyard.

Even after tearing down idealized notions of childhood’s innocence, we still believe in its emotional authenticity—even now that the artist in our culture seems to have lost access to this quality. Dingle’s faith in kid id is clearest in the sculptural installation, Fatty and Fudge, 1998. Two little girls, made from papier-mâché and oil paint and decked out in poofy velvet and satin dresses, disrupt the famous white cube of the gallery, bursting out from either side of a large freestanding wall, leaving it full of holes with piles of plaster on the floor. Their violent outburst suggests uncontrolled emotion as well as artistic and psychological breakthrough.

I like Fudge, but Fatty frightens me. Fudge, a small black girl, winningly thrusts her tongue out as if trying very hard. Fatty, with her large, sturdy limbs and adult expression (courtesy of John Wayne, according to the artist), is too big, a disturbing mix of child and adult. She reminds me of Judy Garland’s overgrown yet still childish Dorothy, eyes wide and chest bound. Fatty and Fudge is more typical of what Dingle is known for: surreal installations of wild “Priss” dolls. The pretty paintings may disappoint those who look to Dingle for art that acts out; the artist may be taming her inner child to find a different audience, but she may just as well have felt like putting sugar before spice for a change.

Katy Siegel