The Chorus Girl Show
By Carolyn Raship
The sepia backdrops of Carolyn Raship’s Chorus Girl cycle are like the skin canvas of a tattoo, and the stylized works would lend themselves well to that chic vintage medium, but these images endeavor to portray more of what’s on the inside of lives we know mostly from the surface.
Time tends to paint over personalities that don’t fit the picture, and Raship is fascinated by early-last-century women who came from obscurity and attained either prominence or notoriety in their lifetime, but tend to be forgotten or only sketched in today. She picks a pantheon of figures who started in the once-disreputable occupation of the show’s title, and emerged from the crowd-scene as famous names, breaking the mold of cultural prohibitions (Native American entertainer Princess White Deer), rising to serious artistic renown (screen icon Louise Brooks) and either coming to early ends or being too close to others’ (unwilling objects of scandal Evelyn Nesbit and Olive Thomas).
In some compositions Raship orders these life stories in the three-ring, Sistine Chapel-style montage known from Harper’s layouts of the time in the golden age of ornate paste-up, posing her subjects like figures of myth as if we’re seeing the blueprints of the carved monuments these heroines never got; in other pieces we seem to be seeing multiple chapters of the same woman’s life overlapping and interacting, an epic compression of incident that could be called personal-history painting.
A whimsy lifts these spirits back out of the unknown and an occasional Gorey-esque grimness conveys a festive yet thoughtful psychic underpainting to the pictures’ mood, like Day of the Dead feasts for personas enjoying one more day of being larger than life.
These works are worth as many words as you can find on Raship’s inspirations, portraits of women meant to be seen who also will be heard. No few of these pop goddesses were material for mass-culture illustrators and photographers of their day, but not ones who were interested in revealing identity and painting in the rest of the record like Raship (a playwright as well as an artist) can do.
The images are up at a legendary New York performance space through March 31, in a show that’s been extended twice already, a fitting symbol of what’s here to stay.