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One Clue Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Artist Laurie Long provides a photographic portrait of the artist as a young Nancy Drew.

Drew Stories

In 'Girl Power!' exhibit at SJ Museum of Art, Laurie Long spies on her own life

By Michael S. Gant

IN A conjunction of literary luminaries, The Maltese Falcon and Nancy Drew both turn 75 this year. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade seems worlds away from the plucky girl detective, but it's not that hard to imagine a parallel universe in which Nancy grows up, turns cynical and eventually morphs into Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

Both gumshoes arose from a rich ferment of pulp fiction in the 1920s. Hammett gave a literary sheen to the breathless prose of the pulps, while Nancy Drew represented a shift from the gee-whiz stories of Horatio Alger into a mystery-story mold aimed, for the first time, at a female audience. When the movies glommed on to the genre, we got film noir.

In Becoming Nancy Drew, part of her exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art, Bay Area conceptual artist Laurie Long dyes her hair the requisite shade of Titian blonde, dons the proper gray skirts and starched white blouses and re-creates classic moments from Nancy's thrilling adventures. In each three-part tableaux, a wide shot shows Long's faux-Nancy in a perilous situation (trussed up and kicking at a trap door) or investigating (eavesdropping on malefactors); this image is paired with a blurred close-up depicting some signal detail of the action, as seen through our heroine's eyes. A framed caption relates the action: "I only hope my masquerade will bring results"or "From below came a pitiful cry of help."

Although in color, the photographs, with their deep shadows, stark lighting and looming foreground objects, look like frames from some forgotten '40s noir, as if Billy Wilder had decided to shoot The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion. More immediately, the images recall Cindy Sherman's untitled movie stills in which the artist photographs herself in film-star poses. The technique is a way of hiding in plain sight—portraiture as disguise.

The dance of identity between Long the artist and Long the actor functions as both satire and homage. Depending upon where in the flux of feminism a woman came of age, Nancy Drew can be seen as either constrained by gender stereotypes or subverting them (or both—in one book, Nancy offers advice that would appeal to riot grrrls and ladies alike: "Spike heels come in handy when it is necessary to break glass.")

Continuing the theme of artist as sleuth, for her Dating Surveillance Project, Long hid a miniature camera in the lapel of her coat and recorded her dates, combining courtship, art making and espionage. The resulting video alternates between hilariously awkward small talk by auditioning boyfriends and a running commentary by Long while she sneaks away to the restroom. The tape loop is accompanied by large grainy stills of the dates that invest otherwise ordinary, transitory social interactions with a sense of clandestine significance—as if to say, my love life is a matter of national security.

In the art-history provocation Live Action Painting Bra project, Long strapped paint bottles to her waist as if they were shells in an ammo belt. Plastic tubes snaked to nozzles in her bra. Manipulating her nipples to greater effect than Janet Jackson, Long created passable abstract canvases that mock the famous drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.

In a quieter and more effective vein, The Secret History of Goddess, chronicles Long's search through Europe for sites associated with ancient female deities. These are photographed in the style of a color postcard, complete with souvenir-shop lettering identifying the location. In some spots, we see only a conjecture, such as the forest where the goddess Sessia supposedly dwelt. Elsewhere, modern buildings sit atop the site of The Altars to Nemetona and Suleviae, obliterating the past. Shattered columns are labeled as a pagan temple destroyed by Christians. The Pump Room at Bath once housed the shrines to Diana, Luna and Minerva, a reminder of modern goddess worship in the form of Princess Diana. In understated fashion, the photos evoke troubling atavistic memories. In this case, the artist is spying on history itself.

Girl Power!, by Laurie Long, runs through June 5 at the SJ Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose.

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From the February 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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