KIT KEITH: SOME GIRLS 

Gallery 210, UM-St. Louis

Reportedly Kit Keith wanted to call her new show Pussies, Chicks, Beavers, Foxes and Bitches. Also under consideration was Women Are Beautiful. She settled on Some Girls. It was a wise decision. Some Girls suggests the slightly tawdry stuff of gossip and rumor without giving away too much about the women that are the subject of this show.

And what women they are! From roughly the 1930s to the 1950s, these women graced nudie mags and calendars, cookbooks and exercise instructions, advertisements for pantyhose or vacuum cleaners or hair-care products. Keith has honed an illustrative style that captures the essence of these women; in simple lines, she can evoke the come-hither pose of the pinup beauty, or the big-eyed innocence of the career girl, or the dour seriousness of the matron.

Keith has an eye for materials that equals her talent for illustration. That's a good thing, because many of the works in this show combine drawings and paintings of women with found objects, including old account-ledger pages, photographs, suitcases and mattresses. It's junk, by most people's standards. But as any flea-market aficionado or student of estate sales knows (and one suspects Keith is both), there's junk, and then there's junk. There's the stuff that isn't valuable, and then there's the stuff that is invaluable for what it tells us about the sensibility and style of another era.

In Keith's work, the trick is to combine painted images with the right found objects so that a particular sensibility is heightened, not covered up or overblown. And in this show, she never misses. The works don't strain under the weight of false nostalgia, and they never stoop to the level of a one-line joke. They are instead an indication of how deep-seated images and objects are in our psyche, how they key directly into our passions and emotions.

Some Girls is indeed like a study in the psychology of sex. Keith's works take us to a time, not so different from our own, when women were the objects and the subjects of desire, secret lust, fear, pain and fantasy. The gallery itself, which sets off the works with intense red walls, looks like a cross between Dr. Freud's office and a bordello.

Like a good psychiatrist, Keith plays quite successfully with image-association. In "Sailors," Keith takes a worn group photo of enlisted men posing in front of their barracks -- they look freshly scrubbed, ready for service -- and plants a drawing of a nude pinup girl squarely in the middle of the group. The woman appears blissfully unaware that the flagpole held firmly by the soldier in the front row is penetrating her rear end.

Nearby, a portrait of a stern-looking matron is painted on a dingy mattress; the word "Ice," dripping with frost, is painted below her. The work reverberates with the somewhat disturbing associations of motherhood with sex, frigidity and death.

Because of their novelty, Keith's mattress paintings have gotten lots of press. More often than not, these works are successful, drawing on the obvious psychological and physical attachments we have to mattresses. They also benefit from the unexpected visual characteristics that are supplied by the manufacturer. This show, for example, includes a self-portrait of Keith as a child painted on a crib mattress, its plastic covering decorated with baby giraffes and bears playing musical instruments. Underneath the portrait, the mattress label reads like an absurd caption: "Slumbertyme Hair Foam Orthopedic Type."

Other works in this show achieve a more subtle, suggestive pitch that makes them actually more fun to look at. Paintings of women on cake covers and wallpaper swatches address the ways in which women are inextricably linked with domestic spaces, whereas the voluptuous woman bearing a sign advertising "Gorgeous nude girls in all different poses" underscores the burlesque quality of some "women's work" performed outside the home.

Keith has an especially sensitive eye for mass-produced pictures of fuzzy kitties and cute bunnies and little blond girls with baskets of flowers -- in other words, kitsch. Although kitsch is often defined as the opposite of high art, there is nevertheless an aesthetic to kitsch, a science to its forms and its ability to elicit squeals of delight from some and groans of disgust from others. Jeff Koons has spent a good part of his career studying it. Kit Keith weighs in on the psychological dimensions of it by combining kitschy images with her sexy nudes. In a particularly tantalizing turn, Keith paints a reclining nudie on a print of a little girl holding a kitten. It's a funny (and disturbing) nod toward the latent pedophilic quality of so many standard-issue decorative images of children.

Though Keith's style refers to a bygone era, her works never seem remote. They strike an undeniable chord, even to those who might be unfamiliar with her sources. Her perverse juxtapositions make sense, because perversities -- of meaning, of sexuality, of gender -- surround us constantly. Keith's works let us take pleasure in that.

Continues through Dec. 3.

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