Miss America Series
Why Miss America as subject:
As I began to investigate the Miss America Pageant and use its imagery in my art practice it became apparent to me how The Miss America Pageant has always endeavored to be seen as the representative of our society’s female gender norms and the judge of how these norms are to be embodied and perfected. I saw how as women work to successfully get through the rounds of regional contests and into the final pageant they need to project an idealized good girl next door aura, have a sweetness tinged with a sexual vulnerability, and still be able to demonstrate at least a basic level of intelligence and talent without too much originality. They must embody these qualities as they walk across a stage in very high heels with impeccable poise, often in not a lot of cloths. In the repeating easily interchangeable faces of these contestants I have found, as I had in my earlier Good Girl Project, a codifying of our social mores and societal rules through imagery that projects these mores and rules onto the visages and bodies of young women. I found in Miss America a representation and an exaggeration, a generic caricaturization of the social capital we give to gender conformity.
In 2001 and 2007 I attended the Miss America pageant. In 2005 I attended the Miss NYState pageant and have sense attended a number of other state pageants. From my seat in the audience at each of these pageants I shot a series of photographs (and videos at the state contests). The resulting photographic work and videos present a very specific perspective on how the pageants are structured around the judging of the fitness of young women to stand as the representative holder of our social standards and of how these women push and stretch themselves to meet these standards.
In the paintings in this project, all of which are of individual contestants, the emphasis is on the contortions each contestant needs to embody to fit within the expected standard of that year’s particular vision of the ideal American woman. Besides the watercolors, which I made from 2000 to 2003 and returned to in 2016, I worked on a series of small oils on canvas (intermittently between 2002 to 2012) which I call Vaseline Smiles. The title refers to the Vaseline used to keep the teeth both shinny and from sticking to the lips as one continuously smiles under the hot glow of stage lights. A woman must always be able to smile on cue.