Here's to the girlie-girls of bygone days. Beginning in the 1920s, their doe eyes and impossible dimensions began to grace all persuasions of advertising, from laundry-aid promos to nightclub matchbook covers, finally culminating in the unself-consciously lush and ridiculous Vargas Girls of the Forties. Nowadays that seething sexuality seems soft, dated--even innocent. And in its own way, it is: Any old soldier who ever admired Betty Grable's gorgeous gams in wartime has to admit that the starlet's famous pinup pics were downright wholesome, especially when compared with modern X-rated fare.
Boulder artist Velvet Brandy LeMae has a weakness for those early, flat images of shapely femmes, who were often found juxtaposed with inviting messages such as "Our beer is good, come on up" or "Delicious food!" Inspired by a book of the old matchbook images, LeMae created a dozen acrylic paintings of alluring long-legged beauties on 23-by-23 Masonite boards. They go on display as Girls, Girls, Girls in a Boulder frame shop Friday night.
"I like to call them my girls," LeMae says. Painted in muted browns, greens and burnt oranges that LeMae associates with their heyday, each one corresponds to a different message: "Joyful Girl" is paired with "enjoy"; "Good Girl" with "so good"; and "Nasty Girl" with "come again." If it sounds like something's missing from the original equation, you're right: The artist omitted all references to food or other products, thereby toying with the way viewers perceive her two-dimensional women.
According to LeMae, it's all a linguistic thing: "On a few of the matchbook paintings--maybe half of them--the words and phrases used are familiar to us for mixed reasons. For instance, the word 'sweet.' 'Sweet' means taste, but it's used all the time to describe women, like 'She's so sweet.' I was interested by how in the language we use to describe things, we cross the lines of what we're actually talking about to talk about other things. Like when we say 'hot mama': 'Hot' should be used for something you eat instead of applying to a person. I was commenting on what these words mean when placed next to a woman."
The result is a trick of the eye and mind. "Say you see something saying 'delicious,'" LeMae says. "It just says 'delicious,' and there's a woman presented as if to say, 'Here's this woman--she's delicious. She is here for you to consume.'"
It's not LeMae's first foray into the strange, titillating world of antiquated come-hither imagery. In a past series, she photographed herself in the nude, in poses fashioned after the notorious French postcards that provided Victorian gentlemen with naughty, easy-to-stow cheap thrills at the turn of the century. "Somewhere I read a reference to someone who found in her grandfather's attic a cigar box of French postcards," LeMae explains. "When I was in a junk store and found an old cigar box, I just knew I needed to fill it with my own French postcards. I took cheesecake poses of myself, added art-deco borders, used a brown printing technique and printed them on watercolor paper."
But any comparison between LeMae and, say, Mamie Van Doren, or even self-portraitist Cindy Sherman, is out of the question. She's no exhibitionist and doesn't intend to reinvent her public image in every frame. For her, part of the process was imagining what it was like for Victorian ladies to disrobe in that way for the unforgiving camera. "The women never look happy; 75 percent of the time they're not smiling," LeMae says. "So in a lot of the pictures, I don't smile, either. I had to think--I'm just here to pose, I'm not here to flirt. I'm just posing so you can look at my body."
LeMae admits she's a little embarrassed by the photographs and never really intended them for public perusal. They're her little secret to stash away in the attic: "I have them in my cigar box. I hope that after I die, someone will find them, all faded away."
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The matchbook girls are just another link in the chain. In the future LeMae hopes to expand the concept to include guys along with the girls. She's seen plenty of images that motivate her toward that end. "There's one of this man looking down on a woman who looks like she must be saying, 'Oh, my God, you're so wonderful,' and he's holding this huge diamond ring," she says. "And another cover says, 'Patronizing us is like making love to a pretty widow--you can't get enough.' I want to do some sillier ones with male and female relationships."
In the present, though, it's just girls, girls, girls. And in light of their outdated gender roles, LeMae hopes the public won't be too hard on them. Her intention, like that of the images themselves, is to have some fun, and that's about it. Negative interpretations simply wouldn't do her girls justice. "I would hope that if they were real," she says, "they would feel proud to be in these paintings."
Girls, Girls, Girls, works by Velvet Brandy LeMae, May 8 through July 31, Mercury Framing, 2826 Bluff Street, Boulder, 938-0123; opening reception May 8, 6-9 p.m.