Malena Barnhart’s Constraint, on view at the phICA shipping containers on Roosevelt Row, is immediately seductive. Candy-colored stickers form lovely gradations that sparkle and shimmer as you approach pristine, beautifully composed works on paper. The surprisingly luscious, built-up surface of stickers at first delighted me, until I began to process what objects the stickers formed. While I couldn’t identify each one, it was clear in the context of the instantly recognizable cat carrier and horse saddle that each of these works on paper portrays an object that has the purpose of entrapment. A rigid grid here, a metal chain there – I realized the number of objects used to prevent animals from roaming free is much higher than I ever would have predicted.
Let’s think about the stickers for a moment. A range of bright ROY-G-BIV colors with some pastels mixed in tint the space pink, purple, and yellow. Zooming in on individual works reveals that the stickers vary from stars to hearts to rainbows to sexualized cartoon women to cartoon animals. The horse saddle is cleverly made up almost exclusively of My Little Pony, unicorns, Pegasus, and other imagined cartoon versions of a horse. While stickers are rich with potential as a creative material, as Barnhart demonstrates, there is a tension between their versatility – you can stick them anywhere – and the pre-manufactured messages they contain. Barnhart puts this tension to work, showing the way these shiny-pretty-happy stickers become a one-dimensional stereotype for girls and about girls.
A web of long, skinny ribbon-like strips completely covered in stickers stems from the back of the shipping container and creeps forward, encroaching on the viewer’s space. While I appreciated the visual contrast to the works on paper, this element did not announce the danger of the gender trap as readily as the other works, and risks being viewed as decorative, a problem when it is the frivolous and decorative nature of the stickers that is being interrogated. I would have loved to see a more developed, all-encompassing web of stickers that left no doubt of its threatening nature. Barnhart mentions in her artist statement “stickers marketed to boys tend towards the functional. There are doctors, firefighters, construction equipment, and vehicles.” I wonder if just a hint of this counterpart might provide a useful foil for all of the pink hearts and purple flowers, bringing the gender disparity into focus.
Constraint provided plenty of content and visual surprises to consider well after I left the shipping container. I remain fascinated by the traps I do not recognize, and find this an apt metaphor for the complex stickiness of the female experience. How many traps in the form of assumptions that I do not notice or identify might I unknowingly walk into? The works on paper emit an obsessive quality that reads as a meditation on this very issue, as if the gesture of making traps with these manufactured stereotypes might warn against such traps being successful in the world.