that gets our smiles going rather than our backs up. Focusing on issues of gender stereotyping and race relations, Dingle uses the little girls as society's surrogates who shamelessly and aggressively battle their way through confounding human dilemmas.

Dingle's art has demonstrated a questioning if not a critical view of the status quo since she began exhibiting regularly in the early 1990s. Coming from a small-town, Southern California family that nurtured such all-American attributes as independence, self-reliance, and fairness, Dingle has often called upon that background in formulating ideas for her art. The elaborate context she constructed for her first solo exhibition after completing an M.F.A. degree at Claremont Graduate School was titled "The Portraits from the Dingle Library." In a Duchampian mode, she repainted images of famous contemporary or historical figures, transforming the original identities into portraits of female family members, most frequently her mother, Cram.

Two of the most celebrated of this group depict Cram as a clone of George Washington in George Washington as Cram Dingle as Queen Elizabeth II (1991) and as a ringer for boxer George Foreman in Baby Cram Dingle as George Foreman. While the works are meant to entertain with their wit and irreverence, they are serious in drawing attention to the often arbitrary nature of certain aspects of the male/female polarity. Dingle seems to suggest that some distinctions routinely taken for granted may be both optional and absurd. One critic noted the importance of Dingle's way of working as well, observing that the paintings are "created whole-cloth by Dingle, rather than . . .'ready-made,'" and this "renders the image particularly disturbing."2

That same exhibition included a series of map paintings -- perfect for the Library -- incorporating maps of the United States drawn from memory by art students who had been her classmates at Claremont.


Dingle uses little girls as society's surrogates who shamelessly and aggressively battle their way through confounding human dilemmas.


Dingle indicated, tongue-in-cheek, that this seemingly innocuous idea could be interpreted in psychosexual terms. The map without any peninsulas, she explained, came from "a woman who was extremely angry at men."3

The second installment of the Dingle Library came later in 1991. Entitled "Paintings of the West with Horse Drawings by Teenage Girls," she took the liberty of adding what she felt had been left out of this American subject. Often using 1950s figurative wallpaper, bedspreads, and tablecloths instead of canvas, she altered the images to include little girls, adults of Chinese origin, and cowboys with black faces.


While the works are meant to entertain with their wit and irreverence, they are serious in drawing attention to the often arbitrary nature of certain aspects of the male/female polarity.


One of the 1991 "Paintings of the West," done in oil on baby blanket, shows a scene in which Dingle has obscured the original cowboys pictured around a campfire, replacing them with her ubiquitous little girls who seem perfectly capable of tending to the horses nearby. Other paintings in the series show a little girl included in "scenes of runaway mustangs, buffalo roundups, Indians celebrating tribal rites, and the sheriff maintaining law and order."4

In another work, she dissolves any suspicion of pretension associated with her celebrated forebears by refashioning, as one critic noted, "wallpaper with 'classy' hunting scenes into ranch-hand kitsch [with] doodly drawings that add horns to hounds and turn whips into lassos."5 Two walls of the exhibition featured a selection of horse drawings actually executed by teenagers and collected from various sources by Dingle's friends.


Dingle has obscured the original cowboys pictured around a campfire, replacing them with her ubiquitous little girls who seem perfectly capable of tending to the horses nearby.


Another critic observed that Dingle "sees girls' desire to draw horses as an empowering act, and in this context it forces them to be taken seriously as members of the West."6 Using her own art and that of the real-life "girls" to establish a starring role for the players whose scenes are most often edited out, Dingle's revisionist pageant of the American West presents it as both domesticated and democratized.

Dingle collects marbles and erasers and has used photographs of the eraser collection, 300 pieces in all, as the basis for a piece in which she juxtaposed the images with text excerpted from tire billionaire Harvey Firestone's The Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry.7 Although Dingle resisted explaining her intentions, there was no mistaking the racist attitudes implicit in the passages she chose to include. Her marble collection, an obvious snipe at the female stereotype -- boys collect marbles, not girls -- is another way she expresses her off-beat style.

The "gentle weirdness"8 of Dingle's 1992-93 series of paintings depicting prepubescent black and white girls in frilly white party dresses and black Mary Janes, sometimes with boxing gloves, makes these works impossible to ignore. Dingle sees the girls as growing out of an original idea she describes as "Easter girls boxing the hell out of each other."9 The conventional, almost classic execution of the paintings in an oil-on-linen medium, along with their strong figurative presence, contrasts dramatically with the unconventional and enigmatic subject matter.


Dingle's revisionist pageant of the American West presents it as both domesticated and democratized.


Highly self-conscious yet rich in metaphorical ambiguity, these paintings offer the possibility of a wide range of scenarios. Undoubtedly they constitute another chapter in Dingle's continuing discourse on gender stereotyping, but they also introduce the issue of race relations. Dingle remembered, sometime after the paintings were executed, that she had ordered the large canvases expressly for this group of works the day after the 1992 Los Angeles riots began.10

Naughty but always irresistible, these liberated baby Amazons either duke it out with no intention of settling for a split decision or take turns being the aggressor and the victim. In Two Girls, One with Head in Heaven the white kindergartener shakes her partially clothed black counterpart -- in vain, we assume, since her head, Dingle tells us by the title, is already somewhere else.


Highly self-conscious yet rich in metaphorical ambiguity, these paintings offer the possibility of a wide range of scenarios.


Black Girl Dragging White Girl (1992) shows instead an ill or sleeping white girl who is being pulled, with difficulty, by her black companion either out of or into -- we do not know which -- harm's way. In any case, these lively protagonists serve to act out our fantasies of free will uninhibited by a sense of guilt or responsibility. There is no shying away from showdowns for these "wild girls" who confront their adversaries and fight to win regardless of the consequences. They also serve as new symbols of assertiveness and competitiveness, while acknowledging the old contradictions complicating the exercise of female power -- the forceful versus the feminine, the ugliness of raw aggressiveness versus the beauty of more subterranean wiles.

Dingle has followed these paintings of larger-than-life little girls with a series she calls "the prisspapers." Peopled by toddlers rather than preteens, baby girls are now let loose against a backdrop of funky wallpaper that appears to have been rescued from a condemned nursery. Multiracial and occasionally bespectacled, they cavort in their birthday suits, suggesting a Lord of the Flies atmosphere where they attack one another as well as other living things with gleeful, uninhibited abandon.


These lively protagonists serve to act out our fantasies of free will uninhibited by a sense of guilt or responsibility.


In the prisspapers: baby mashing duck, robust babies torture their luckless pets with evil enthusiasm.11 In another, the prisspapers: girl on panda, a sensual baby athlete, complete with tattoos to match the wallpaper patterns, sits astride a panda seeming to hug and torture the animal simultaneously. What can we make of these strange tableaux? The seductiveness of violence and the absence of innocence are surely among the ideas on Dingle's mind. Finding such weighty thoughts couched in such wacky subject matter, painted so beautifully with such obvious pleasure, gives them an added punch.

The "prisspaper" paintings were exhibited alongside the first full-scale installation of Priss' Room at a New York gallery in 1994. Dingle presented an expanded version of the installation a few months later at Blum & Poe in Santa Monica. It had the impact of a Dingle gesamptkunstwerk. Room-size and obsessively detailed, it consisted of three newspaper-lined cribs containing pugnacious-looking two-year-olds. Most of the girls were confined to the cribs, but one had escaped and stood admiring the wreckage of a crib she had managed to demolish using pint-size power tools.

The girls, or "prisses," made by Dingle using classic porcelain doll-making techniques, were fetchingly outfitted in white polyester party dresses, black-patent shoes, ruffled socks, and tiny cat's-eye glasses with the same prescription as Dingle's. But their "bad hair," fashioned from rustoleumed, painted steel wool, and seemingly styled after boxing promoter Don King's electric coiffure, is simultaneously their scariest and most endearing attribute.


They . . . serve as new symbols of assertiveness and competitiveness, while acknowledging the old contradictions complicating the exercise of female power . . . .


Dingle's decision to move the girls out of the paintings and into real space relates the installation to the work of other artists who have used mannequins or dolls, such as Hans Bellmer and California artists Ed Kienholz and Bruce Connor.

The treatment of the walls and floor of the installation involved collaborators, as has often been the case with Dingle's major projects. Here the toddler-level frieze of graffiti defacing the 1950s wallpaper was the contribution of a guest artist, only three years old, who worked quickly by moving along the walls on her Big Wheel. The eviscerated stuffed animals littering the floor met their fate at the hands of the gallery owner's pit bull.

Dingle alluded to her mixed-gender "Dingle Library Portraits" with an arresting framed photograph of Jackson Pollock as Amelia Earhart (1995). Other expressions of homage to fellow artists came with the Jasper Johns-inspired target dart boards, the Cy Twombly-like graffiti, and the trashed, stuffed animals reminiscent of Mike Kelley.


We are unaccustomed to seeing such aggression and unabashed hostility on the part of little girls . . . we are perhaps more willing to overlook it when it appears dressed in a tie and jacket.


For those who dared, a peek under the party dresses revealed little painted tattoos of images associated with the West -- horses, cacti, Native Americans -- a reference to Dingle's "Paintings of the West," shown several years earlier.

Like the baby savages of the "prisspapers," these girls are out of control, threatening those who challenge them and trashing everything within their realm. They relish this reign of destruction and the power "high" that comes with following their unbridled impulses.

As Dingle was certainly aware, we are unaccustomed to seeing such aggression and unabashed hostility on the part of little girls. Although such behavior should never be acceptable in a civilized world, we are perhaps more willing to overlook it when it appears dressed in a tie and jacket.

The most intriguing aspect of the ensemble, once we acknowledge our perverse pleasure in observing a scene of such guiltless savagery, is the fact that Dingle has included both Caucasian priss dolls and priss dolls of color; rather than being central to the action, the differences among them seem irrelevant to the mission at hand. Gone are the confrontational encounters between black and white girls we saw in the earlier painting series. Here, instead, we are struck by how much they have in common.

Jacquelyn Days Serwer


Notes

1. Artist's statement, in Bruce Guenther, Fourth Newport Biennial Southern California 1993 (Newport Beach: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1993), 20.

2. Susan Kandel, "Skewed Portraits," Los Angeles Times, 12 September 1991, F12.

3. Dingle, quoted in Cathy Curtis, "Hers is Unfinished Business," Los Angeles Times (Orange County ed.), 23 September 1992, 2.

4. Tobey Crockett, "Los Angeles: Kim Dingle at Richard/Bennett and Parker Zanic," Art in America (July 1992): 116.

5. Ibid., 116.

6. Jody Zellen, "Kim Dingle," Artscene (December 1991): 22.

7. Harvey Firestone, The Romance and Drama of the Rubber Industry (Akron, Ohio, 1932).

8. David Pagel, "What Little Girls Are Made Of," Los Angeles Times, 5 November 1992, F9.

9. Dingle, quoted in Curtis, "Hers is Unfinished Business," 2.

10. Conversation with the artist, 18 January 1995.

11. According to Dingle, the titles are informal and are usually provided by gallery employees or bystanders whom she asks to describe what they see. Conversation with the artist, 2 January 1996.