Lyrics from a 1960s pop song about a teenager’s spoiled birthday party would seem to be a strange and kitschy premise for a group exhibition, but Grizzly Grizzly’s “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To)” relies on nostalgia and tradition mostly as a means to unsettle and provoke. By beginning with a custom as benign and celebratory as a birthday party, Christine Buckton Tillman, Janell Olah, and Christine Shields aim to tap feelings of comfort and innocence in order to view them as something ominous instead.
Black balloons, sneers instead of smiles, whose party is this?
Few of the expressions on the faces of the revelers in Christine Shields’s paintings could be described as jovial. Where smiles do appear, such as in “BIRTHDAY PARTY,” more than anything, they resemble sneers. The focus of this piece is a girl in a lavender dress, whose party hat looks like a dunce’s cap as it casts a heavy shadow over her face. Her legs are placed one behind the other in such a way that makes her appear unbalanced and ready to topple. While her expression – and that of her companion – is akin to a grin, the pair’s cheeks are far too rosy, overcompensating for the more sinister details with a sickly sweet veneer. Streamer-like lines radiate forth from the lead girl’s torso, adding a supernatural layer that imbues the role of birthday girl with the religious iconography of the Sacred Heart.
A grid full of smaller, individual portraits by Shields reveals party attendees, some wearing costumes, or decked out with other adornments. The expression of just about every face here is emotionless and distant, many staring blankly ahead at nothing in particular. One child’s hair is windswept, one girl has tears in her eyes, and another is exhaling smoke. Some of them appear to have scales instead of skin, and although the textures might very well be face paint, the jury is out. Amidst the twenty square sections containing portraits, one spot sits empty. Directly across the way, the portrait of the missing girl remains alone and unenthusiastic.
Christine Buckton Tillman takes it upon herself to decorate the event with balloons and a colorful paper chain. The balloons, however, are entirely two-dimensional, globbed onto white paper in shades of black and gray. Although some of the balloon images are shaped like hearts, it does little to make the dingy, ink-stained silhouettes even remotely festive. The ‘paper’ chain is a ruse too, as it is made entirely out of painted clay. Instead of fun, lightweight links, the chain is both weighty and clumsy, as well as brittle and dry.
Upbeat kazoo music mismatches the unjolly mood
In the background, Jacopo De Nicola provides a short, looping soundtrack of European folk music performed on a kazoo. This upbeat, yet ill-fitting music makes for another jarring element of a show that finds itself imagining all of the tropes of a conventional birthday party, and then reworking them into uncomfortable facsimiles.
And what birthday party is complete without that crown jewel of saccharine excess: the cake. Janell Olah’s soft, inflatable sculpture of a roughly four-foot-tall layer cake rounds out the exhibit as it quivers around the moving air that keeps it standing. The dessert’s gassy interior makes for an unappetizing conclusion to an already distressing party, although its inedible, synthetic exterior really takes the cake as far as disappointment goes.
Childhood wonder and adult cynicism
There is a certain vibrancy and charisma to the exhibit, even when it leaves visitors feeling as though something is awry. The gathering depicted here is merely a stand-in for childlike wonder and the tug of sentimentality. In order to attempt to recapture the innocence of youth, we must first confront our humorless adult selves who frequently disdain small joys in favor of productivity or ostentation. Our past selves might truly feel that their grass is not any greener, nor their picket fences any whiter than they are at present, and besides, the desire to turn back the clock is the a fool’s errand.
Around the time of this reckoning, it becomes apparent that our search for purity, in part due to our embellished memories, is quixotic. This show is for anyone who has ever had a lousy time at a supposedly cheerful event and for every awkward youthful experience that has allowed us to mature into socially-anxious grown-ups. Maybe it is worth acknowledging our clumsiness and naivete for a change instead of expecting our birthday to be somehow enchanted.
Why all this dismal attention for a typically joyful occasion? It would seem as if the artists in this show are interested in throwing a wrench in the works of a romanticized past and the threat of a vapid, cookie-cutter future. At a time when swaths of Americans are intent on making their country great again, this particular party encourages us to recognize that our memory is frequently piecemeal and distorted by our emotions. To see the big picture, we must first remove our rose-colored glasses.
It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry If I Want To) is on view March 3 – April 2, 2017 at Grizzly Grizzly 319 N. 11th St., 2nd Floor.