To understand the new exhibition of tween-influenced art Alex Gartenfeld curated at West Hollywood's OHWOW gallery, it's best to rewind half a century.
Billie Jo Spears, a tame Texas country singer, was 13 in 1950. That year, she cut her first single, “Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys,” a “child's song,” she said. It made being an adolescent sound dismal: Children bore you, adults ignore you.
Judy Garland had sung a similar song years earlier, as a 16-year-old, only her version was called “In Between.” At that point, no one used the flip term “tween” to describe kids ages 9 to 14, but that's what the song was about.
“Fifteen thousand times a day,” Garland sang, “I hear a voice within me say, hide yourself behind the screen/You shouldn't be heard, you shouldn't be seen.” Garland performed this song in a scene from the Andy Hardy series of films, sounding horribly sad at first, then irritated: “I'm too old for toys and I'm too young for boys. … It's such an imposition.”
Now fast-forward decades, past World War II, the Vietnam War and the era of Twiggy, who made flat-chested girl bodies chic. Go past 1975, when commercial photographer Garry Gross shot the 10-year-old Brooke Shields nude in a steamy bathroom, her body oiled and posed. Then go past 1983, when conceptual artist Richard Prince re-photographed Gross' picture of Shields, calling it Spiritual America because Shields, as a fashion model who famously said that nothing comes between her and her Calvin Klein jeans, would turn “out to be the princess of the United States” and because the image had “an oppressive effect, a glowing hallucinatory energy.” Go past 1998, when Britney Spears danced in a schoolgirl uniform, and past 2004, when “tween” first appeared in the American Heritage Dictionary.
Then pause in December 2008, when a vlogger named Erin recorded a video she called “Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys.” She couldn't have been more than 14, and she said “my” constantly: She was sitting in “my” bathtub (“I like the lighting in here, even though it's really awkward”) in front of “my” webcam. She answered questions Internet fans had sent her, about boys, stuff she wanted. She wanted an SLR camera and she'd get one for Christmas, though she didn't know what kind exactly. Cool gadgets, clean bathtub, Internet following: Being in-between was not such an imposition.
That's the situation in which Gartenfeld's OHWOW exhibition — called, of course, “Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys” — arrives, one in which “tween” is a powerful demographic and has been for more than a decade (a 1999 Children's Market Research report found tweens influenced more than $120 billion in U.S. household purchases).
The seven artists assembled by New York-based Gartenfeld, an online editor for Interview magazine, make work that might not exist if Kotex didn't wrap tween-targeted tampons in sparkly packages and Sony didn't market new devices to consumers too young to drive.
The show is technologically polished but full of childishly bright colors and flashy, retouched photos, tween taste permeating the art's aesthetic like that “oppressive effect” Prince once felt emanating from oiled-up Brooke Shields.
One artwork in the show, hung against the back wall, pulls your eye straight to it: Donald Moffett's Lot 041212 (cadmium comfort). Perfectly shaped spears of red oil paint stick out from the linen surface, and the piece would resemble a shag rug — one you'd imagine vlogger Erin putting outside her perfectly lit bathtub — if not for the two black holes in its center. Those holes are spaced kind of like the holes in a light socket.
Debo Eilers' sculpture Sweet Soaker has a similar feel. With fashion belts protruding like tentacles from each side and dog toys and brand new T-shirts encased in its plastic body, it has the vibe of a marketable product, even though it's not one at all.
Moffet and Eilers comprise one strand of the show: the stuff strand. The other artists comprise the pop image strand. Josh Kline's Haunted Deodorant combines the blond hair and wide eyes of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain with the rounder face and looser posture of rocker Ariel Pink. It's a mutant youth-culture icon made by a Photoshop-savvy millennial.
Photographer Aura Rosenberg's images may be the most telling and unnerving. In the late 1990s, she started enlisting other well-known artists to collaborate with her and a child to make a portrait of that child. She called the series Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I? The artists would paint the child's face, make a mask or sometimes just pose the child, who was often around tween age.
One image made by Mike Kelley, the late L.A. artist obsessed with the psychology of adolescence, with a boy named Joe shows Joe shirtless, his longish hair a lot like Kelley's do from the late '80s, and the marks on his face like a cross between clown makeup and war paint.
In another image from Rosenberg's series, a young girl named Theodora looks over her shoulder and we see her face reflected three times. She has strawberry blond hair and sad eyes that actually look a lot like Judy Garland's when she sang about being “just an in-between” ages ago.
But Garland's sadness came from feeling left out, ignored by grown-ups. Theodora's sadness is a polished product of an adult project she's been enlisted in, because the grown-ups have started paying too much attention.
“Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys” is at OHWOW Gallery, 937 N. La Cienega Blvd., W. Hlywd., through Sept. 1
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