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Bitchfest 

A visceral word gets the visual treatment at the ARTcade.

"Princess Niggle," a found-object sculpture by Brenda - Stumpf.
  • "Princess Niggle," a found-object sculpture by Brenda Stumpf.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is topless and flipping the bird on the cover of her 1998 book Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. Being called a cold, calculating bitch could be a compliment, Wurtzel suggested -- a badge of honor that advertises power and confidence. Though her self-styled "bitchography" flopped, it signaled a bright new future for a crude old word.

A year later, a group of women from San Francisco founded Bitch magazine, a forum for feminist commentary on pop culture. "'Bitch' is most often hurled at women who speak their minds," says the Bitch website. "If we take it as a compliment, it loses the power to hurt us."

This brighter side of bitch is just the latest incarnation of the historically pejorative word, which has picked up plenty of nasty meanings in its millennium-long life. That richly layered etymology is what two local artists wanted to mine with their show Bitch: Verb or Noun, now on view at the former Buzz Gallery of the ARTcade, inside the Colonial Arcade.

The show's co-organizers, mixed-media artist Dott Schneider and textile artist DAME, have dubbed themselves "artners in crime"; they call their collaboration "Viscous Arena" -- a gallery without walls, consisting of interpretations of the word "bitch" by artists from around the country. The concept sprang from one of Schneider's monthly chicks-only chatfests called "Steel Ovaries." The duo wanted artists to get in on the dialogue initiated by writers like Wurtzel and the ladies at Bitch.

Unfortunately, some of the works are predictable and uninventive images of human female "bitches." New Yorker Heather Halliday's photocollage "Vagina" sandwiches a photo of a handwritten sign that reads "Vagina" between photos of bushes and crops. Local artist Heather Cool's oil painting of a sullen poor little rich girl, copied from a photo by the mid-19th-century British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, is a well-painted but stale derivative.

The bitchy-woman category's strongest, most engaging examples come from artists Terri Snider and Karen St. John-Vincent, two of the eight local artists whose work appears in the show. Both provide dramatic moments for which the viewer must supply a narrative. Reminiscent of a still life, Snider's oil painting "Best Served Cold" depicts a shallow white bowl resting on an icy blue tablecloth. Inside the bowl, a nude woman lies face down, unmoving, stretched out like a cannibalistic offering. As we try to imagine what emotions are registered on the woman's face, the image becomes simultaneously funny and pathetic. Is she mocking a suitor? Frightened? Is she submissive or in control? Is this merely an archetypal image of an Ice Queen?

St. John-Vincent's staged color photo "Finis" seems to capture a couple in mid-breakup. A woman, clad in a black evening dress with matching elbow-length gloves, confidently strides across a bridge, leaving her ex-whatever in the distance. She's self-possessed, while he stands dejected, with his hands in the air, staring incredulously as she walks away. As Fred Willard babbled throughout A Mighty Wind, "Whah happuhnd?"

The stars of the show are fresh takes on the B-word that resonate on aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual levels. Local artist Brenda Stumpf's found-object sculpture "Princess Niggle" creates an origin myth for the new, self-empowered bitch. In a poem that accompanies the piece, Stumpf describes a metamorphosis:

Once upon a time in a land far away,

Lived a princess who felt stifled, ignored, and grey . . .

Out of a cocoon of silence she wiggled,

Opening up and shouting out became Princess Niggle.

An oval-shaped car part forms the princess's head and a huge metal washer her mouth, out of which spews a shoe horn for a tongue and wire and rubber tubing that symbolizes her bitching. The sculpture captures the mythic moment the princess found her voice -- and her power.

Equally intriguing is DAME's "Bitchin' Bullet Proof Chest," a sexy halter top fashioned from bullet casings and a hand-woven wire structure (think skimpy crocheted lingerie with beads). She created adjustable nipples by placing movable casings inside the metal washers that serve as areolas; tiny metal pistols dangle from the end of each nipple. The piece is riddled with irony: bullets transformed into protective gear; a feminine garment made from hard, masculine metals; the playful means of symbolizing the "bitchy" exterior women use to protect themselves. DAME's work is both whimsical and serious as hell.

The only entry from a male, unfortunately, is Clevelander Mark E. Howard's barely-worth-mentioning "Bitch," a tiny wooden square with scattered wooden letters that spell "bitch." It also has, allegedly, an abstract silhouette of Little Richard. Who knew? Nobody, unless they talked to the show's organizers, and even then, the musician's image is only discernible to its creator. The connection between Little Richard and "bitch" taps a new vein, but no chat label exists to even hint at it. It's a disappointing, slapdash contribution by an accomplished artist.

Fellow Clevelander Mary Travers's two drawings of fenced-in, four-legged "bitches" seem like smart, New Yorker-style cartoons -- until a reading of the artist's statement ruins the moment. The growling dog in "Angry Bitch" is rendered in tense, angular lines, with jagged ears and tail. "Bitched Out," depicts a dog in the opposite state, curled up in a dejected ball. Apparently, these bitches represent marginalized groups, such as women and gays, who "seize the terms of persecution as a means of rendering them impotent" and thus become complicit in their own captivity. "In the end," Travers writes, "these bitches don't really care what you call them."

"Bitchin' Furniture" by the duo Tina Romanak and Jackie Zubal, who own Lakewood's retro-chic furniture store Gotta Have It, provides a counterpoint to Travers's gloomy interpretation. Items include oddly appealing faux fur Kleenex box covers with doll faces and velvet pillows with plastic-encased holy cards in the center. Visitors who've had a bitch of a day are invited to recline in the King and Queen Tarot Card Fire Thrones. Like DAME's sexy wirewear, the funky home decor suggests the awesome -- as in the bitchin' side of "bitch." We'll be on the lookout for Viscous Arena's next appearance. We're waiting for another bitchin' surprise.

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