Mikelle Holt at Kruger Gallery

Design experiment; Barbie makeover ~ Chicago Tribune
By Lori Waxman, Special to the Tribune

There's good painting and bad painting, but usually it's more complicated. Sometimes good painting can be bad, like when a well-executed expressionist or realist work falls flat because it feels dated or boring. Sometimes bad painting can be good, hence the recurrent popularity of thrift-store landscapes and portraits.

Mikelle Holt's series of mucky Barbie doll paintings are so bad they're terrific. Densely worked with palette knife, brush, scraper and maybe even a couple of fingers, her canvases depict Barbie as a Playboy playmate, as the victim of undisclosed brutalities and as the model in some highly suspect girl art by Vanessa Beecroft and Malerie Marder.

In 2011, critical representations of Barbie are nothing new. Second-wave feminism has come and gone, gender has long been argued as a social construct, and Barbie's impossible proportions have been well-documented. Meanwhile the riot grrrls of third-wave feminism have moved on to re-appropriating femininity by punking it up rather than flushing their lipstick or anything else down the toilet. And anyway, American Girl Place dolls come complete with multiracial identities and historical backgrounds. Barbie is so a few decades ago.

And yet, there's something undeniably affecting about Holt's paintings. In part it's her technique, where impasto grotesquely visualizes female body image issues today: so much disgust, so many unreasonable desires, so much body sculpting, so much plastic surgery.

Mostly, though, it's that there's really nothing quite like mutilated doll parts, and Holt has plenty on offer in her "Mangled" series. Each 8-by-8-inch panel presents an individual crushed torso, severed head, discolored groin. If at first these seem like a heavy-handed critique of Barbie as being somehow implicated in the abuse of women, look again and notice that the hand has been chewed up by little teeth, the head streaked with a Magic Marker mustache, the groin colored with pink paint. These are the traces of a child at play, a child who handles dolls freely, experimenting with plastic instead of flesh.

Cinderella ate my daughter, indeed! Not so here. The little girl (or boy) who owns these dolls gobbled Cindy up, and Barbie too. And mommy memorialized the evidence with her good oil paints.

"Mikelle Holt: Mutiny, Munition, Mutation" runs through May 1 at Kruger Gallery, 441 N. Clark St., 630-715-0500, krugergallerymarfa.com

Download Mutiny Munition Mutation, Press Release