By Scott Gleeson
During the fall semester of 2015, Southern Methodist University MFA alumna Colleen Shull and former adjunct art instructor and new genre artist Justin Shull installed a suite of six photographs of altered fashion magazines in the Jake and Nancy Hamon Arts Library Lobby. The glossy, unframed photographs of the Shull exhibition, Paper Dolls, addressed itself to a primarily female viewership of undergraduate students. Each photograph in the Paper Dolls exhibit documents the deconstruction and rearrangement of French and American fashion magazines, such as Elle and Vogue, magazines typically read by women between the ages of 18-35. The artists slashed, dissected, ripped, and crumpled the pages of the magazines, often removing the hallmarks of the represented figure's individuality and agency – the eyes and face. Such interventions reveal the images and text beneath, therefore affirming the materiality of print media; and they draw the viewer’s attention to the bodies of the women represented, assaulted and disfigured. Thus, the pathos exhibited in each photograph and the violence suggested by the technique of cutting challenge a straightforward reading of this series as part of a tradition of critical practice, or feminist critique. These images demand further investigation of the artists’ intended meanings, as well as identification (and location) of viewer agency and the dynamics of viewership.
Curator Shannon Maylath has suggested that this series, which began through the online distribution of images over the Instagram accounts #paperdolltransmission, @justinshull, @colleenshullstudio, assumes a critical posture and bears liberatory potential, especially for young undergraduate female viewers. Describing the exhibition she writes:
Women's bodies have been some of the most ubiquitous and impactful images in visual culture, though women have historically been largely excluded from exercising very much power or even autonomy over these representations. With the exponential increase of, and easy access to, image making technology, women today have more opportunity to create, control, and assess our own portrayals than ever before. This developing body of work can speak to that very promise.
This essay considers the means by which the Paper Dolls assume a critical posture endowing the images with liberatory potential: through a deft manipulation of viewer expectations and shifting subject positions, ranging from disordered or pathological viewership and fetishism, to 'fantasy / comparison processing.' This places the work at odds with radical feminist critique which might provide an alternative form of representing women or shun representation altogether. Rather, Paper Dolls occupies a liminal position on a spectrum of criticality and complicity reflexive of challenges faced by radical practices operating within mainstream consumer culture.
Colleen Shull has stated that the experience of being pregnant in southern California, an image-conscious social environment, inspired her personal reevaluation of the beauty ideals and gender stereotypes promoted in the fashion magazines she typically uses as source material for her collages and abstract paintings. Whereas her early interest in fashion magazines derived from their formal quality of visual seductiveness, presently, her interest has shifted toward an investigation of the problematic nature of the images themselves and their potential effect on her young children’s identity formation and cultural value systems. Furthermore, Colleen sees a link between fashion photography and transcultural female fertility imagery. In their conflation of these two sensibilities – the perpetuation of idealized femininity situated within a visual history of female image worship – fashion magazines and the fantastical image of perfection they attempt to naturalize expose themselves to a feminist critique which theorist Jacqueline Rose argues “stress[es] the particular and limiting opposition of male and female which any image seen to be flawless is serving to hold in place.”
In contemporary culture, the discipline of psychology contributes new threads to this ongoing discourse, adding fuel for feminist critique. Thus, we may form an elision between Rose’s notion of the “fantasy of sexual difference” and a more recent notion of “fantasy” in young women’s consumption of fashion magazines posited by psychologists Marika Tiggemann, Janet Polivy, and Duane Hargreaves, which will seed fertile new territory for inquiry. Their collectively-authored study, “The Processing of Thin Ideals in Fashion Magazines: A Source of Social Comparison or Fantasy?” published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in January 2009, successfully identifies a primary motivation for young women’s consumption of fashion magazines – the positive mood altering effects of “fantasy” image processing. In the study, 144 undergraduate women were asked to examine fashion magazine advertisements representing thin ideal women and either asked to compare themselves to the woman represented or to imagine themselves as the woman in the photograph. The study is consistent with other literature arguing that women read fashion magazines for “inspiration, self-improvement and pleasurable fantasy.” Previous literature, however, emphasizes the negative effects of the ‘social comparison’ processing method of reading (“I would like my body to look like this woman’s body”) on general mood, body dissatisfaction, and appearance self-esteem. This study, on the other hand, showed that fantasy offers women readers sufficient positive short-term mood effects completely independent of body dissatisfaction cognitions (“It would be great fun to be this woman”; “This woman has an exciting life”). The study concluded that women use both the comparison and fantasy image processing methods to different degrees when consuming fashion magazines showing the thin ideal body type.
The legacy of modern art, with its emphasis on reading the mark as a signifier of the artist’s state of mind, creates an obstacle for interpreting the Paper Dolls. Are we to read the act of cutting the magazines as indicative of pathological or disordered viewership by the artists? Is the violence expressed through the artists’ process evidence of decreased mood and body dissatisfactions consistent with the comparison mode of image processing? Or, in the spirit of the ludic or fetishism, are the artists merely playing with visual tropes such as might be found in a Hollywood film portraying the diary of a serial killer, an art director’s imaginings of what such a diary might look like? If so, where does this place the work within the history of feminist aesthetic strategies of deconstruction or appropriation?
The violence perpetrated against the represented female subjects demands further analysis because in many cases the objectifying qualities of the original fashion photograph are replicated in the surgical removal of the subject’s vestiges of identity and agency, the eyes and face. Without the added context of a supplemental text such as might be found in a work about the male gaze by Barbara Kruger, what are we to make of this violence? If we entertained a strictly literal reading, we might suggest the artists are expressing 'rage' against notions of thin ideal women or, that they 'hate' magazines, a medium of exploitation and objectification. In the context of image fetishism or worship, is the violence against the images intended to make a scapegoat of print media, to make fashion magazines bear a burden of guilt, which should lie equally with the consumer, designer, publisher, photographer, and model?
Taking the theme of the mark as a sign of pathology to its furthest possible conclusion, is it possible to situate this body of images and the practice of cutting within the context of internet self-harm selfies (accessible online through simple internet image searches). Such a search reveals a culture of self-representation among men and women who enact ritualized self-cutting as expressions of inner psychological pain. Many such images, especially of anorexic women in underwear, suggest a link between self-fashioning, self-harm, and body image pathology. Self-harm selfies illustrate a process whereby internal psychological pain is exorcised by rendering it visible on the surface of the subject's flesh, and in which deeply private, personal experience is exposed as a social, collective phenomenon.
Making comparisons to the work of other contemporary artists who use fashion imagery or visual tropes in their work helps identify the ambiguity of various artists’ critical positions. For instance, Wangechi Mutu’s Ghouls On My Back Celebrate Murder deploys the legs, torso, eyes, and lips from various sources to create a new feminine persona or character with her own individuality, transformative power, and agency. Mutu frequently represents her characters in a solo, portrait-style presentation, a visual technique which further imbues them with vitality and agency. Partly resembling early Dada collages of Hannah Hoch, Mutu’s women suggest the kind of “alternative” portrayals of women, which would necessarily follow a critique or deconstruction of traditional representations. Mutu’s women make themselves available for a fantasy processing method by the viewer – an experience which would almost certainly lead to empowerment.
Paper Dolls is a series in progress which, for the time being, appears to challenge the position of the viewer and the agency of the represented subject. The artists also cast their own authorship in doubt as they simulate visual tropes of pathological viewing consistent with the comparison model of image processing. Whether or not the work introduces a fantasy strategy, or evolves into a presentation of alternative feminine identities, Paper Dolls provides viewers a direct means of questioning the continued relevance and impact of fashion print images and social media on normative gender identity formation.
 Shannon Maylath, Paper Dolls exhibition didactic text, Hamon Arts Library, September 2015.
 Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (Verso: New York, 2005), 232.
 Tiggemann et al., “The Processing of Thin Ideals in Fashion Magazines: A Source of Social Comparison or Fantasy?” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2009): 73-93.