Time Out Chicago

Time Out Chicago

Time Out Chicago
January 31, 2008 - February 6, 2008
Age of anxiety
The Art Institute takes a nuanced look at teen spirit.

By Lauren Weinberg

“Girls on the Verge: Portraits of Adolescence” may sound like fodder for Lifetime, but—male or female—if you’ve ever had a zit, crush or New Kids on the Block album, you’ll find it impossible to walk through this show without cringing in recognition.

Elizabeth Siegel, the Art Institute of Chicago ’s associate curator of photography, has fused recent acquisitions and a small number of loans in a fantastic exploration of teenage girlhood that spans more than 20 years of recent history. Despite the media’s hysterical characterization of today’s teen girls as more sexualized, fat, anorexic or likely to outperform boys in school than ever before, “Girls on the Verge” reveals that certain adolescent experiences transcend time and place. Melissa Ann Pinney’s hilarious and poignant Bat Mitzvah Dance, Chicago, IL (1991) recalls that time when girls are at least six inches taller than the boys their age. In Sally Mann’s Candy Cigarette (1989), her daughter Jessie brandishes the taboo confection with a jaded air, illustrating how teens borrow adults’ attitudes as well as their clothes. Judith Joy Ross’s untitled 1982 photograph of a shy-looking girl at a small-town swimming pool—clad in a strapless bathing suit and Coke-bottle glasses, her hands crossed awkwardly over her abdomen—reminds us that when you’re a teenager, just leaving the house is an act of heroism.

Though white, middle-class queen bees and wanna-bes are well represented, Siegel went to great lengths to make the show international and multicultural. Céline van Balen’s three lovely portraits of Muslim teens in Amsterdam make the girls’ unlined faces seem to float against their black hijabs. Lauren Greenfield’s The damas (maids of honor) go from the church to the reception in a Ford Explorer limousine at Ruby’s quinceañera, Huntington Park, California (2001) depicts a row of girls, dressed to the nines, participating in a ubiquitous rite of passage that rarely appears on gallery walls. Pinney’s photographs of African-American girls going for a swim in Chicago’s Washington Park evoke the friendships that are vital to every teen’s survival.

Some of the photographs on display are provocative, but Siegel emphasizes that she sought works that would express “care and empathy” for teenage girls without sensationalizing them. Change, the most mundane phenomenon of adolescence, turns out to be the most shocking: Rineke Dijkstra’s two photographs of Israeli twins record how a mere 13 months transformed the girls from casually dressed kids into sophisticated young women with an eye for makeup and accessories. The decade that separates Tina Barney’s Marina’s Room (1987) and her follow-up Marina and Peter might as well be a lifetime to the father shown sprawling on his little girl’s canopied bed in one image, and standing beside the surly, cigarette-smoking teen in the other.

“This show is not just for girls,” Siegel concludes. “It’s about a universal experience. Adolescence is something we all go through. It’s rough, but it’s also kind of beautiful.”