It is a ballsy premise. Ann-Marie Manker sets out to imagine female Middle Eastern suicide bombers from the perspective of an American woman who reads about them and our various wars from the safety of her Cabbagetown home.
Damned if she doesn’t pull it off. The paintings in “Softcore War,” Manker’s solo show at Whitespace through October 9, are provocative, cheeky and smartly crafted.
By creating fantasies so sanitized that they look, at first glance, suitable for your daughter’s bedroom, the Atlanta artist makes the point that she (and we) can’t possibly understand what’s going on in these women’s heads or what war is really like.
Her protagonist is not the Angelina Jolie/Lara Croft tough woman of video games and action films, but a girlie-girl like one of those interchangeable, sweetly sexy blond ingénues who star in teen chick flicks. There is no actual violence. Victims are already dead, and tidily so — no icky blood or guts to muss things up. A cuddly, smiling little lamb is a cheery antidote.
The young woman in “Sweet 16” (above) kneels beside the remains of a blown-up (pink) car. All but her eyes and blond bangs are hidden by a mask made of lacy underthings clipped to her head with clothespins. Sixteen birthday candles — homage to filmmaker John Hughes? — stick out of what looks to be frosting atop the car. One candle (to grow on?) protrudes from the gun she cradles.
The sugary palette of pink, turquoise and yellow and the landscape setting, which evokes a Disney cartoon, support the tone. Manker hints at her darker intent with jarring pools of black and the presence of a black swan. (Could this be a reference to the ballet “Swan Lake,” in which the black swan is an aestheticized incarnation of evil?)
Like a number of her peers, Manker mixes high craft and low culture. A fine draftsman, she alternates line drawing, broad swaths of flat color and thin glazes. Her sculptures, oversized elements from the paintings, add to the coy, faux-playful tone, except for the in-your-face monster version of her characters’ face coverings, a “wall hanging” composed of tiers of black lingerie. The sexualizing of the Muslim face covering, which is intended to desexualize its wearer, is a cross between George Carlin and guerrilla feminism. Manker noted in an interview the irony of a culture whose idea of empowering women is to get them to kill themselves.
But lest we feel self-righteous, her main point, as the “softcore” in the title implies, is that our armchair violence is porn in a category of its own.