Priss has captivated the artworld with her mischievous antics since she first appeared in Kim Dingle’s artwork thirty years ago, dressed in her Sunday Best and ready for battle. Dingle’s imaginary character split and replicated, like a Tribble on Star Trek, into a bi-racial pair, Fatty and Fudge, and then into a wild pack, the “Priss Girls.” These ornery tots run amok: causing mayhem, having fights, raging temper tantrums, and destroying things. Priss and her gang of rambunctious pre-pubescent girls inhabit a world with no adults, no men, and no rules. Like a female counterpart to Peter Pan, Priss has no desire to grow up. But unlike Peter and the Lost Boys who yearned for a mother figure, Priss and her anarchic cohorts have no desire for adult supervision because they enjoy being very bad. Although the Priss Girls are dressed like proper little ladies in white crinoline dresses, frilly socks, and Mary Jane shoes, their improper behavior is most unlady-like — and they most definitely do not care. Their revolt against restrictive notions of acceptable female behavior continues to capture the feminist fervor for “girls who just want to have fun” as much today as it did in the 1990’s.
Dingle’s latest exhibition, I Will Be Your server (The Lost Supper paintings), at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects (in Culver City), is a missing chapter in the adventures of the psycho girls painted a few years after Dingle left a waiting list of art collectors in suspense and opened a vegetarian restaurant, Fatty & Co, with her partner Aude Charles in her Eagle Rock studio. But after taking a break from the art world to run a restaurant, Dingle wanted to paint again and picked up the story-line from her new life experiences. She began by painting on thin sheets of vellum the size of a sketch book page to practice getting her hand back. Surprisingly, she had not lost her chops and within 10 minutes she was taping the vellum sheets on the wall to paint large diptychs of the lawless youngsters having a new adventure wrecking havoc in a restaurant.
Dingle, like Priss, refuses to play by anyone else’s rule-book or to be pigeon-holed, and the restaurant experience actually re-calibrated her painting verve and sense of composition. With a renewed passion for painting, Dingle experimented with the gooey food-like quality of her paint palette like a child playing with a sticky dessert plate. Using bold gestural strokes she outlines representational forms in black and creates dramatic effects with attention-grabbing expanses of white (dresses, cakes and plates) that gradually blur into the smudgy abstract backgrounds of syrupy chocolate, fudge, butterscotch and maple. These sumptuous, tactile paintings combine abstraction and representation in a spontaneous process that brand artists (concerned with product rather than process), can never learn, because it is instinctual. Interestingly, Dingle even painted blind-folded for an exhibition last year, to prove her touch is unpremeditated. Her paintings are done in the spirit of alla prima paintings and although she does a little re-touching and correcting, they have the lively energy and fluidity of wet-on-wet, direct painting.
Half these works were sent to Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York, for her exhibition Studies for the Last Supper, in 2007. The other half were stored in 24 inch pizza boxes. These boxes were misplaced and forgotten until Dingle re-discovered them last year. This exhibition is called a “lost supper” because it is the first time the entire series from this comeback period from 2006 to 2007 has been shown.
Entering the exhibition, the viewer first sees a painting of a grumpy girl, with a scowling face, sitting on a chair, with arms crossed, and legs apart, above the hand-painted words “I Will BE YOUR SERVER” — which sets the tone of wry humor. The missing chapter in the Priss girls adventures is a tour de force that fills four gallery rooms. The exhibition includes twelve multi-panel painting on vellum depicting the Priss girls feast and nine more restrained still-life paintings on canvas.
The first gallery has a pristine restaurant table seating, with white table cloths, and white chairs, in front of a monumental diptych made from 40 panels of vellum which references Da Vinci’s iconic Last Supper. But Dingle’s Studies for the Last Supper at Fatty’s (Wine Bar for Children 11) is a riotous feast for irrepressible tykes with bad table manners: playing with food, spilling wine, climbing on the table, exposing their frilly panties, pushing, shoving and fighting each other.
In the next three gallery rooms the girls are seen diving into large white cakes: Going In and Soft; pushing tables over: Table Tipping; and ganging up on another girl to make her to drink wine from a bottle: Forcing Reisling. Other paintings show neat table settings: Untitled (Cake); the chaos after the feast: Cotton Candy; and cleaning up the mess: The Lost Supper (general maintenance). In The Lost Supper (janitorials), an exhausted girl falls asleep in a yellow mop bucket.
Dingle subverts the fake identity projected onto little girls when viewed through an adult lens, recalling Margaret Atwood’s insight that “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized’ [Cat’s Eye, 1988]. Instead, Dingle looks at the world through the eyes of an unselfconscious child. Her dissident girls have a fuck-you attitude that defies learned self-consciousness because they have no interest in pleasing others — only pleasing themselves. Interestingly, their white dresses are never stained and remain a clean slate that cannot be sullied.
Dingle pokes fun at the cyclopean masculine logic in art history that reduces femininity to the metaphoric status of food. Dingle’s enfants terribles might look like cupcakes, but they unabashedly satisfy their own appetites rather than a male appetite for females portrayed as edible ornaments. By unleashing the untamed side of pre-pubescent girls Dingle creates a protofeminist fiction, without any dogma, about a wild inner child which has been largely hidden from view in the history of art and ignored in psychoanalytic babble. Obviously, Dingle has an affection for this reckless child part of herself and has never lost touch with it because she keeps it alive in her art practice. The old Freudian question, “what does women want?” might evade masculine logic but Dingle shows that before little girls are tamed with socializing they have no problem doing whatever they damn well want — without any thought of the consequences. Like it or not, little girls left to their own devices are anything but full of sugar and spice or anything particularly nice and Dingle lays this on the table with no holds barred and has fun doing it. I just hope that Brett Kavanaugh and frat boy bullies like him, have to contend with grown up versions of Dingle’s ferocious fighting girls one day. But this is not an exhibition with a political agenda, it is about the pleasure of the painting process — which Dingle makes wickedly enjoyable.
Lita Barrie is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Barrie was born and educated in New Zealand, where she studied philosophy and journalism. She taught aesthetic philosophy at Art Center, Otis College of Art and Design, and Claremont Graduate University. Barrie has written many museum and art gallery monographs and catalogs. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of magazines and newspapers in New Zealand and Los Angeles including: Hyperallergic, Apricota Journal, ARTNOWLA, Art La-bas, HuffPost, art ltd, Painter’s Table, Art Agenda, Artweek, Art Issues, Artspace, The New Zealand National Business Review, Art New Zealand, The Listener and Landfall Journal. She is the recipient of four writing grants from New Zealand. An archive of her writing is held at the New Zealand National Library. To read her work, visit www.litabarrie.com