Mike Iacovone on the Three Woman Exhibit #THISISWHYIMSINGLE at Flashpoint DC
In the show “#THISISWHYIMSINGLE” artists Dafna Steinberg, Jenny Walton, and Jennifer Towner navigate dating apps, social media, and personal interactions in search for a meaningful connection, or at least a decent date. The platitude namesake of the show is light hearted and witty, and the show is too, but it’s also a subversive window into the difficulty of dating. The methods the three artists utilized in this exhibit play well off each other, dealing with modes of communication with people they haven’t met.
Dafna Steinberg’s collages are made up of imagery you’d find on cheesy paperback romance novels, along with a series of text bubbles floating around the picture plane. The text are taken from actual online conversations she’s had on Tinder, an online dating app/hook up app. Steinberg’s mix of wit and sarcasm, along with the idyllic romance imagery, is more than enough to make this work interesting. Each one drew my attention down the wall to the next, like reading the sunday comics as a kid, or clicking through a website of funny pics while wasting time at work.
They’re sharp bites of wit cleverly aligned with imagery, and they left me wanting more, but that’s when things start to get dark. Online dating applications picked up steam well after my days of being single ended 12 years ago, so I lack any experience in the game. This window into the Tinder world where some guy might lead off with the message “Wanna see my dick” is upsetting.
When is it OK to start a conversation like that with someone you’ve never met? After the humor washes away I’m left with disappointment and anger. I think of the amazing, strong, smart, successful single women I know who use online dating apps, and I get annoyed thinking that some guy hiding behind a mouse and a username would send a message like, “I wanna fuck your feet.” These virtual catcalls of cowardice jump the line from icebreaker to harassment.
Steinberg explains “I was establishing my own voice while simultaneously disputing the guys’ perceived assumptions about who I was. There is this idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to be ‘above’ the men she is interacting with and you are supposed to accept that men will behave badly because they can’t help it. It is up to you to ignore it or block it or cease contact. That’s not reality and my responses were my way of calling out the bad behavior of these men.”
Steinberg is making her art from these unsavory interactions, but inverting the power struggle. The aggressive nature of the interactions are met with images of a strong woman taking control, forcing the guys to consider that a real person is on the other end.
“When you’re a single woman, you have the options of dating analog style or going online. So you accept that you will get messages like this. That doesn’t make it right. More a sad fact of the dating experience. For people who are not in the online dating world, it is shocking to see the amount of negativity that gets directed towards women. But even among those people, I feel like women generally have an easier time believing the messages than men do.”
Jenny Walton’s series of paintings “Match/Enemy” is a grid of 200 images of online dating profile pics from the OKCupid dating site, each profile correlates with a numerical rating of both ‘Match’ and ‘Enemy’ based on an algorithm predicting how the two users will relate. All of the profile images obfuscate the subjectivity of the guy to various degrees, and allow them to hide their faces while giving hints of their personalities, motives, or in some cases their illicit desires.
The images range from the benigne Homer Simpson, or Kermit the Frog memes to aggressive S and M images of a riding crop, a whip, or a guy wearing leopard print panties with welts on his butt cheeks from a recent spanking.
The 200 painting grid allows the series to function well as a whole, and that serves her idea, however it also distracts the viewer from seeing these paintings individually and noticing how good these paintings actually are. They are far more than just representations of the profile pics, each of these paintings are a record of time that Walton spent producing them, and considering the guy hiding behind them. They are records of a brief relationship the artist has with the images based on how much they reveal, or what insight is given via context clues of pop culture and personality.Walton relies heavily on her concept and process, “In my own searches on the site, I started to collect screenshots of users that were hiding/altering/changing their facial features, (which is a requirement of the site) in their first profile picture. I then assigned that image the match-enemy number in my archive. I would then sort through the archive for “interesting” images that would then fit within a percentage slot in the match set or the enemy set. So for the projects sake, I often looked at the images as representative of Match OR Enemy, rather than both.”
The wall full of paintings allows your attention to dart around, to think about those who might use these images as profile pics, and also consider what it would be like to face this mass of humanity searching for something to connect to. Possibly the strangest profile pic is Santa Claus from a guy who doesn’t ever break character in his profile, even when referring to Mrs.Claus philandering with the Easter Bunny. It’s as funny as it is creepy.
Jennifer Towner’s installation “Failed T-Shirt Designs for Today’s Modern Woman” consists of a series of white shirts with phrases printed on them in block letters, and hung in clothesline rows. The premise references the sweatpants with less than classy words like “Juicy” displayed across the butt.
Towner explains the origins of the phrases. “The text on the t-shirts come purely from internal dialogue I carry on with myself – they are not necessarily in direct response to dating. The original impetus for the shirts was a way of me communicating all the things that I think people should know about me when getting acquainted, whether that be in a dating context or being making friends.”
Towner’s entire artist statement consists of just three words: “Dating is hard” and this show certainly illustrates that, while its subversive nature shouldn’t be a deterrent for anybody other than the under-aged. It’s a great show, with three talented and compelling artists. But I left disappointed and a little more jaded than I was before I went in, completely due to my own naiveté.
I think the world has moved incredibly fast in the last twenty years, and in so many ways we suffer for it. Technology has made it so easy to find and connect to people we might not have ever known, and that sounds nice, until you realize that it also enables misogynistic creeps to harass women without any accountability other than a flimsy conscience. It also means that potential partners are reduced to a profile pic and a score card.
Maybe dating isn’t harder than it was, maybe it’s just different, with different pitfalls and the same amount of creeps. Maybe the fast paced nature allows for quicker judgement and even faster rejection. In a time when we might be electing our first woman president, I can almost believe that this country was finally moving past social and institutionalized sexism. But then again, eight years ago I thought we were about to live in a post-racial America. I was wrong about that too.
The exhibit is up through March 20 at Flashpoint in Washington, DC. More information here.
Author Michael Dax Iacovone is a DC based artist who works in photo, video, maps and installation.