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‘IRL’ In Real Life with Christy Mitchell – 7Days Review

Looking for Love in the Digital Age: An Art Show

Art Review by Rachel Elizabeth Jones, Sevendays Vermont

Christy Mitchell by Matthew Thorsen

Christy Mitchell opened Burlington’s S.P.A.C.E. Gallery in 2009, and every November since 2012 she has mounted her own solo show. Sandwiched between the annual “Art of Horror” group show and holiday-centric displays of affordable works, her exhibitions are unabashedly personal. This year, with “IRL” (“in real life”), Mitchell smartly digs into the world of online dating as a straight female, using a variety of media to process her encounters. Experiences limited to the internet and those taken to the next level meet in this exhibition.

Mitchell’s seven distinct bodies of work comment on the broader experiences of women seeking male partnership in the digital age. But they also have an inherently place-based component, since Mitchell lives and works — and therefore sets her Tinder location — in Burlington.

“Tinder has a different application here than in New York City,” Mitchell says. The nuances of online dating in a rural area shine through in “Photo Friendly,” a series of framed images gleaned from user profiles and screenshots from singles platforms Tinder and OkCupid. Vermont users are no doubt familiar with seeing their faces in Tinder’s graphic epicenter accompanied by the text “There’s no one new around you.” Mitchell has placed her own small screenshot within the multiphoto frame.

Urban women are less likely to see that message — or so many photos of men posing with fish. Vermont Tinder is rampant with those images, Mitchell says — as if fishing were a de rigueur display of manliness here. A cluster of heart-shaped brass frames within “Photo Friendly” offers up such fishy screenshots. “Twenty percent of [their] profile is a fish,” Mitchell comments, “which says,Love me with this fish. He comes with the fish.”

In some parts of Vermont, Burlington included, setting one’s Tinder distance preferences to the maximum 100-mile radius means getting “access” to site members in Montréal.

For Mitchell, a digitally initiated friendship with a man in the Québec metropolis sparked the photo series “Prince Charming Has a Foot Fetish.” The two shared approximately 5,000 messages over a three-month period, Mitchell reveals, during which he revealed his sexual proclivity for feet. In six photographs taken of Mitchell by local photographer Luke Awtry — whom she also met on Tinder — she cleverly melds her own search for romance with the story of Cinderella.

prince-charming-has-a-foot-fetish

Prince Charming Has A Foot Fetish, Christy Mitchell by Luke Awtry

For the photographs, Mitchell used fishnet stockings, a no-frills blue dress and a pair of aptly named Public Desire clear plastic boots (aka glass slippers) as props. In some photos, she places herself in an ambiguous, attic-like space, confined like the Cinder girl. The underlying sentiment that modern love is no fairy tale is cleverly subverted by the suggestion that a fairy tale is also no fairy tale. Waiting to be “rescued” by love may be boring, high heels make your feet hurt, and Prince Charming may have unexpected tastes. Mitchell writes in her exhibition text: “In this case, the real Prince Charming can be perceived as the artist herself, creating an internal dialog of what it means to be desired and finding love within her own mind and creative meanderings.”

As a viewer takes in the “Prince Charming” series, the 15-foot-wide projection “Photobooth Façade” plays on a loop on the gallery’s blank wall. Hundreds of Mitchell’s computer selfies fly by, from sultry, red-lipsticked poses to full-on goofball faces. Of the hundreds, Mitchell reports, she put only 10 into play on her dating profiles. The piece speaks to the often funny, vulnerable and embarrassing reality of self-creation and curation when one is looking for love.

Humor is a crucial element of the exhibition, balancing a sense of frustration with a healthy appreciation for the absurd. In “IRL,” Awtry captures Mitchell in the “bar scene,” smoking and wearing a gorilla mask. “Little Black Book” is a “talking photo album” issued by RadioShack circa 2005, which Mitchell has filled with upbeat stock photography of couples and groups smiling in various locations — with a puppy in bed, having drinks at a bar. When you press a photo’s corresponding button, a computer voice reads messages that Mitchell — or, in one case, her friend — received on dating platforms. These range from relatively innocuous lines about sushi to words of male frustration or sexual aggression, such as “Let me lick. Let me lick. Let me lick. Let me lick.”

“Wash That Man Right Out” encapsulates the understated humor of surrealist objects in a way reminiscent of Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim’s iconic 1936 “Object,” a fur-covered teacup saucer and spoon. For “Wash,” Mitchell replaced the cord and speaker of an old-fashioned rotary phone with a long braid of synthetic blond hair and a Lucite showerhead. The piece is named for the 1949 song “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the Broadway musical South Pacific. Some visitors, Mitchell says, have seen in the piece a gesture toward the “synthetic communication that we’re getting these days.”

She notes that as she constructed the exhibition, her own online dating shifted to a process of “research and documentation.” By entwining her art practice and her romantic life, Mitchell has created a space for herself and others to consider the gender roles, rituals and vulnerabilities, new and old, that have emerged on the digital dating frontier.

What is love, anyway? It’s hard to say, but Mitchell offers this: “Love in the digital age is very difficult.”

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