Laura Parnes' Lounge Act
by Nancy Princenthal

Even in a visual culture where the simplest graphic gestures are seen to be richly overdetermined, there are some marks that are clearly accidental.

These are the ones to watch. Take ink blots, for instance, a device of such prodigious payoff in signification that even Warhol couldn't corner its market, leaving multitudes of artists to exploit it in his wake (as probably not a few had done before). Ink blots can be located on a field defined by the intersection of art and innocence. They can also mark out moves within an area bounded by design and chance. Another set of relevant oppositions are clinical diagnostics and freestyle interpretation. Or, history (the inkblot is nothing if not a mark with a traceable past) and eternal presence (it can always be made new, spontaneously). Finally, the inkblot can be caught between the vectors of elitism and accessibility.

This last set of coordinates is a good way to frame one of Laura Parnes' recent projects, which took her, in 1992, to a venerable topless bar in Tribeca called the Baby Doll Lounge. The Lounge itself is another good occasion for plotting perpendicular vectors of signification. Sex workers and artists. Clients and collectors. Voyeurs and garden-variety spectators.

And so on.

Imagine now a three dimensional model in which all these fields of signification are stacked. Or, for a slightly less theoretical exercise, imagine the night Parnes spent at the Baby Doll, asking customers to free associate about ink blots, distributed in the form of small, black-on-red cards. Comments were written in the margins, as for example "I look at it and, of course, I see sex." Well, wouldn't you? Freud thought you might, and Parnes too, as this respondent clearly knew, adding that the sex is visible there "Purposefully on your part, I presume." But not everyone saw it that way. One customer, in point of fact, saw art ("Elergy to the Spanish Republic," he labeled the blot, as if for a Motherwell with a sinus problem).

Another saw a less agreeable form of disingenuousness ("A feeble attempt to be deep.") And then -- let's not forget this is a drinking establishment -- there were slightly less cogent remarks, about cave men's clubs, hamburger buns, elephants' trunks and more, most of it also, naturally, about human bodies and their business.

In addition to passing around the ink blot cards, Parnes asked customers to make drawings on paper doilies. Here things got truly dicey, as most adults are more self-confident about using words than making pictures. Three of the most accomplished, and legible, drawings were made not by customers but dancers (arguably more alert, almost certainly less sloshed, than the men who watch). Of these, two are sketches of women, proud and muscular. Most of the rest are half-hearted doodles, sadly aimless, and without any of the anger that roused one customer, for example, to tell Parnes her work is condescending. "I tell him," she reports answering, "that he is probably right."

Which is, after all, a fairly radical thing to say. It isn't a crime and shouldn't be, but neither is it source of esteem to be a customer at a topless bar. Parnes is within rights to suggest that not all forms of spectatorship are equal. Making these men consider that proposition is not a bad idea. In other words, what distinguishes Parnes' art-impelled excursion into the world of sex workers from so many other recent sorties (apart from the fact that it took place more than four years ago) is that Parnes does not try to have it both ways. That is, she doesn't show us naked women ("there's enough of that already," she says). She acknowledges that being a topless dancer or a prostitute is a legitimate way to make money, but is also "extremely alienating." And she is flat-out opposed to what she sees as a rampant "commodification of nihilism."

Now, without wanting to sound like Jesse Helms, or Andrea Dworkin, I think it's possible to say that irony and ambiguity have been oversold. Muddled thinking abounds on the subject of women paid (at best) to be sex objects (or objects of other less mainstream appetites). Many artists have simply exploited the confusion. Parnes doesn't pretend to resolve it single-handedly, but she's made some bold attempts, throwing light in places that look much better dark. William Burroughs, she reminds us in a new work, did in fact shoot his wife to death, which is a bad thing, not a deliciously decadent one. On the other hand, teenage girls should be able to dress as they want without fear of violence, despite what their terrifyingly hate-filled mothers tell Sally Jessy Raphael -- feelings made the more vivid in a recent video work by Parnes. Gender-blind opportunity for self-determination is not a fact of life. Galleries come and go; the Baby Doll remains. That's a blot worth taking a good look at.