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Kiss and tell 

Essence of femininity eludes Lipstick

The danger in curating a show on a huge topic is that the subject matter runs the risk of being trivialized. Lipstick at City Gallery East is just such a show, which manages to insult women where it strives to valorize them.

Reducing femininity to a catalog of stereotypes that, in themselves feel outmoded, we have work like Lynn Marshall-Linnemeir's sloppy "Haute Couture" and Chris Griffin's "Cinderella" -- for women who stay awake at night wondering how they can cope with the oppressive weight of childhood fairy tales. The imaginatively executed but conceptually inert sculpture features a pretty diaphanous pink skirt on a metal dress form, parted to reveal two wax feet on a circle of glass shards.

From the hazily intentioned to the plainly bewildering, "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places" by video artist Robin Bernat is a beautifully packaged conundrum. Bernat offers a driver's-eye view in Part I of a drive on a rain-slicked highway and in the gripping finale, a nighttime drive down Peachtree. The relationship of this work to notions of femininity or appearance implied in Lipstick, however, remains foggy.

All of the artists provide wall text explanations of their work, which in many cases fail to correspond convincingly with the work on display. Instead, such descriptions often point out a frustrating gap between an artist's intent and outcome. It is as though the artists are striving to rise to the magnitude of the subject, which is a nearly impossible feat, especially when one considers curator Karen Comer's broad aim.

One instance where text proves illuminating is in Duhirwe Rushemeza's chilling combinations of linocut images of distraught African children and children's crayon drawings. The work, Rushemeza explains, concerns the effect of the Rwandan civil war on children, whose faces and self-made images illustrate the devastation of war. Though, again, the tie-in to the Lipstick theme is befuddling. But the work at least feels earnest and original where so much else is clichéd and by rote.

There is plenty of notable work in the show, like Jeanne Collins' troubling (indebted to Hannah Wilke's "Intra-Venus") meditation on her illness, which comes the closest to embodying the notion of lipstick as an armor of femininity. In color photographs of her lost hair, scarred breast and body ravaged by cancer, Collins shows the gap between femininity as appearance-bound and the cruelty of one's body -- and, thus, identity -- being stripped away. Several photographs of a breast prosthesis packaged in a depressingly festive girly pink box like some delicious treat betray the fraudulence in selling a woman back her gender identity with a plastic body part.

Other work stands out simply for its conceptual and formal rigor next to some poorly conceived or amateurishly executed fare.

Pam Longobardi's photographic series "Visible/Invisible" demonstrates this local artist's uncanny ability to experiment with various media with confident and skillful outcomes. The artist sets a clear plastic anatomical model of the female body in varying settings: against a blue sky or soaking in a green, brackish swamp. In some cases the clear body provides a view of the sky behind it, or in other cases is filled with a collection of objects like plastic baby dolls, pine cones or a globe. The work suggests a paradox of womanhood, in which women are seen as psychologically and emotionally explained by their constituent parts.

Equally enigmatic and clever is Jennifer Clifton's photographic body of "Evidence" shot like police photos. Clifton places ordinary objects -- a key, pills, spark plugs -- on the same blue background, their dimensions recorded by a yellow tape measure above. The objects become representations of capricious physical reality that so often determines deeper, life-altering conditions, like the spark plugs that allow life's forward momentum to proceed, or peter out at the side of the road.

But even the best, most provocative work in Lipstick seems to operate in a vacuum. It may pertain to the female but never coordinates with either the work around it, or the idea of the feminine deceit/armor of lipstick.

And a large portion of the art on display is simply poorly thought out and ineffectively rendered. It seems a disservice to many of the fine artists represented within to lump their individual statements into this murky whole. It is also a disservice to women in general to presume such a confused and confusing miasma of work can represent the complexity of their lives.

Lipstick runs through July 20 at City Gallery East, 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Mon. - Sat. 404-817-7956.

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