Kim Dingle, "Fatty and Fudge," Nov. 7-Dec. 19, 1998, at Sperone Westwater, 142 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.
I first saw Kim Dingle's virtuoso paintings of battling toddlers at Jack Tilton Gallery, not long after I had become a new dad for a second time. I had my three-year-old son along. Dingle's "Prisses" scared the s--- out of my son. He ran out of the gallery, so I had to come back later. I was then in the last moments of the new-parent syndrome that is described by the phrase, "This is not going to change my life that much," which occurs just before parents surrender and face the fact that parenthood changes everything. (You're much happier afterward.)
Because of the moment I was in, I was defensive about Dingle's work and saw it as symptomatic of art-world anti-baby, anti-kid rhetoric: a vision of babysitting hell by a freaked-out anti-baby artist who had given her life to art, not to -- more life. My son's reaction was the litmus test. Something like Nicole Eisenman's Pirate Ship, which we also saw at Tilton, a work that is truly, gleefully infantile, he loves. Something from within the hurt inner child of an adult, he recognizes as a fearsome rival. I do not know if Dingle is a parent or not, but clearly her work represents the demons within her and not real children. Because her own "regressive tendencies" are unresolved, her kids are indeed frightening to other kids.
Her current exhibition, "Fatty and Fudge" (and I went alone this time), does not alter my view of her work. I am at a different moment and so is the art world on the kid issue, a '90s baby boomlet continuing to play itself out. Dingle's "Fatty and Fudge" seems to want to stir up trouble again, but Fatty and Fudge exist in a changed atmosphere.
Dingle has created an odd sort of sideshow structure to her exhibition. The front gallery contains several mushy, wispy paintings, showing the girls of her dreams raising the flag at Iwo Jima, fighting battles, engaging in a ritual with a "dresspole," etc. All the paintings are done in a monochrome blue, with white shading. In content, they break no new ground, as outsider artist Henry Darger mined the girls in dresses as warriors mode long ago, and in a much more demented way that was suspiciously pedophiliac. Within Dingle's exhibition, the paintings function almost like circus banners, which create an imaginary vision of the freak inside.
Then you walk into the back room and get the real thing, it's always a disappointment. (At Coney Island once I paid an extra dollar to step into the back room to see a "two-headed pig," imagining a live adult farm animal with two talking heads; what I got was an aborted pig in a jar of formaldehyde, with a birth defect.) Remembering the Jack Tilton installation, getting all worked up with Iwo Jima battle scenes, I half expected a diorama in Marcel Duchamp realism.
But Fatty and Fudge are just two plaster-dusted girls presumably having broken King-Kong-like out from behind a plaster wall. Their sense of style is very odd. Strange, cheap blue dresses, hair up straight, they had a strange, antique, Spanky and his Gang sort of look -- other stereotypes blurring the edge of the fact of their girlness. Gee, I thought, I could have brought my son to this one, he would have stayed put. Disappointed that I could not get up on my podium and start scolding the artist about "regressive tendencies" I drifted off, glad not to have had to pay a dollar to see these miracles of freakish girldom.
ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.