The Women's Museum in Fair Park is usually below my radar. Since it opened in 2000, I had been there only once to see an Alma Thomas exhibition. Then it seemed like an Annie Lebowitz show moved in and didn't budge for a couple of years. But I was there the other day for two photography shows, by Joy Christiansen and Lauren Greenfield, both on the somewhat unpromising topic of eating disorders.
Christiansen, a San Antonio-based photographer with a recent MFA from Texas Women's University, calls her installation Family Gathering, A Look at the World of Eating Disorders. She irons on photgraphic transfers and applies embroidered text to uhlpostery fabric and uses wingbacked chairs and camelback sofas as her ground. The faces are those of an American family and the texts recount the shame, frustration, and anger surrounding bulimia.
I saw Christiansen's portfolio last year at Fotofest, and I was curious to see the actual objects. They turn out to be awkard things and they are not well-served by the installation. Everything is of course cordoned off and signs remind you not to sit. I wanted to be reminded of similar cords and instructions at historical home museums, but the effect doesn't finally come off as anythng other than practical. And the lighting created a glare on the fabric that made several of the embroidered texts almost impossible to read. Christiansen clearly feels strongly about this topic, but she depends too much on her sense of urgency and the relative novelty of her presentation. Family Gathering sinks under the weight of its own sincerity. It is over-produced and under-realized.
Upstairs at the museum, Lauren Greenfield's Thin presents the gallery version of a project that has included an HBO documentary, a book from Chronicle Press, and an ongoing website. Greenfield is an excellent documentary photrographer, whose projects explore affluent American youth culture. Fast Forward focused on kids in Hollywood. Girl Culture branched out across the nation. The images I most remember from Girl Culture pictured seventh graders making themselves up to look like women in the mid-twenties as they got ready for their first big dance. Thin, photographed at a treatment center for eating disorders in Florida, is the sobering flipside of these other projects.
In a few of Greenfield's color images, these girls have an acceptabe waifishness to qualify them as runway models. But those images tend to be close-up portraits. What we see over and over again are young women who, when they were admitted, weighed less than 90 lbs and whose bodies were ceasing to function. Greenfield is sympathetic but also relentless, using her access and the trust of her subjects to depict their world in discomforting detail. She must also realize that for people outside this situation, some of the images have an awkward but unavoidable humor, like when a table of girls stares down a box of Pop Tarts during one of their "fear food" sessions.
The extensive texts that accompany the images, something i usually object to at exhibitions, are necessary here to provide both context and to allow us to hear the voices of the participants. Greenfield is not a crusading documentarian. Her goal is to increase empathy.