Watch enough movies and you get the idea that friendships between women are all camaraderie, clothes-sharing and gossip about men — interspersed with silly spats (about clothes and men) that are quickly resolved. And, if your own life doesn't come with a Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda to match your Carrie, well, what’s wrong with you?
In reality, friendships are just as likely to resemble a remake of Heathers or the "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee" scene in Grease than they are to take after the BFF-coziness of the ladies in Friends.
"About a year-and-a-half ago, I was cleaning my closet out and I found all these notes," says local artist Alli Good, who kept all the writings she shared with her friends from elementary school, junior high and high school. "I was reading through them and so many were these weird fights and alienation things. Just really mean notes back and forth," she says. "I thought about the relationships I have with different women in my life now and it's like a tightrope sometimes, with different personalities and stuff. Females can be really hard to interact with."
For Good, that realization became the groundwork for the upcoming group show, Ladylike: The Dark Side of Female Friendships, at Satellite Gallery.
"The partnership between women can be the most sacred, nurturing and long-lasting of bonds. This relationship can also be tinged with a brutal shadow of jealousy, competitiveness and cruelty,” says press for the show. “From childhood through adolescence and adulthood most women have some memory of threads of exclusion, rejection, ridicule, betrayal, hunger for acceptance, heartache and more."
Which is to say, the dozen women artists creating new work around this theme aren't necessarily out to capture the pajama parties and maid-of-honor moments. Good says she wanted to create "a girl art show that's not overly girly or overly feminist. It's more emotional and secretive and dark." The point is "to make people feel slightly uncomfortable and intrigued by it."
Encaustic artist Nicole McConville admits that when it comes to the show's concept, "I felt really uncomfortable. I knew from the start what the theme was and it was actually the company I would be keeping that caused me to see it through." She says she thinks much of the work at the show will deal with youth and adolescence, "when those problems arise," but she chose to approach the theme from an adult perspective.
"We've all had those instances where the shadow side makes itself known," says McConville. "That comes forth in issues of possessiveness, jealousy, not wanting to share ourselves with other people. Even the most intense, loving and long-lasting relationships that we've had over the years with girls or women sometimes have innate challenges in them. So, I felt that the show was an opportunity for me to confront that as a woman and try to shed some light on the topic in a way that I felt was my own unique interpretation of that shadow side."
Her work includes three small encaustic collages, two assemblage works that are displayed as a unit, "since we are speaking about friendship" and two collaborations with local clothing designer Brooke Priddy. For one, "We're repurposing these small memory boxes that were available I think from Hallmark, that were 'charming little keepsakes,'" says McConville. "We're reinterpreting 'charming little keepsakes' in light of the theme."
The other collaborative effort is a chair. "There's going to be a performance piece. It's a musical chairs raffle we're doing," Good explains. The proceeds benefit Girls on the Run, an international nonprofit whose local chapter works, according to its mission statement, "To educate and prepare girls for a life time of self-respect and healthy living."
In some ways, the organization helped by the raffle (the winner receives one of the chairs painted and designed by the Ladylike artists in a project spearheaded by Priddy) seeks to prevent the experiences of estrangement, discord and schism that the Ladylike exhibit explores. As Good points out, "Musical chairs is supposed to be the alienation game."
Even though Ladylike deals with some dark themes, not every piece will be about fissures between friends. "Nobody wanted to portray females in a bad way," says Good. "This isn't going to be an ‘angry bitch’ show or anything like that. Most of the girls didn't want it to turn into a girl-hate show. I think everyone had their different ways of interpreting it — some victim standpoint and some antagonizer standpoint."
Kreh Mellick, who has been working with images of women characters for a long time, had already begun to investigate girl fights when she met Good, who — inspired by those mean notes — was working on a similar fight motif. The Ladylike show "was a theme I felt like I could easily jump into. It was easy for me to think about what happens in relationships with women, how intense it can be with the people you're inspired by or even your enemies," says Mellick. She describes how one piece, a four-foot by six-foot drawing, deals with a series of women, in red and black, who appear to be on teams. "There's implied violence," she says, "but it's very tame and kind of static."
Mellick grew up with all sisters and went to an all-girl school. She says that, for the show, she was inspired by "the baggage you acquire from all your years of having relationships with women."
Another take on the theme is "I'm the Pretty One," a sculpture by Sarah Danforth. According to notes from the show, it "depicts two women's heads perched on an ornate porcelain base. Joined together by their hair but straining to be apart, the piece illustrates the difficult dynamic between friends seeking balance between the desire to be close and external pressures to be competitive." Artist and Xpress contributor Ursula Gullow chose the contradictory world of female wrestling as her muse, while photographer Drea Jackson's portraits of masked naked figures "exemplify the pressures and problems women fight within each other to succeed in self, friendship and community."
For Good, the ideas were culled largely from personal experience. "Since this has been such a longtime in the making, I've been sketching and drawing and my work has had this kind of undertone since its been in my brain for so long," she says. "Because I did grow up moving all the time and I was new a lot, I carry that automatically inside of me. That alienation from girls. So it's a natural part of my artwork in general; it's just been extended into the show."
Anyone familiar with Good's art knows her work immediately: The awkward-yet-likable images of people we want to laugh at — the pigtailed girl smiling broadly and displaying her braces, a chubby woman struggling into a pair of jeans, the entire collection titled "Sweet Geeks" — and simultaneously shrink from, because many of us recognize ourselves among Good's geeks. For Good, it seems that committing these images to paint or ink doesn't exactly exorcise them from her psyche. In fact, none of the Ladylike artists to whom Xpress spoke said that working on the shadow side of friendship theme had changed their impressions of relationships-past.
However, going forward is another story. McConville says that the exhibit was challenging for her because it comes at a point in her life when she's making a concerted effort to build female friendships. Working on the show inspired her to start what she calls "a listening lounge for women where we can get together and support each other through our projects." Ladylike helped propel that, she says, because "you realize that it takes effort to foster those relationships and strengthen them and move forward, past conflict."
For Good, having to take on a leadership roll as the show's curator really went against her underdog tendencies. "I usually am a wall flower," she admits. "I've had to interact with a lot of girls at the same time and they're girls I look up to. It's changed the way I feel about grown women. It's definitely been a good healing experience."
For Mellick, the most challenging part of the show was not processing her own feelings, but revealing them to a group of artists she'd never met before. She says that the dozen women involved with Ladylike now share streams of dialog on Facebook. "I've really enjoyed knowing that there are some relationships I have that can be really intense, but ultimately that's what you get the most from," says Mellick. "However up and down and kind of stressed it can be, the dynamic of the woman-and-woman relationship has got this archaic thing to it. I find it fascinating — I think I'll always be able to discover new things about it."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Ladylike: The Dark Side of Female Friendships
what: Group exhibit of local women artists
where: Satellite Gallery
where: Opening reception is Friday, Oct. 8. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 21.