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School's Out

Fanned from the ashes of events that singed the national psyche during the rise of Reagan Republicanism, Laura Parnes's video exhibit "Janie 1978-1982" effectively ignites a slow burn stoked by embers of current-day relevancy. On display at Locust Projects, the installation showcases several chapters from Parnes's Blood and Guts in...
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Fanned from the ashes of events that singed the national psyche during the rise of Reagan Republicanism, Laura Parnes's video exhibit "Janie 1978-1982" effectively ignites a slow burn stoked by embers of current-day relevancy.

On display at Locust Projects, the installation showcases several chapters from Parnes's Blood and Guts in High School. The series rips a page from punk-feminist icon Kathy Acker's novel of the same title. Acker's book details the experiences of Janey Smith, a sex-crazed teenage outcast in love with her father, who eventually peddles her into slavery. In Parnes's interpretation, each chapter folds archival footage of U.S. news events into an episode of the protagonist's life.

The artist's Janie is a gender-bending, identity-swapping protagonist trapped in a struggle with institutional power — a girl who confronts her tormentors with an unrelenting, raw-boned punk attitude. As we watch her travails, it becomes difficult to discern how much of the teenager's rebel-without-a-pause imbroglios are fueled by conflicts with authority and how many mirror her unbridled desire for domination.

Like Acker, whose works feature extreme forms of pastiche and controversial subjects such as rape, incest, terrorism, pornography, and graphic violence, Parnes slings an arsenal of reference points that delivers a haymaker. The individual video shorts — strung together in a 45-minute work — find Janie in the thick of the Jonestown mass suicide and the Three Mile Island meltdown, snared in familial implosion, swept up in the tides of the moral majority, and locked in the gun sights of the Soviets invading Afghanistan. Whether she is crawling over bodies at Jonestown, being tortured as a hostage, or fucking a guy in a bomb shelter, Janie's abject encounters rub a nerve with their allusions to our current political climate.

A moment midway through God Guts Guns shows the artist's protagonist (played with deadpan bravado by actress Stephanie Vella) wearing a blue wig, a tartan plaid school uniform, and a dog collar. She is in a classroom, being handed her lunch by a terrorist indoctrinator.

"What grade should I give you?" he hisses, crumpling her assignment like an enemy's flag. "On the surface it's clever, but underneath there is nothing."

"I want to believe in something," Janie pleads.

"Goo goo," the sinister schoolmaster shoots back.

"Goo goo?" she asks.

"You speak like a baby. In this class you will learn to speak like an adult," he threatens.

"I'll speak any way I wish," Janie defiantly cracks, "because no one will pay attention."

In the next cut, the sullen minx is on the floor in a dimly lit room where a gang of men poke her with cattle prods. As she flops on the ground like a strip of bacon in a frying pan, we hear what sounds like popcorn exploding in a bug zapper — a scene eerily reminiscent of George Lucas's first movie, THX 1138. As we observe the proceedings, we wonder whether Janie is a brutalized victim or a self-immolating tornado sucking her unwitting male captors into fulfilling her masochistic fantasies. The scene also hints at America's recent behavior in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

Often relying on stark, pared-down sets, Parnes — who helms and edits her own work — freights her dialogue with undertones of nihilism, and salts the writing with humor. The results are darkly atmospheric.

Premiering at Locust is a standout chapter, Janie Goes to Jail. In it a superb Vella is paired with actor Jim Fletcher, who turns in a convincing performance as a creepy policeman. The couple has their chemistry mojo working. Janie is depicted in her Pat Benatar phase, wearing leg-warmers as she poses for mug shots at the police station.

"When can I make a phone call?" she asks the cop.

"Quiet!" he screams. "Now smile."

With an ominous leer, he fingerprints her and slaps on handcuffs. Janie pops off with the guff.

"You think you're in charge? The only difference between you and me is the uniform," she mocks.

"Facts? Truth? Who cares?" the smug sap wheedles while pushing her into a jail cell. "Security is what matters," he intones like an understudy for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. As the airhead demands to be informed of her rights, the badge responds, "What are you, some kind of hippie?"

The film jumps to a shot of Janie and the cop sprawled on the cell floor; the officer's unholstered weapon is evidenced nearby. We aren't so much left wondering who screwed whom but rather appreciating Parnes's cop as an apt metaphor for the lugs lording over our government.

The artist bowls us over with her on-point message: Regardless of how much we fight against corruption and abuses of power, in America's current state of affairs, Janie, like many of her stripe, will always end up getting shanked in the ass. For their biting clarity and in-your-face gumption, these videos make a compelling statement for those seeking escape from the status quo.

On a much cheerier note, Locust pulls a radical U-turn out of the political cesspool with "D.E.M.O.N.S to Diamonds" in the Project Room. The exhibit features an extensive collection of drawings by a group of young Miami-based talent. Friends with You, Nathan Danilowicz, Jacin Giordano, and the TM Sisters have sprinkled the space's walls with confections that shimmer like a pot of fuzzy-all-over sunshine at the end of a rainbow.

Giordano, one of the more interesting painters in town, contributes a handful of small mixed-media-on-paper works, including Disappearing Dreams of Yesterday, a regular sheet of paper thickly caked with silver glitter.

The TM Sisters, whose work here is varnished in a DIY aesthetic, weigh in with Everything looks perfect from far away, a pillow-size piece combining sewing, watercolor, and collage. In it a group of boys roughhouse while high school girls sporting gym shorts swoon nearby. Trickles of glitter and blue thunderbolts, outlined in black thread stitching, fill the sky.

Fashioned from black and pink tape, Danilowicz's Califlorida, by far the largest work in the show, covers an entire wall. The unusual mural is geometric in nature and has the feel of a Nautilus seashell sawn in half.

A work by Friends with You's Sam Borkson, titled Dr., depicts what appears to be a cowpoke straight out of the Wild West. The four-armed, four-legged character bears a twisted resemblance to Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp and seems hell-bent on raising a ruckus at high noon.

In another playful piece, Arturo Sandoval III, the other half of Friends with You, offers a harmless vision of the supernatural with Blue Angel of Death. A cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and Greek mythology's hundred-eyed monster, the apparition could be easily drafted as this exhibit's official mascot. Conjuring the show's spirit, it beckons us away from the compost heap of reality with which we are confronted in the main gallery, and into a cotton-candy garden where everything stinks like a rose.

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