When Leslie Hall wanted to fund a project and needed people to work with she "looked around and asked, 'What do my friends and I all have in common? Well, we're fat.'" And Fat Girls Phat Art was born. The Fat Girls are Hall, Laura Dewaal, Brooke Hendrickson, and Kristi-Lyn Stevenson. The show consisted of photos, paintings and drawings, some with text, about fatness and girlness subjects which most consider to be mutually exclusive. In one piece, Hall tells the story of how her stepmother would hold her upside down by her ankles and make her eat grass because, as the stepmother said, "Fat little cows eat grass." The photo depicts Hall, dressed up as her thin stepmother in heels and a short skirt, dangling a mannequin by its ankles. No piece's message is subtle, but that's how the Fat Girls Phat Art show operates. The premise is obvious: they're fat, they're girls, they make art. A lot of political art is overt in this way (racism is bad, oppression is bad, Bush is bad). We've heard it all before. The artist's goal, then, is to deliver that message so that the audience responds to a work's humanity, rather than its dogma. The Fat Girls use humor.
For the first part of their performance the Fat Girls worked out to Big On Fitness: Full Figure Aerobics dressed in shiny, neon, Flashdance spandex -- none of this tasteful, black, flared, yoga nonsense. They did a whole workout, groaning and laughing and cheating on the number and height of leg lifts the way everyone does (every woman who's done an exercise tape, anyway). In no context but a gallery or laboratory would it be acceptable to sit and watch women work out. It's vaguely unsettling, and has an element of voyeurism. It's hard to remember the big picture ("I am at a gallery watching performance art") when you're just staring at four girls' bodies on the ground doing calisthenics.
To the passersby who stop, open-mouthed, at the window the audience is on display as much as the artists. But it definitely doesn't take as much balls for us to be there. I won't even work out with my mother in the room. There's a perception that the fatter you are, the more secretive you should be. Only when you're fit can you work out with the normal people. The girls openly flout this convention and it's really refreshing. They never seemed embarrassed for themselves and it's meaningful to see fat girls who aren't afraid to show their bodies. They become attractive by virtue of their ease and unselfconsciousness, and that they (and we) are laughing their way through a workout.
The second part of the performance was of their band, Leslie and the Ly's. It's one of those bands where the music is ancillary to the performance of it. The Ly's (DJ Laura with her fake turntables and headphones and Klassy K with her Keytar) got on stage with hot pink star stretch pants and matching jackets. Leslie dressed in a gold lame jumpsuit, a digital belt buckle (scrolling Leslie & the Ly's) and what looked like those sunglasses that change opacity in the light but never get completely clear (you know...your sketchy uncle had them). They played their songs, all made from royalty-free samples, and Leslie sang and danced. Meanwhile projected video played clips of Hulk Hogan, child safety, self-defense, male strippers and how-to pumpkin carving, all with blatantly 80s production values.
The music is corny, white-folk artsy self-conscious old school hip hop with lyrics like, "Bling bling helps me sing sing (a sweet song tonight)," and, my favorite, "Thank you mama for making me gold pants...ones I can dance in & make romance in." But it's Leslie's persona the facial expressions and the dancing that really makes it great. Guys like Har Mar Superstar have done a similar thing (wherein a short, fat, balding white guy plays the part of a super sex-god), but women haven't really done it because it requires them to step out of what is acceptably feminine. Leslie, though, as a fat girl, is already outside of that and uses it to her advantage. Her performance is so convincing, funny and human that you just accept it and laugh your ass off.
They're fat. They know it, you know it. The Girls take what is viewed as sad, pathetic even a character flaw and turn it into what makes a show worth watching. What's art for if not to make us feel more human?
"Fat Girls, Phat Art" was on view until April 30th at JP Art Market located at 36 South St., Jamaica Plain - (617) 522-1729
All images are courtesy of the Leslie Hall and the artists