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Playmate Dorothy Stratten's story, told in origami

MacLeod: ‘By folding and unfolding, we create our own narratives.’ And it’s also that idea of the real and the maybe not real.’

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Myfanwy MacLeod's origami sculptures at once evoke a shimmery innocence, and a horrific event. Here is Dorothy Stratten – Vancouverite, Playboy magazine Playmate of the Year, murder victim, posthumous golden girl – folded and refolded to become a cormorant, a crane, a shipwreck. In these sculptures, created from pages of the 1979 and 1980 issues of Playboy in which Stratten appeared, we see pieces of her: an eye, a thigh, a nipple, a red, lip-glossed mouth.

"By folding and unfolding, we create our own narratives," MacLeod said at the Satellite Gallery in Vancouver, where the exhibition Dorothy opened last week. "And it's also that idea of the real and the maybe not real. The story of her is something that's real, and not real at the same time."

Stratten (born Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten) was a teenager working at a Dairy Queen on East Hastings in Vancouver when she was discovered by promoter Paul Snider. He managed her, married her, brought her to the attention of Playboy and – as her career was taking off in Los Angeles – murdered her (and killed himself).

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At 20, she was dead, and about to become truly famous. The following year, a made-for-TV movie documented the horror, with Jamie Lee Curtis playing Stratten. In 1983, director Bob Fosse released Star 80, starring a creepy Eric Roberts as Snider and Mariel Hemingway as Stratten. The grisly depiction was a critical hit –and an early film project for Stratten's hometown long before it earned its Hollywood North moniker.

"It was one of the first movies I ever saw that was shot and set in Vancouver," says exhibition curator Reid Shier.

There was also a book: Director Peter Bogdanovich, who became Stratten's lover and later married her younger sister (the word "creepy" comes to mind often here), published The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980, a memoir that intrigued MacLeod in a repellant way.

"The book is disturbing because he talks about her in this way that is just complete fantasy about what an angel she was," says MacLeod. "How she protected him from everything. So egomaniacal. She was 20."

MacLeod explored Stratten's Vancouver, too. Returning here (the now Vancouver-based artist had been teaching at the University of Western Ontario in London) as she was developing her Olympic Village work The Birds (giant Hitchcock-evoking sparrows that are at once beautiful and, yes, creepy), MacLeod checked into the Blue Horizon hotel, where a scene from Star 80 was shot, and had Shier take her to that Dairy Queen where Stratten worked.

The title of Bogdanovich's book proved irresistible. In a quest to turn Stratten's image into an origami unicorn, MacLeod picked up step-by-step handbook and taught herself the complex art.

Using Playboy pages from back issues she ordered on eBay, MacLeod created a series of sculptures, using traditional origami instructions and giving each its traditional origami name: Piranha, Fishbowl, Artifact, Lovers' Knot. She had the tiny sculptures photographed, and they are installed here, their peach frames reminiscent of 1980s decor chic.

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With old posters featuring Stratten, MacLeod also painstakingly created larger-scale sculptures: a parrot, an elephant, a swan. No, there are no bunnies. In the end, there was no unicorn either; with nine pages of instruction, that form proved too difficult.

In arguably one of MacLeod's more explicitly feminist explorations, here is Stratten creased and manipulated, this time by a woman – rather than seen through the lens of a man: Playboy's Hugh Heffner, Fosse, Bogdanovich. (Although that 1981 made-for-TV movie was directed by a woman.)

The work is also, as Shier points out, a social critique of power – gender undeniably plays a role in that power imbalance, as does, perhaps, nationality – Canadian girl, discovered at an American fast-food joint, goes to the United States and makes it big. (The show's title "Dorothy" is splashed across a wall at the gallery, in golden Dairy Queen font letters.)

Where once she titillated, Stratten here becomes a puzzle, inciting study, not lust. Is that an eyebrow? No, it's a flash of pubic hair.

Yes, this is also a flashback to Vancouver before Expo, porn before the Internet (and Brazilian waxes) – an innocent time and a shared guilt.

These intricate works – lovely to look at, disturbing to think about – explore the dichotomy between beauty and violence. In real life – and now in art – here we have a pretty blonde, manipulated.

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