Japanese artist Shinako Sato is interested in the life of girls.
Her deliberately naïve paintings of high school girls--"Boarding School," "Liar," "Milk Bar"--look like they could have been done by a talented sophomore. Rendered in pale, water-soluble oils, these watery works on canvas at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art delve into the emotional trials of female adolescents. Sato has colored her paintings in reticent blondes and beiges, and the tentativeness of her palette becomes a key to teenage loneliness, to creepiness, to cliquishness.
The fearful girl in "Boarding School" peers up askance at something unseen; a spiked metal railing rises up behind her, hemming her in. "Liar" is another schoolgirl, tidily dressed in olive sweater and jacket, but she's the one of which to be fearful. Her bulky frame fills the tiny canvas, blocking off escape, and she grins evilly with monstrous teeth, confident of her powers over the other kids.
The "Milk Bar" girl, painted in a palette of peaches, is trying too hard. All dolled up in dark eye shadow and red nails, she holds a coquettish hand to her lips. If she's too readily absorbed the retro lesson that females are supposed to be fetching, and not much else, she may have been playing too long with her Barbie doll. That plastic icon, of course, teaches girls round the world what women are supposed to be. That's tall, skinny, long-legged, big-boobed. And don't forget big-haired.
Anyone who's removed from Barbie World has only to check out the rest of the Sato show for reminders of its tenets. She goes right into pop culture here, displaying a near-obsession with Barbie, exhibiting no fewer than 23 photographs of the Everydoll. Shot in black and white and in color Polaroids, the Barbie bombshells easily overshadow the quartet of painted high schoolers on the opposite wall.
Part of what Sato calls the Playhouse series, the photographed Barbies are daintily displayed on child-sized plexiglass ovals and on pretty pieces of flowered fabric. She pushes the playtime theme by adding on cute little stickers of puppy dogs and posies, the kind small girls love, and by dressing her Barbies in crayon colors, in yellow boots and red knee highs. And like a kid she messily scribbles on her nice pictures. There's even some evidence of an Asian sensibility at work: the small gestures, the small ceremonies of daily life, elegantly captured in tiny art.
But what Sato has her Barbies do is naughty indeed. Except for the good girl in a fairy princess dress, these dolls dish out hard-core porn, or at least as hard-core as a 12-inch piece of plastic can make it. Naked Barbies bend their bottoms toward the camera, provocatively displaying their cracked plastic crotches. They proffer their bare bosoms, surrounding those miniature 38 D's in feathery white boas or draping them with S&M chains. They toss their hair wickedly and flash their eyes slyly.
Fetishists would delight in the Barbies' creative use of their many Barbie accessories. Naked-but-for-the-boots is a theme. So is stripped-but-for-the-sunglasses.
And yet these naughties are the very nicest of the Barbies. Sato takes the Polaroid Barbies on a grisly ride into the even wilder side. Drawing on the skills she picked up as makeup artist for the dead--she worked five years for a Japanese undertaker--Sato becomes morbid graffiti artist. She wields a mean black pen on these Barbies reproduced in the sticky Polaroids of pornographers, giving them rough black lips and tattooed nipples and fiery breath. One poor girl spurts red blood-like lines out of her eyes, another has been nearly obliterated by spiky gold strokes.
Even mild Ken, the Barbie boyfriend sans genitalia, comes in for Sato's savagery. The poor fellow, if he ever came to consciousness, would doubtless be mortified by the painted nipples she's given him, the blindfolded eyes, the big stripes coming out of his nose. There's only one Ken in the bunch, and he's altogether S&M, his tiny picture glued to a piece of white faux fur.
And the language Sato writes across the dolls' photos! "The crapper will hit the crapper dead" is the legend given to a Barbie that lies inert, apparently dead. "I'm gonna die--in your dirty mind." "The world is vampire."
Just what kind of a playhouse is Sato running here?
Obviously she wants to bring to light the not-so-subliminal message that every Barbie delivers. Sato lays bare exactly what the Barbie body is telling little girls: women are sex machines.
But let's face it, even when she's fresh out of the factories of corporate America, the naked Barbie is pretty fetishistic, what with those exaggerated secondary sex characteristics and all. She doesn't really need Sato's help to seem darn weird. Most of us know without being told that Barbie teaches little girls all the wrong things about their futures. And porno Barbie has been done before, most notoriously in these parts by Moline of Tucson, an artist who used to get the plastic gals cavorting in 3-D porn dioramas.
Still, anybody who wants to slam the sexual straightjackets people try to squeeze girls into is doing a good thing. And Sato's Barbie homilies just might get through to poor pallid painted teens across the room.
Shinako Sato, an exhibition of photographs and paintings, continues through Saturday, May 26, at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, 441 E. Grant Road. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. For more information call 903-0577 or visit the web site at www.cherry-art.com.