New York

Jenny Gage

A dark-haired figure leans against a car, her long mane streaming sideways in the breeze, the word “Racing” stamped on her baby blue tank top over her heart. Another girl—or perhaps the same one—stands before a window, pulling back the floral drapes with one hand; a strobe-like flash of sunshine obscures her face. Moodily lit and suggestively cropped, the large-format color photographs in Jenny Gage’s second solo exhibition in New York offered a smooth mix of vérité and voyeurism, a theater of received ideas about the fragility and unattainability of girls from the wrong side of some southern California tracks. The “Ventura” series (all works 1998–2000) positions its subjects as characters in an implied film, everywoman starlets whose identities need not be known, since they are already monumentally overdetermined.

According to press materials, Gage, who grew up in suburban LA, first noticed the Ventura girls sitting in a pickup truck parked on a back road. She has followed them intermittently for two years, though the images deliberately avoid the cliquishness and implied mutual trust of Nan Goldin-esque portraiture. The link between the artist and her subjects, however, remains central to the function of these images. Like some other young female photographers today (her Yale classmate Anna Gaskell, Dana Hoey, Justine Kurland, et al.), Gage is evolving a sort of feminist mannerism, a seamless amalgam of commercial and documentary techniques in which the gamine, always already commodified, is retooled as a supreme blend of empty icon and knowing autobiographer. The tough-pretty waifs who engage Gage’s gaze betray almost nothing about themselves. They are, intentionally, all veneer. The prints’ surfaces are glossy without being hard-edged; color is saturated rather than bright, and camera angles are intimate without being friendly. Psychic and emotional investment is suggested by attention to small details of clothing, jewelry, and decor, but these markers of individualism continually flatten, returning the girls to their fundamental status as rebuses for “desire,” “danger,” “pathos,” “seduction.”

Fantasy is key in these works, but whose fantasy of whom is not always clear. The idea is that by self-consciously appropriating the vocabulary of fashion and advertising, Gage can turn these circular and self-serving narratives inside out, freeing the models from their jobs as signifiers in someone else’s dream and setting them up as entrepreneurs, as it were, selling dreams of themselves on their own behalf. It’s a brave wish, but the pitfall of mannerism is that when style begins to congratulate itself for being so stylish, its vigor fails. Advertising has already staked out the territories of self-conscious parody and lifestyle-as-product. To beat it at its own game requires a change in scale, either formally or conceptually, a risk of genuine ugliness, or eccentricity, or exposure.

Gage doesn’t risk it. She allows us to rely on the prepackaged allure of her teenagers’ verve or ennui, their tackiness or unattainable beauty. But this is not to say that Gage plays it entirely safe. Her position is slippery, and she knows it. As viewers, we are drawn in by the bodies and faces, the shag carpeting and sliding glass doors of “Ventura,” but ultimately what we consume is the idea of Gage the artist, a young woman reflecting (on) other young women. In earlier bodies of work, she photographed herself—perhaps the specter of Cindy Sherman was too omnipresent for that strategy to remain interesting. Now, with the slightly suspect collaboration of her Ventura adventurers, Gage tries to have it both ways, to acknowledge her dual role as victim and profiteer, subject and object. Why shouldn’t she? Isn’t this the truth of her position as an emerging female artist grappling with pop culture’s visual formulas? Gage attempts, as have generations of self-conscious women before her, to be simultaneously daring and ingratiating, all things to all viewers. Not surprisingly, she ends up looking somewhat compromised.

Frances Richard