"I had mixed feelings about it, from intrigued to kind of guilty for following it," admits artist Hailey Ashcraft, referring to her fascination with the case of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia. She's hardly alone: Short's gruesome unsolved murder has been the subject of books, films, and countless Web sites. It's possible, Ashcraft thinks, that the story has permeated popular culture to the point that we're all unconsciously aware of the facts of the case. Ashcraft put together "The Black Dahlia Show," she says in a recent phone interview, when "I started making art about it and started recognizing the themes in other people's art." Most startling was Ashcraft's discovery of Kirstyn Russell's photographs, one of which has "a very similar composition to the crime scene. ... It's like she was making art about the Black Dahlia before she even knew about it."
But the goal of Ashcraft's project isn't to reproduce the famously disgusting forensic evidence (the body was not found intact), but rather to investigate the themes brought up by Short's death. Russell's work, for example, often features bleak areas such as parking lots, industrial wastelands, and abandoned commercial real estate, of which Ashcraft asks, "What does it mean to find women's clothing in a vacant lot?"
In her curatorial statement, she digs even deeper, referencing the bizarre intensity with which the case has held the public's attention for 58 years: "I am interested in how the Black Dahlia case functions as an aesthetic object. Everyone sees himself or herself differently in the case."
The exhibit's other works reflect this: Sculptor Kim Weller draws a connection between Short and Snow White, both of whom found fame after they died; Erik McDonald's deep, dark portraits of innocent-looking twentysomethings exploit the viewer's own mixed feelings about beauty, fear, and death. "The story keeps getting regenerated," Ashcraft notes, referring to a major film project rumored to be in the works. "It seems to have a life of its own."