Grrrls' Choice

Jenny Schmid creates an alternate world for powerful women in her cheerful and engaging prints

What if it was girls, not boys, who swooshed through plazas on skateboards, asserting their right to terrorize the earthbound and to dominate the public sphere?

Or if it was a woman who planted her nation's flag on the moon? Or smashed out chords as the lead guitarist in a rock band? Or knocked out her opponent in the boxing ring with a well-aimed punch?

For the last decade, printmaker Jenny Schmid has imagined just such an alternative world, where women do as they please, and what they please is often daring and dangerous. She calls this place Dzenská Republika ("Republic of Jenny" in Czech/Slovak), and she's elaborated its lineaments in expertly rendered prints. She makes traditional lithographs, mezzotints and linocuts, and newfangled hybrids that mix computer scans with old-fashioned hand-printing.

Displayed at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, her big show, Jenny Schmid: The Visions of Gender Utopia, is an entertaining foray into a world of what-ifs, gender-wise. Her grrrls tame horses, down drinks, have sex and use telescopes to spot cute guys from the seven seas they sail. (They don't, like another grrrl we could mention, skin moose or shoot wolves from planes, but some of the characters in el mundo Schmid have the same mythic quality as the frontierswoman in the Palin tales.)

"DzR Space Vylet," a litho from 2006, has a girl astronaut in red boots planting the flag of her free republic on the moon. In "The Pathetic End of Machismo," a 2005 litho, a plucky young woman in a red dress and cowgirl boots aims her rifle at a little red devil with "machismo" printed on his back. A heart tattoo emblazoned "mother" is on her arm.

Cheerful and engaging as it is, work like this could run the risk of devolving into one-note poster art. But Schmid's doesn't, not at all, in part because of her fierce intellect and in part because of the visual richness of her sources. The machismo killer, just for one, is ringed by black-and-white images rescued from art history--a classical goddess of justice, a medieval skeleton head and a satirical Hogarth couple contemplating copulation.

Graphic novels, Riot Grrrl comic books and Enrique Chagoya, a contemporary Mexican printmaker, helped shape Schmid's utopia, but so did Dürer, the medieval printmaker nonpareil. Curator Lisa Fischman also lists as sources Schongauer, a less well-known German artist who worked in the late 15th century, a generation earlier than Dürer, and Goya, the great Spanish artist of the 19th century whose etchings were celebrated last season in a yearlong series of exhibitions at UAMA.

Schmid's graphic prints are every bit as complex as medieval and pre-Renaissance work, with symbols and emblems intertwined with the heroines' figures.

"Rita Jo Catskills, Lady Boxer," 2000, is the central character in a deep-gold and brown-black print that blends mezzotint, aquatint and chine collé. The trophies she dreams of float near her head, just as a vision of angels might hover near a medieval saint. And like a saint, this boxer is tormented by small demons; one goblin is harassing her around the ankles. She crushes a horrified flower, its mouth agape, under her heel, just as the medieval Virgin Mary, in her guise as the Immaculate Conception, routinely crushes Satan's head.

A series of tiny mezzoprints in soft black and white, just 4 inches high by 8 inches wide, have the fantastic imagery of a Hieronymus Bosch. Figures half-human, half-animal are crammed into dense compositions of skulls and demons and fiery hearts. "Virginia, the Seductive Serpent" has the head of a girl, cutely coiffed in bangs, and "Bunny Girl, Mushroom Lover," pairs the body of a bunny with the pigtailed head of a young woman.

These Girl Power images situate Schmid firmly in the modern world. Born in 1969, Schmid has an MFA in printmaking and painting from the University of Michigan, and she's an assistant art professor at the University of Minnesota. Fischman first discovered her when she was a judge in 2002 for the McKnight Foundation award for midcareer artists.

"Jenny's work was very distinctive," she says. Printmaking is enjoying a revival of sorts, energized in part by new computer techniques married to old, and Fischman invited Schmid to do printmaking demos during the UAMA's show of Works Progress Administration prints in 2005.

"There are a lot of young, really energetic printmakers around the country. She's part of that. There's a counterculture collectivity ... on the margins, with an alternative anarcho-vibe."

In a cool catalog that re-creates another vibe, of childhood books about plucky girls, Fischman writes that Schmid's work is sexy, tough and beguiling. "It nonetheless throws down a gauntlet: re-imagine gender; re-consider liberty."

But there are still shadows in the real world far from this free girls' republic. Even the most liberated and ambitious of girls can still be stymied by good-girl/bad-girl dichotomies, or tripped up by sexual exploitation and media exhortations to be beautiful above all else. A whole suite of colored lithographs deals with insidious negative tropes. The titles tell the tales in short order: "Drunken Gal," "Druggie Gal," "Anorexia Girl," "The Vixen." The bleary-eyed drunk girl teeters on an easy chair, devil drink in hand. Druggie girl, stabbed by arrows, is ready to tumble from her horse.

A Schmid duo, "The Wise Virgin" and "The Foolish Virgin," has antecedents as far back as the Bible. In the book of St. Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about the wise virgins who prepared for the arrival of a bridegroom, and the foolish who did not. Those who were ready were welcomed into the banquet--a stand-in for heaven--and those who weren't were cast aside.

The story is really about being spiritually ready at all times for death, but--naturally--in the pulpit, it evolved into a cautionary tale about the woeful consequences for women who don't remain chaste. It's a favorite theme of medieval art; Schongauer did a series of etchings on virgins foolish and wise.

Schmid updates the story to modern times, picturing two girls navigating the shoals of "proscription and rebellion," as Fischman puts it. Her "Wise Virgin" is modestly dressed in a flowered print, and a Christian cross hangs on a chain around her neck. She's hunched and wary, clutching her schoolbooks while trying to ignore the red devil with booze perched on her shoulder and a Mr. Sleaze in sunglasses tempting her into sins of the flesh.

"The Foolish Virgin," by contrast, is in full sexual bloom, boldly dressed in a skimpy top and shorts and striding gamely through the thicket of temptations. The signs of danger are all around: A rattlesnake is wrapped around her leg, and devil casts an evil eye on her. Maybe she'll indulge; maybe she won't--but she's the one doing the choosing.