There aren’t too many cowgirls in Jersey City. But it’s probable that everybody in Jersey City has an idea about what a cowgirl acts like. A cowgirl is strong, resilient, direct, and maybe righteously impertinent, too. She’s is nobody you’d want to mess with, lest you get tangled up in a lasso or threatened with cold lead. That those of us with no experience of the open range have a feel for the cowgirl is a testament to the suggestive power of film and television imagery. The archetype appeals to those of us who are drawn to powerful women who brook no fools.
It’s a safe bet that Jersey City artist Cheryl Gross, who teaches at Pratt, has not spent much time rustling cattle. The cowgirls who stampede through her multimedia pieces are indebted to Westerns, television movies and cartoons, popular representations of country kids in the city, and her own colorful imagination. “BoxingBabes and Cowgirls,” a showing of her latest series of images that’ll hang at the Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University (2039 Kennedy Blvd., Hepburn Hall) throughout Women’s History Month and until April 12, is rich with allusions to cowgirl mythology and pure frontier schtick. In these vibrant, galloping paintings on paper, we’re shown a couple of town kids outside a Cowgirl Motel, a hollow-bodied guitarist bedecked with a red bandana getting ready to deliver something campfire-worthy, an ornery mounted lass with a six- and seven(!) shooter pointed at the viewer, and women in broad-brimmed hats, Stetson and otherwise, that go on for days.
We’re also introduced to some actual girls from American history — or Gross’s deeply personal interpretation of those girls. Among the real people are Stagecoach Mary, an emancipated slave who became a pioneer postwoman in nineteenth century Montana. Working from vintage photographs, the artist gives Mary and her neighbors the Cheryl Gross treatment: fields of bold color, parallel lines of ink and cross-hatching committed directly to the image, a salt-and-peppering of dots, inspirational quotes tucked into the body of the work, a muscular sense of motion and mission, and illustrative crispness and narrative certainty reminiscent of movie posters, postcards, classic cowboy images from dime novels, and vintage pop album covers. Nellie Brown, a turn-of-the-century cowgirl immortalized by a famous shot in which she looks tougher than her draft horse, makes an appearance, too. Bessie Herberg, the early twentieth century cowgirl turned entertainer and frontier popularizer, and Happy, her mount, arrive at NJCU in a wild splatter of orange pigment. Gross’s subjects always seem to be bursting through the front of the frame, shattering an imaginary surface into colorful splinters and shards. It’s a bit of show-womanship that Herberg, and maybe even Stagecoach Mary, would have appreciated.
Sometimes these glass ceilings are dashed through the force of personality that Gross is able to summon via posture and facial expression. Sometimes more force than that is required. The cowgirls of the Lemmerman show share wallspace with red-gloved pugilists: female fighters who throw big fists at the two-dimensional confines of their paper boxing rings. Gross seems particularly compelled by their red gloves, which are depicted as twin threats, dominating the frames, mediating the distance and defining the relationship between the subject and the viewer. The artist’s boxers, like her cowgirls, are improbably winsome. They’ve got color in their cheeks and lovely, well-balanced features, and everything about their faces and bodies broadcasts alacrity. “BoxingBabe 34” hurls a haymaker but remains poised and confident, with just the whiff of a smile decorating her unmolested face. A dagger-like ponytail just out from the back of her head. Her eyebrows are a pair of black razors.
There’s no such boxer in real life. There couldn’t be. Boxing is far too brutal for such chiseled imperturbability. Number 34 stands in for female determination and the furious force of a woman empowered; she’s as much a symbol as she is a human being. Gross makes sure all her characters are physically compelling, even when they aren’t traditionally beautiful. The erotic charge of the Action Girl is an enormous part of her project and her message, and her sure-handed technique ensures that most of her punches land squarely.
The artist is probably best known for her arresting images of endangered animals, and many of the same visual elements she used to generate a feeling of peril and vulnerability are present here: manic shading, storytelling intensity, warning-light-bright color, and an overwhelming sense that the paper is too small to contain its subjects. But these cowgirls and female fighters aren’t on anybody’s protected species list. Gross has made sure that they can stand, and survive, on their own. Her admiration for the strongwomen she has fashioned is the most prominent feature of “BoxingBabes and Cowgirls.” These women possess the characteristics she’d like to see. More than that, they’re the girls she clearly wants to be. Call it a feel-good show, rich with prototypical American imagery, from an irrepressible feminist artist who’s poured herself into every thrown lasso and right hook.