What was it Dolly Parton said about her enhanced ladyparts? “Plastic surgeons are always making mountains out of molehills?” If Parton’s surgeon was making mountains, Nancy Davidson makes asteroids. Davidson’s massive inflatable sculptures–much like Parton herself–take on gender, feminism, and body image with a hearty dose of humor.
Davidson is one of those rare artists whose work is simultaneously funny and critical. Walk into a gallery where one of her inflatables is on view, and you’re likely to feel at least a little uncomfortable. Buttress, from 1997, shows a stack of red weather balloons clad in slinky silver American Apparel boy shorts. Maebe, from the same era, squeezes a white balloon into a blue corset, with breast- and butt-like overflow at each end (the piece was a tribute to Mae West).
It’s totally fine to laugh. In fact, that’s sort of the point. “I’m interested in the subversive potential of humor,” Davidson told Kate Gilmore in a great interview from the September issue of the Brooklyn Rail. “It catches you from behind: ‘What am I laughing at? Why am I finding this pleasurable? Is this offensive?’ Body humor is about women, about men, about babies, animals. If you enjoy it, you have to know that you’re implicated. Laughter is uncontrollable and unruly.”
Thanks to a grant from Creative Capital, Davidson has spent the last seven years focused on a single cultural trope: the cowgirl, an archetypal female figure in American pop culture. During a visit to Fort Worth’s Cowgirl Hall of Fame, she found herself engrossed by female rodeo riders who enjoy long careers, despite receiving less attention, less glory, and less money than their male counterparts.
“I realized that the rodeo cowgirl maintained her own place outside the structure of society. She did things that were unacceptable,” she tells Gilmore. “That’s the kind of transgressive complexity, self-motivated dominance I’m attracted to in popular culture,” she says. All Stories Are True, a video of their performances, resulted–plus the impetus to make an inflatable tribute to the trope.
She debuted the inflatable at her latest show, which wrapped up at Betty Cuningham Gallery this month. Dust Up–a name taken from the cartoon trope of three fighting characters immersed in a dust ball–is a 21-foot-tall inflatable that shows three pairs of cowboy boots engaged in an ambiguous scuffle. To complete the effect, pastel-colored forms are suspended over a pile of sawdust.
Davidson’s vision of gender is remarkably (and refreshingly) playful. Rather than discouraging laughter, it encourages it as a confirmation of gender equality. “There is a strength in using one’s own experiences and body, particularly when taking on the role of the fool–not a traditional position for women,” she adds, talking to Gilmore about the rash of female comedians in the ’80s who broached new ground by taking on sex and body issues on stage.