CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Art with attitude: 'Bad Girls' bust up the rules

Tuesday, May 1, was the quintessential Bad Day. An editor e-mailed to inform me an assignment I'd submitted was un-publishable, a message he topped with this cherry of encouragement: "I can't fathom anyone would enjoy reading this." So it goes without saying that I was feeling less than upbeat when I dutifully dragged myself down to Vinegar Hill Theater that evening to see David Williams' Bad Girls, one of the last offerings in the Virginia Film Society's series, "Artists on Film."

Williams' documentary profiles Richmond artist Keithley Pierce and her company, "Bad Girl Art," which produces tiles and placemats featuring garishly painted girlies with captions like, "If you can't be a good example, you may just have to be a horrible warning," and "Have you noticed how what the hell is always the right decision?" 

I laughed until I couldn't breathe. Then I laughed some more. Brilliantly edited, Williams' film rivets the audience with its celebration of Pierce's devil-may-care, doing-it-her-way-or-be-damned approach to art, feminism, and femininity.

Happily, the University of Virginia Art Museum has supplemented its screening of two other "Bad Girl" films, Miranda July's The Amateurist and Sadie Benning's It Wasn't Love, with a small display of works by Pierce, which she discusses in Williams' documentary. The most interesting– located just outside the museum's video gallery– are two altered books, Secret Emotions and Resume Book, created from text, collage, stitching, and found objects. As usual, Pierce's tongue is firmly in her cheek as she visually and verbally lays open her life.

July and Benning also put themselves front and center in their short films, albeit playing characters who uncomfortably prod viewers' assumptions about gender. July, who wrote, directed, and starred in 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know (if you haven't seen it, put it in your Netflix queue right now), crafts an odd narrative in The Amateurist, involving a dark-haired, tightly wound "professional" woman who observes (and semi-controls via video monitor) an emotional, almost feral blonde "amateur," who wears only underwear and a fur chubby. Each character is incomplete, a super ego and an id respectively, removed from, yet dependent on, the other.

Benning's It Wasn't Love combines movie clips and black-and-white extreme close-ups, shot with a Fisher-Price toy video camera, to examine romance through oral fixations and Hollywood's gendered stereotypes, which Benning bends and twists like balloon animals. 

Pierce, July, and Benning don't care if critics can't fathom viewers enjoying their work– as Annie Lennox sings, " Sisters are doing it for themselves."

"Bad Girls," featuring art by Keithley Pierce plus Miranda July's The Amateurist and Sadie Benning's  It Wasn't Love, is on view through June 9 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.