Packing Heat_lowres

Nicole Charbonnet's Cat Ballou explores the mystique of women packing heat in a painting that places the feminine form in a masculine context.

It's one of those inherently incendiary themes: girls and guns, babes gone ballistic. The specter of violent femmes carrying loaded Glocks in Gucci handbags takes us to a certain rather cinematic realm that touches on associations ranging from Freud to Bonnie and Clyde, Raymond Chandler, Alfred Hitchcock and Thelma and Louise. As a high concept undertaking, it's a natural -- the mere thought of women packing heat is enough to cause such psychologically charged cliches as "I Have PMS and I Have a Gun" to bubble up like methane in a salt marsh. But there is also an implicit challenge: how do artists live up to such a title? And what exactly is the drift?

In the Delgado show, Women With Guns, several notable local female artists take their best shot, and while the results are hit or miss, their approaches are often inventive. Which is a good thing considering that the official talking points include some probably valid, yet retro-sounding rhetoric by author Caitlin Kelly about how "Men and women alike are often deeply ambivalent about a woman who owns a gun and knows how to use it. In a culture where women inject their brows with deadly bacteria to paralyze their facial muscles that show emotion, an armed, angry female is a deeply unsettling vision."

No doubt. Yet we see armed women all the time, as cops and military personnel, and think nothing of it. The "angry" part's the kicker. Think of Peggy Wilson during the debates, and then imagine her waving a gun. While not as scary as, say, being invited to go hunting with Dick Cheney, it's still an unnerving thought. Fortunately, there's as much whimsy as there is weaponry in the work of these women, so their approaches to the gun conundrum can be interesting to observe.

Mary Jane Parker is good with expressionistic hysteria, and her oil pastel, Haircut -- a topsy-turvy interior with a naked, zoned-out redhead clipping her bangs with scissors while some macho, cigarette smoking dude trolls the shadows with a hunting rifle -- is fraught with erotic angst. Her tormented body language cries out for Xanax, and while the dude with the rifle is just somehow there, we know the redhead is a sure-fire victim even if he has nothing to do with it. On the other hand, co-curator Robin Pelligrin's painted self-portraits as a cornered woman with a shotgun are archetypes of the persecuted woman, implying Hitchcockian suspense, a quality strangely reversed in Lory Lockwood's equally realistic Ain't Life Grand painting of a 1940s Lincoln with a flossy Faye Dunaway wannabe posed ornamentally with a vintage six-shooter.

From that nostalgic realm, we are propelled into a postmodern present where roles are more interchangeable, by three photographs by Daphne Loney and Christine Catsifas. Here female nudes wield flintlock pistols while wearing cow, rabbit and pig masks, respectively, and while weirdly funny, these beg the question: are they victims or victimizers? And do we really want to find out? Even more perplexing is Trish Maud's Forms Of Submission sculpture in which a woman's body is suggested only by a maze of rope restraints frozen in place with resin, implying a "missing" woman who seemingly escaped, Houdini-like, from elaborate Japanese-style bondage. But where's the gun? Equally kinky if far more subtle is Monica Zeringue's beautifully precise tapestry of a semiautomatic pistol woven from long strands of hair on a silky white fabric, in an elegant synthesis of male and female symbolism.

Co-curator Carol Leake's delicately ethereal watercolors of languorous female nudes posing decorously with rifles and pistols challenge us to resolve the masculine content with the feminine context. Conversely, Nicole Charbonnet's Cat Ballou depicts a cowgirl brandishing a six-shooter, placing the feminine form in a dramatic masculine context in a painting that suggests a cinematic afterimage. But in Saskia Ozols' monumental painting The Witness, a statuesque female nude faces the viewer while clutching something behind her back. Here a pistol -- or something equally edgy -- is implicit. By reducing the subject to bare, if finely painted, essentials, Ozols provides a paradoxically blank female form on which psychic impulses can be projected, reminding us that in matters of attraction and revulsion -- or even law and order -- tone is everything. WOMEN WITH GUNS: Female Artists Explore the Symbolism of the Gun

Through May 4

Delgado Gallery, 615 City Park Ave., Third Floor, 483-4624