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The Barbie Complex

This art series moves from dolls to self-empowerment at the VMFA.



Barbie is beyond human. She operates in the same mythic zone of perfection and invulnerability as Superman — enormous breasts, swelling hips, and a waist so thin it would kill your average teen. If you applied Barbie's dimensions to a human girl, she'd be forced to walk on all fours and would be physically incapable of lifting her oversized head.

Being invincible or impossibly beautiful doesn't interest local artist Susan Singer. Vulnerability is a key theme in her work: the possibility of imperfection and what may lie beneath it. Recently at the Galley restaurant, Singer, along with fellow artist Dawn Flores, described the origins of her "Beyond Barbie" series — a kind of artistic performance mash-up that carries on an extended argument with the Barbie doll as cultural icon.

"I remember my father used to say something to me that was awful: 'Hold your stomach in or you'll look like your mother.' I really hated that," she says. "I want to teach women to love their bodies. I paint what most people think is ugly and I make it so beautiful they can't look away. And if they do look away and can't handle it, I think, 'Fuck you, you're just not seeing what this woman looks like.'"

Although she had a show at Visual Arts Studio in Richmond, because of the nudity, other galleries in the Richmond area demurred. Her friend Jennifer Kirby, owner of Crossroads Arts Center, agreed to exhibit the work. The larger space allowed Singer to expand her repertoire from only displaying paintings. "Beyond Barbie" combined paintings with readings and dances from local writers and artists.

Singer collaborated with Dawn Flores, who directed and produced, and in February they produced a four-week "Beyond Barbie" series at Unity of Richmond Church. The themes included abuse, domestic violence and eating disorders.

One speaker, Lisette Johnson, recalled being shot by her estranged husband. Singer had painted Johnson in her room where she was shot. Most of Singer's work uses a lot of red, but not for Johnson. She told Singer, "no red — too much like blood." Here's a passage from her monologue:

As I sat in the chair in the corner of my bedroom he returned with the gun, covered by a hand towel, and stood at the end of my bed, four feet from me, and for a split second I thought he was simply threatening me as he had in the past. Uttering the words "I love you too much to live without you," he removed the towel and aimed at my head. ... It was that final moment of kicking free from the drowning person and swimming clear as I ran past and away from him while he continued shooting me.

Lisette's story was the most harrowing, but there were others. One woman talked about modeling for Playboy, while another, Kathleen MacDonald, discussed her eating disorder and how she'd intended to testify to Congress about her disease and then return to her hotel to kill herself.

"For 18 years of my life, my biggest accomplishment was that I was thin," MacDonald said. "When I came to D.C. to speak at the Eating Disorders Coalition's briefing, I expected that to be my last day alive."

Instead, it was the day she met the parents of Leslie George, who died at the age of 19 from an exploded stomach after an out-of-control eating binge. The meeting saved her life.

"The briefing concluded and there was a line of people waiting to talk to me," she recalled. "I do not remember any of the 20 or so people I talked with that day except for two. The very last people I spoke with were Leslie George's mom and dad. I will never forget as Mr. George, his face red and wet with tears, taking hold of me and saying, 'I lost my daughter to bulimia. You need to get help, you're going to die.'"

MacDonald kicked her bulimia, describing nights of "crying by the toilet. ... I woke up in the morning, my head leaning against the toilet bowl, feeling victorious. I had not purged."

It's a story Singer knows well. She says that women approach her, recognizing her from one of the workshops. "I know you," they say, "You did that 'Beyond Barbie' thing. Oh my God, that changed my life."

Singer's worldview might be summed up by something she says between bites of a Hanover tomato at Galley. "The world is going to be healed if each of us does what we're here for," she says. "The women and men who participate [in the workshops] understand it's possible to be authentic and vulnerable and still be powerful, too." S

Dawn Flores' latest work of art, "Candy Wrappers & Rocket Dogs," features dresses she wore for "Beyond Barbie" performances and is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Studio School Gallery until Jan. 10.

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