Dorothy Netherland’s Growing Pains By Wim Roefs
In her studio, Dorothy Netherland has been listening lately to Lana Del Rey’s music, getting addicted a bit to some of the songs. Part of the “fucked my way up to the top” singer’s persona relates to Netherland’s art. Del Rey’s references to 1950s and 1960s American pop culture tap a source also crucial to Netherland’s earlier work. The singer’s changing looks and outfits relate to Netherland’s current exhibition, PolyVores, a title that refers to the way girls, young women and wannabe fashion designers create and accessorize outfits on the website polyvore.com. Netherland’s 13-year-old daughter Izzy is among the “polyvores” engaged in virtual-paper-doll play and sharing their ensembles on the site with similarly inclined fashionistas.
But then there’s 30-year-old Del Rey’s darker side, which feeds into Netherland’s anxiety about young girls growing up these days, the focus of her new work. The singer whines to a journalist about wanting to die, then complains about him writing that down. She sings about screwing one biker after another, coyly suggesting in interviews that it could, perhaps, be autobiographical. She tried to sleep her way to the top, she brags, and is annoyed that it didn’t work. The singer, Netherland says, “is either trying to be provocative, selling a brand that's beautiful and wild, using her sexuality, while exploring a dark kind of freedom in the music and the things she says, or she’s kind of an asshole.”
That Del Rey – real name Elizabeth “Lizzy” Grant – is at best casual but more likely callous or even hostile toward feminism enforces Netherland’s ambiguity about the singer and her brand of seemingly strong, independent young womanhood. “Personally, I hate it when young women say they aren't feminists, but I also think that they can be whatever they want, act however they want, and be unapologetic about it. They don't need our approval or protection.”
“Izzy is getting older, fast, and I'm excited for her, but scared, too. And I can appreciate a young woman who is complex, dark, crazy, whatever it is. But it's hard to admit that our own child will have to experience the pain of the world in order to have that kind of freedom. I remember some of the things I did, that I wouldn't like to imagine her doing. I guess what I mean is that it’s hard to let go of control and trust you've done a good enough job.”
Growing up and the impact of parents, general upbringing and the culture at large, especially its effect on young women, have been the focus of Netherland’s work for 15 years. Drawing heavily from imagery in 1950s and 1960s women’s magazines, she initially explored her own coming of age and the way skewed recollections of personal history inform a sense of self. Through observations of domesticity and family drama, she created complex, intricate tableaux that combine suggestions of household bliss with stronger suggestions of discomfort and anxiety. While social commentary was not her intent, Netherland has maintained, the ironic statements were hard to miss.
Some three years ago, Netherland turned the tables on herself, creating a shift in mommy issues through two series of works, Femme Fatal and Velveteen, that focused on her then-10-year-old daughter’s upbringing and Netherland’s own role in that. She was, and is, intrigued by the “artifice and sexuality” related to “girl power” and the tension between real and fake. In the work, the image of an unsettling young girl with exaggerated features and out-of-control makeup physically and psychologically dominates the scenes, center-stage but at odds with her surroundings. Adult women play second string as they pester, fuss over and perhaps try to protect the girl. The girl’s mouth and eyes are photos of daughter Izzy’s mouth and eyes.
The PolyVores paintings have an entirely different feel. Working from photos of her daughter posing just so and of clothing in fashion magazines, Netherland creates collage-like paintings of Izzy in different outfits. Gone is the menacing quality of the featured star in Velveteen and Femme Fatal. The less generic girl based on Netherland’s daughter from just below the shoulders up takes her place, as prominent but in sync with her surroundings. Gone also are adult women floating around in the margins. Instead, the girl is framed, even enveloped and sometimes obscured, by a dense array of very colorful and very pretty flowers. The change in pallet from understated-earthy to happy-bright adds to the shift from a darkish to an upbeat, even joyful look.
It’s deceptive. “Now this is girly art with balls,” one of Netherland’s if ART Gallery colleagues observed approvingly. The sheer beauty of the PolyVores work disguises its disturbing undertones. Here are Izzy’s head and shoulders attached to the bodies of glitzy fashion-magazine models expressly selected by Netherland for their particular pose, suggestions of sexuality seldom far away. “The figures in the paintings convey a lack of experience,” Netherland says, “and their efforts at posing seem to convey an attempt at a level of sophistication that should not be there yet. The clothing and wealth of the model's bodies are at odds with the posed expressions of the young girl, perhaps.”
What makes parents love their child competes here with what worries them. There’s no suggestion that Izzy would try to sleep her way to the top, but childlike innocence is offset by seductive poses and blossoming sexuality, including glimpses of provocative nudity. There’s endearment on the one hand, and allure, on the other. Disarming self-consciousness and attitude. Sweetness and combative cool, possibly pre- or post- rolling of the eyes. Insecurity and being oh so pleased. Carefree happiness and affected boredom. Confidence and slyness. Little-girliness and coquettishness.
“It’s not even the inherent sexuality that’s disturbing,” Netherland says. “It’s the nod to money and the lack of originality. Adolescence is a confusing, tumultuous time of discovering and exploring identity. To add these online worlds to the mix could add more confusion. Consumerism, narcissism and fake constructions – things they are growing up with these days that just seem normal, the unnatural and artificial becoming natural. In each piece, I include part of my daughter's shirt and shoulders, which gives a cut-and-paste look to each figure and accentuates the performative and constructed aspects of identity.”
Is content becoming less important than packaging as girls’ lives increasingly play out online?
Is there room for real individuality or do we, especially young girls, merely become brands?
How much can you play with “persona” and remain authentic?
Is the search for “likes” and “followers” replacing rebellion?
“Each figure is surrounded by flowers that are drawn and then screenprinted and painted onto Mylar, some of which I bake to make them curl. The fake, blossom-filled background mirrors fabricated worlds created online and refers to the traditional symbols for youth and feminine beauty. In a world where, increasingly, emphasis is placed on the contrived surface, will our presumably empowered girls grow up to embrace individuality and self-awareness, or will they use their constructed identities to play the parts they are scripted to play within the artifice?”
What can’t be lost on Netherland is the irony of her expressing these anxieties while turning her little girl into a child model, fashion plate, poser and personal paper doll, starring in paintings and on gallery walls, exhibition invitations and catalogue pages. Nevertheless, and despite PolyVores being an in-house case study, mother Dorothy seems to have taken a step back as a coming-of-age variable in her daughter’s life, focusing less on her own impact on Izzy growing up. Instead, artist and observer Netherland trains her eye more exclusively on societal influences, including those of social-media, on how her little girl might become a woman, using the polyvore phenomenon as a lens to explore “the nature of self and issues of cultural identity,” as Netherland puts it. But taking herself out of the equation somewhat doesn’t eliminate her worries about “the conflicting messages of girl power.”
Netherland isn’t anti-social media or anti-girl power, she says. Nor does she think all young girls are screwed up. She likes that contemporary culture tries to empower them but worries about the expectations society has of young women. “I just have questions about it all, and I revel in the complexities of these issues.”
It didn’t disturb the artist when a friend thought of the word “deflowering” in relation to the new work. Netherland actually liked the association, indicating some level of ease on her part with what will come. “Izzy will be deflowered, in all senses of the word, soon, and she will need that girl power we talk about so much. I just don’t want my daughter to feel like she has to fit into this all-powerful, money-driven, approval-seeking mold. But there will be blood.”
Wim Roefs is the owner of if ART Gallery