Cult Of Girls

Words by Char Jansen

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Artist: Mayan Toldedano ©

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Artist: Dana Boulos ©

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Artist: Monika Mogi ©

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Artist: Dafy Hagai ©

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Artist: Maya Fuhr ©

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Artist: Anna Balecho ©

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Artist: Bar Alon ©

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Artist: Lilia Li-Mi-Yan ©

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Artist: Leah Schrager ©

Young female creative production is booming: from the creation of Tumblr and ‘Sad Girl’ icons to all- girl collectives like The Ardorous and Girl Gang Illuminati, young artists have created a cult of girl with a powerful ideology that is catching and redefining modern feminism and the diversity of femininity for themselves. Though this phenomenon has been endorsed by celebrity culture — cementing its place in our mainstream-pop conscience, from Emma Watson’s gender equality UN speech to Pharrell’s pre-show appearance on stage with Sweden’s feminist party leader — there has been relatively little critical discussion of works in the context of art criticism.

When Lena Dunham released Season 1 of Girls in 2012, the iconography of this cult of girl reached a mass audience. Her ambiguous characters were remarkable in their crass candidness and humour, loveable and despicable in equal measure — created by and for young women. This wasn’t about role models for ‘alternative girls’ (just as dangerous a stereotype that often falls into cliché). Her four middlebrow white girls were, though, a conscious break with the typecast former vision of young women living in the metropolis created by comparable predecessors on mainstream TV like Sex and the City, which reasserted the stereotypes sexy- sweet-kooky-earthy personality types of the modern ‘independent woman’. Dunham and her peers began to portray mutable, realistic women who were not one-dimensional, but flawed in ways that are not forgivable.

Bringing the effect full circle, the popularity of Girls and similar mainstream successes (take the brilliant Broad City) gave women the overiding feeling of confidence and freedom. Now young artists are expressing female consciousness, and from an earlier age, such as Tavi Gevinson, who founded Rookie, the style website for teenage girls. Their collective force makes us reflect on the repercussions — personal and social – on all members of a society that has been and is still saturated by fake female figures circulated by malevolent corporations.

It is impossible to flatten the concerns and approach of this proliferation of art to one plane, but the selected art works here, by both little-known and established artists, generally take on the momentum of this current cult of girl. It is impossible to ignore the sheer volume of work being made by girls that is also concerned with the subject of being a girl — particularly in the field of photography, as one of the most accessible, democratic and effective media we have available.

The artists chosen for this issue are connected as young females who are concerned with depicting their own vision of girls and girlhood, touching on visual themes such as their relationships to each other and as a result to themselves, tangentially exploring both physical and emotional issues. Together they can be taken to create the texture of young female identity. Where political prowess might on first look be lacking, they are perhaps handled better from the perspective of a school or movement, as a language constructing new ways to communicate what feminism and femininity mean now to girls and how they are interpreted, trans- muted and made intelligible.

US-based artist photographers Dana Boulos (Los Angeles) and Mayan Toledano (New York City) work with subjects on the cusp of womanhood addressing them with dreamlike, illusory aesthetics: they read as new aspirational female portraiture for a preternatural audience who are accessing images on the web more than anywhere else. While they portray teen friendship and ennui the not-quite-innocent handling
of their subjects ultimately questions not their young muses provocative interactions but the reactions that the adult viewer has to this kind of imagery. Naivety isn’t possible in an internet age where images have replaced words; all culture is complicated. Today it is as much up to the viewer as the photographer to educated themselves and to learn to read images and their discursive nature.

Photography today is moving in schools, where global connections can be made between images from around the worldinstantly and in the palm of your hand. The ambivalent relationship between photographer-image-viewer is continued in the work of Tokyo-based Monika Mogi, who also shoots for American Apparel in Japan — a company known for their ambiguously sexual fashion portraits. Mogi’s images, aside from her models, could be anywhere, anytime. There is universality to the misfitish narratives of her images, recalling the mood of 90s movies like The Craft, an era of film that ties many of these artists together by their age. With a similar palette of sweet colours and her own kind of cyberspace prettiness, Canadian photographer Maya Fuhr shoots portraits that also reference the aesthetics of cinematic heroines of Larry Clark, Harmony Korine or John Hughes. But the adolescent innocence of those 90s heroines is impossible in today’s uncontrollable internet-informed youth and anonymous audiences — there is self-awareness too in the sensual apathy of Dafy Hagai’s Israeli Girls, who pose seductively for the female lens, embodying suburban sex in bubblegum colours, the American High School Girl reinvented. Perhaps they are not deliberately confrontational, nor do they unpick stereotype qualities of beauty – all legs, sportwear, long hair and youth – but they constitute a telling kind of girl-focused imagery that resonates with a URL community where narcissism is a playful, if knowingly charismatic, experiment. The ongoing predicament for the viewer is what these images of beautiful youth do to us.

In the imagery of this cult of girl it is paramount to remember that the hand behind the lens — whether it’s a directing one or not — is female. In this way other qualities are discerned in the images: sisterhood, affection and admiration from behind the camera is a trait that is identifiable in the images of Bar Alon’s ongoing series Sisters; portraits of her four sisters as they grow up and change over the years, but always with an indestructible bond that endures. Sisterhood is also key in the works of art-fashion photographer Anna Balecho, who shoots mainly in Lisbon, and in her non-commercial works prefers to capture her friends at work – their activity in itself is an essential reclamation of what women do and how they act, that doesn’t mean rescinding the girlish completely but it adds more imagery to the sea of female-focused pictures out there. Where there’s a lack of positive images for and of young women, the cult of girl is indexical.

Redressing the decades of imbalance of images in our society head on are the works of Russian artist Lilia Li-Mi-Yan, who tackles prejudice head on in her exploration of female consciousness in Mature Beauty. Her project asks a sincere question from the standpoint of a young female: what will happen to this cult of girl when they grow old? Why are older women still widely dispossessed? How to reclaim confidence and beauty in a society that puts youth on a pedestal?

A parallel concern to challenge and question societal ideals and prejudice with regards to images of women is found in My Modeling Portfolio by Leah Schrager, who uses her own image as her previous ‘self’ as a model in her work in order to reclaim her own image, both economically, legally and ideologically. Schrager’s work – recently mentioned in Artforum’s Women on the Verge (a rare article on the work of a wave of digifeminist artists in an art publication) taps into an important ongoing dialogue between feminism, the internet and self-image.

With their unprecedented cultural currency, at times images of girls can be aggravatingly shallow, frustrating in their frequency – but the work of diverse young female artists is part of a fundamental shift in our perception of women and celebrates them almost by default as manufacturers, producers, and directors as much as continually destablisizing established ideas of the girl as a subject in art. What is lacking still, though, is the genuine critical discussion of these works – and many others like them – in the cultural sphere that could broaden the discussion and their
relevance beyond their cult status.