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Jen DeNike, ‘Flag Girls’, 2007, video still

A constant tic of expectation lingers in the waiting room that is adolescence. Boredom before or after the event is drawn out by lack of anything better to do, a constant sentence rambling without the restraint of the full stop, over and over and over and under like the filmed infinite loop of a boy sinking and rising from the water of a backyard swimming pool, his intake of breath consequential to the American flag he holds aloft at each emergence—its desire for oxygen somehow exceeds his own need for air. An electric orange sunset and shadowed palm trees identify this artificial oasis as the Californian landscape of a disillusioned teenaged culture, its seeming pleasures triggering nostalgia, a youth’s first awareness that a precious phase of childhood has now been lost.

In American artist Jen DeNike’s first UK solo exhibition, her suite of three recent photographs, each marked by the problematic presence of the American flag, stand out as signifiers of the sometimes-violent sacrifice of youth. The ambiguous tableau of ‘1882’, 2006, a year that does nothing to illuminate the scene, depicts a blindfolded boy waving a small flag below a cheap doll strung from a tree by the noose pulled taut by a second youth, prompting the viewer to wonder what obscure chapter of American history is being evoked by this act named for that particular year. For all attempts to match history to the date, there is something mistaken in the memory triggered by these new pastoral spaces of overgrown suburban lots. The implication of red’s danger against the banal white shirts and blue jeans of DeNike’s recurring models Mike and Kevin completes the semaphore of her obscure vision of suburban America; ambivalent and refreshingly without judgment, the ordinary resonance of these average boys with their unique physical quirks reduces any sense of the heroic.

‘Flag Girls’, 2007, contributes its own counter-mythic critique by its pastiche on a vintage postcard depicting girls tantalizingly wrapped in the Old Glory flag. DeNike’s video fulfills the winking promise of that image by progressively divesting each girl of her flag, but this striptease is a ritual robbed of its sexuality. From their discordant hum of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to the flags clenched in teeth in their efforts to sullenly cast them off, there is something petulant in the stiff pirouette that flings the literal weight of stars and stripes off the nude body.

This deliberately awkward defiance is complicated in its turn by the girls’ status as long-haired maiden archetypes who make their sulking exit from the screen once unveiled, until only one remains standing—serene with her flag still firmly wrapped, her survival alludes to the so-called final girl of horror films and their generic assertion that preserved purity will spare us from violent endings. At this uncomfortable point of becoming, DeNike’s teenage personalities heighten the threat of their own potentiality towards either the achievement of adulthood, or the failure of life cut short in the call of patriotism.

Stephanie Vegh is an artist based in Toronto