Delicate Machines is a funny title for a performance staged in a small, awkwardly-shaped room in which two women in color-block outfits primarily rub themselves across a dirty floor while making strange kissy-fart sounds, framed by sea-puke-green crepe-paper-looking sculptures draped over ceilings pipes. Also exhibited were curvaceous blobs of plaster poured on the floor with various debris stuck into them (a shoe, an iced-coffee cup, dirt, maybe glass); a few bricks scattered about with thin wires sticking out of them; and a grey felt floor-sculpture/rug/play mat cut nearly into strips, each strip staged with a gentle curve. In a way, this was a space which completely fulfilled the stereotype of anyone even mildly skeptical of dance-y performance art—the almost flippant, random use of crafty materials; the audience crammed together knee to knee; the painfully slow and intangible movements—which made it all the more joyful when Delicate Machines up-ended, without even asking, the silly tropes they had feigned for the purpose of humor, dramatic emphasis, and a quick, peppery dash of art world “made-you-look.”
Tenuous at first, the structure of the performance seemed to begin in the roomy hallway outside the gallery where visitors mingled, some crouched by a cooler mixing white wine LaCroix spritzers, others poking around the gallery, sipping beer and chit-chatting (that would be me), and some wondering aloud when the performance would start. Jared, the director of Central Park, confirmed that a performer was now in the gallery, but we needn’t stop our milling and sipping. Impatient and fixated on achieving a “complete” experience, I sat down against a wall and watched Jessica. She was barefoot, clad in tight, thick-looking burgundy work pants and an off-white long-sleeved top that was either two-tone or in shadow—the kind of garb that looks too blasé to be a costume, but too specific to be unintentional. Laying sort of on her side and her stomach, near the plaster blob in the back corner of the gallery, she pressed her naked foot into the plaster-sunk shoe, pushing back and forth off of it in a way that was both controlled and muscular-looking but also effortless, un-self-conscious. She held her head at a precise downward tilt so that her face was imperceptible—another round blobby thing with ropes of hair swinging and masking her face from every angle. I wanted to see it—badly—and this feeling was the first moment her movement transcended the icky space of blah performance art and rose into a self-aware realm of playing off of audience desire—which is not only the desire to see what the woman looks like, but to know how she’s playing it—in a thrust that may be a cross between waking-up and scrubbing the floor, or if we dare to be so crass, may infer a kind of one-sided, fully-clothed intimacy—without seeing her face, we cannot faithfully interpret her body. The gesture was thrilling.
Soon thereafter, the rest of the audience entered the performance, either sitting cross-legged or standing with their backs to the wall in a lean semi-circle, not more than two deep. Somehow Laurel appeared, it was either sneaky or I zoned out, but there she was on the floor next to Jessica, the two of them doing their slow-floor-writhe, Laurel also barefoot, also positioning her head so that her face was concealed, the two of them eventually folding into a sort of arm-leg knot which they shifted gently by rotating from their heels to the balls of their feet. Laurel’s appearance, too, proposed the same question as Jessica’s: am I composed? This would turn out to be a central question within an impressively long performance (nearly an hour!) which perhaps tiptoed up to the edge of narrative, but never slipped in. A showing of endurance and strength, along with the ability to act in harmony with an other’s body is impressive—it may even be beautiful—but what stood out was the intimacy of the details of their touch—the way Jessica (or was it Laurel) laid her palm flat against Laurel’s back—the way just her pinky moved, spreading slightly away from the rest of her fingers to feel just a little bit further—it was those little gestures that made it hard to take your eyes off of the two of them—that made it feel like time had suspended—yes, “time” (to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow) didn’t have a lot of clout in the gallery that night.
Fast forward a little. It would be beside the point, not just inaccurate, to describe every movement that took place in Delicate Machines. The moment when Jessica and Laurel stirred away from their body-tangle and threw back their heads to reveal Laurel’s exaggerated diva makeup and Jessica’s smeared-on moustache (was it dirt from the floor?) was laugh-out-loud funny, but also self-aware and challenging—it shattered whatever imaginary preconception the audience may have had of the earnest or gloomy tendencies of such performance art—and instead offered us lively, idiosyncratic gestures. The brilliance of the smeary moustache is almost inconceivable—just a touch of drag, a little bit of female-bodied-ness mixed up with something messy, goofy, unlikely, liberating, maybe even empowering.
The part where they stick their faces together, bodies pressed almost flat, standing upright but shifting their weight around as if balancing on the deck of a ship in a storm—again, their faces are obscured, and you can’t quite understand what they’re doing, but they’re making a cringe-worthy sound, it’s abject, like a cross between a wet kiss and a long fart—at one point I was sure they were kissing while blowing air through their lips, the next moment I was sure they were doing some kind of circular breathing. The unwillingness of Delicate Machines to give the audience a simple aura to grab hold of—it was at once silly, sexual, platonic, dramatic, stage-y, throw-back-y, and just plain dirty—it made me want to roll around on the floor and do something weird.
In yet another fourth-wall breaking gesture, Jessica and Laurel, bent at the waist like dolls, step-stuttered their way out of the gallery door, through the audience, and toward the adjacent stairs (at which point Jared yelled, follow them!). We did follow—all of us hanging over railings on various floors, bending this way and that to get a good look at them as they slapstick roll-walked down the raw, drab stairwell. Their last movement was to stunt-fall down one step onto the third-floor landing, ending in a heap reminiscent of a road-runner silhouette, faced-down, arms splayed out—dead, or perhaps faking.
Thinking of it now, I remember the little grunts that Jessica and Laurel made as they shifted their two-person ball over the gallery floor—maybe they were speaking, or exerting, or grumbling—but just to hear their sounds, the immediacy of them, the quiet rawness of them—it was so different, so perplexing. I think of the moment when Jessica ran her cheek down the side of a wide, floor-to-ceiling pipe—the way her face bounced against it, like a sweaty hand sliding down the pole of a metal jungle gym. For me, Delicate Machines does precisely what machines can’t do—they breathe, they touch, they fake, they roll their eyes, they share intimacy, they joke, they rub. Like the garbage-dotted plaster-pools, and the shredded felt rug prop, and the sea-weedy drapery, the title of Delicate Machines is a bait-and-switch—it is profoundly about our un-machine-ness, a celebration of the potential of communicating through bodies, of being fixated on and surprised by and grossed out by bodies. Delicate, perhaps; machine, certainly not; a little tonic to inject complexity back into a space where we feared there was none; absolutely.
Delicate Machines was a performance by Laurel Atwell and Jessica Cook which took place on October 30, 2018, at Central Park Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. This performance coincided with Laurel and Jessica’s residency at PAM in Los Angeles, CA.
Drive west up the 210 freeway—a curvaceous, breathtaking four-or-five lane highway that drifts through a basin of impossibly cinematic-looking hills alternating green and tan scrub. After a rather abrupt and wild interchange that spits you out onto interstate 5, past the Burbank Airport, far beyond the world’s largest IKEA, and even past the Juvenile Hall in Sylmar—at the crest of this hilly interchange, right after two of the now eight lanes curve off into the 14, as you dip back into the Santa Clarita Valley—your windshield will fill with the very real image of endless swathes of dry, lumpy mountains, inert against the ever blue, ever-cloudless (though sometimes smoke-filled) Southern California sky. If you stay your northerly course, you could be at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill in 20 minutes. Have you ever done it? I haven’t, and yet I make most of this drive nearly every day. Let me tell you, the optics of it never get old.
I would be lying if I did not admit that I had a similar, though smaller in scale, experience when I first summited the stairs of the Asian Center and spun to the right—I felt I was gliding, almost propelled forward into the airy, light-filled gallery/archive/non-circulating library, the door wide open, my field of vision confused by what appeared to be paintings that were not fixed, but floating. This description is silly and overwrought, but not inaccurate—and in the space of the gallery, the large geometric windows with their odd but inviting effect, I found the experience of approaching rectilinear shapes hanging on invisible strings to somehow mimic the experience of driving on a Los Angeles freeway and focusing my eyes on something far-away, electric-looking, and unexpected—something that practically materializes out of thin air.
But there is a lot more to “Key Observation Point” than paintings hanging on strings. In fact, what you see when you enter the gallery is, arguably, the backs of paintings, all which bear descriptive texts penciled delicately but visibly onto their raw canvas, while the canvas itself is folded neatly around the frame, held in place by dramatic and abundant blueish-black tacks. The wrapped portion of the frame is also painted in a kind of ombre effect, either red, yellow, or orange, depending on the painting. Before I even realized the paintings had paintings on the reverse side, I saw many other things in the space—a desk-like area under the far rectangular window, complete with a windsor chair, old-looking laptop computer (running Windows ’98, no less!), a big binder filled with papers laid open in a special open-binder holder, and a grey Bisley filing cabinet, on top of which was another laid-open series of papers, this time binder-less, but held together with loose rings. The thing that was nearly invisible to me, and stayed nearly invisible to me, was the nearly full-sized wall drawing of the Landscape Scenic Quality Scale, rendered lightly in pencil— a text which literally describes a rating scale used to rate landscape scenic quality.
The descriptive texts on the backs of the paintings are key observation points—texts which originate in and were taken verbatim from the Chiquita Canyon Landfill’s 2017 Environmental Impact Report—the massive document displayed in the binder-holder. I learned from the laminated gallery map, which was cleverly overlaid with a topographical master plan of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, that the placement of the paintings in the gallery mimicked the location from which each key observations point was written. The “fronts” of Key Observation Points 1-7, as stated in Susanna’s introductory text, are paintings made from collages. Susanna selected keywords from each key observation point and used them as internet image-search terms to create a sort of keyword composite collage; one for every painting. That giant wall-drawing I nearly didn’t see (funny how light can make pencil disappear!) defines the scenic quality scale itself—the scale responsible for the strange methodology and turn of phrase (visual unity, visual intactness, visual sensitivity, and so on) used in describing each key observation point. I began to really understand that all the elements of the show are deeply interconnected because Susanna explained it to me—she also explained the function of the office-looking area with the computer—it is a research station, where visitors can access both digital and print copies of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill 2017 Environmental Impact Report. The research station also provides access to the keywords Susanna selected for her image search, as well as the images those keywords generated.
I think there is a funny element of deconstruction here—a funny order of operations. We enter the gallery and see the stylized backs of paintings with paragraphs on them—this renders them “unconventional artworks.” We can then whip around and look at the front of them, and make some sort of connection between the words on the back and the painting on the front. We can then (or before) read the wall-drawing of the Landscape Scenic Quality Scale, and make yet another connection between the scale it describes and the paintings we can now see in-full from the position of reading the wall-drawing text. After all that, or perhaps before, we can research the way the paintings were constructed—the keywords used to generate each painting. I’m trying to describe what it felt like to understand the connections between the pieces—how one was generated from the other, and vice/versa. The approach this show takes to artistic production is quite strange, in the sense that it seems intended to reveal something—as if through understanding the keywords used to generate the image, we could understand something about that image. The interconnectedness of the work felt a lot like pieces to a puzzle, which, once assembled correctly, would be revelatory.
If we are meant to understand that the scale, i.e. the methodology, used to define scenic views is arbitrary and entrenched in a particular kind of thought—then so is using the internet to generate images which will then generate a painting. To me, it is arbitrary on top of arbitrary on top of arbitrary, mixed with the artist’s hand, the subjective decisions for colors, and then, painting…it was hard to wrap my head around. But perhaps that’s the point—perhaps the work proposes that just as the internet can randomly assign an image to a word, so can anyone, for any purpose—that the key observation points rely on imagination, as opposed to documentation. Perhaps the work says the descriptive and evaluative process meant to seem objective is as arbitrary as pulling images out of the giant, technological hat that is the internet. I’m just not sure I agree with that, since the internet is a programmed system, and all programmed systems come pre-programmed with the ideology of the programmers. It’s complicated.
From another angle, this project reflects Susanna’s investment in words, and how those words shape the things we see; in this case, language’s effect on the scenic value of a landfill, and how that scenic value has the potential to disrupt land value (i.e. development). It seems that for Susanna, the scenic rating system, which uses language to develop arbitrary value systems, is the key to her project. Furthermore, pushing that language as far as possible, squeezing it until it becomes a thing of art, in this case, a painting, is a way of undertaking what the original writers of the scale undertook themselves when they were charged with defining the undefinable—with connecting the topographical to the compositional, and then the compositional to the evaluatable, and then translating that into language in the form of a text, which will result, presumably, in a policy— a weird third thing that has real-world effects but no single real-world representation, unlike like a painting, or a binder. To put it in a simplistic way, Susanna’s project proposes a way of unraveling complicated things—to me it says, if only we had the language to describe things, and could agree on what they mean. It sounds a lot like a proposition for talking about art.
“Key Observation Point” doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it is wrapped up in an ongoing research project that Susanna has been invested in for nearly a decade. I don’t know much about the greater scope of this work, despite having known Susanna for several years. The second time we met at LACA, I told her I knew the research was the most important part of the project to her, but I was probably going to write mostly about painting. I’m the sort of person that writes about what they can see—and what I saw was paintings, pencil drawings, an incredible view of Chinatown through huge windows, a desk set up to explore the content that helped to generate the show—and also a laminated map.
These are the things I want to say about painting: not hanging the paintings on the wall, while a convention in its own way, allowed me to see the paintings as sites of meaning with some potential beyond art, and maybe even as non-art. The gallery walls, as pretty and inviting as they stood, would have compounded Susanna’s complex project into a simplistic art show where an artist uses a complex system to generate what is still a convention—a painting on a wall in a white cube. There is movement in this space, and mystery, and pathways, maybe even analogous to a mountain, or driving up the 5 toward Castaic. Take, for example, the brilliant installation of Key Observation Point 7, where you must duck under the painting itself between the LACA stacks to get a head-on view of it—far from contrived, this locates the work in the space of LACA, reminding us that art is archive, and Susanna’s work another version of such a process. It also reminds us that art is messy, it’s imprecise, it’s also where we store vacuums and recycle bins and monitors, and old tubes we may need, but probably won’t. Furthermore, we never have to look at Susanna’s paintings by themselves; we always get the full view, every angle of the show is a complete picture to some extent, since no painting has a distinct back or front—another gesture towards undermining authoritative ways of seeing. When all is said and done, I wonder if my interpretation of the artwork was skewed by one small but profoundly political and influential thing which was omitted from the show: garbage.
I am not saying a show about a landfill ought to have some garbage in it but…ought it to? Garbage is not antithetical to art, but it is often antithetical to art-spaces. And while I don’t miss “garbage” here, I felt an antiseptic quality to the show that perhaps Susanna forgot was a possible interpretation—for those of us who have never been to a landfill (it may be few or many, I have no idea), nothing in the show conjured up those particular images, and I found myself disconnected from the show’s content and its relationship to garbage, that thing without which there would be no Chiquita Canyon Landfill, and therefore no environmental impact study, and therefore no scales with odd phrasing meant to poeticize or even reinvent our language around landscape. Without being situated somehow in the space of what my imagination conjured at the word “landfill,” I engaged the work in the show in opposition to the very present, visually dominating landscape just through LACA’s windows—Chinatown. Let me explain.
Though “Key Observation Point” is filled with text, I was drawn back toward the floating paintings. The fronts of them follow the basic conventions of painting—in this case they were all in yellows and reds, all reminiscent of a sunset combined with an apocalypse combined with a construction sight combined with a landscape (LACA’s windows at dusk prominently capture similar images). My first reaction to seeing the paintings, which caused me to hop back and forth across the gallery based on their installation, was not that they were meant to be considered as paintings “in their own right,” in the way that “painters” mean “painting”; to me, they were oddly flat, almost like a wannabe Ed Ruscha, their style a familiar contemporary-looking combination of minimal geometry filled in with what wanted to be, but wasn’t really, a richness of color—that I immediately assumed the paintings were made in dialogue with the view right outside the second-floor windows of LACA—a view which from various angles contained neon signs, three-story buildings, cars, trees, two layers of distant mountains (one close enough to be green, the next its own purply-grey)—and an American flag. I thought that the paintings were purposely artificial-looking in contrast with the descriptive texts written directly on their backs—which although vague, are still attempts to describe a scene from nature; on top of that, I thought these descriptions of nature were being contrasted with the very urban scene just outside LACA’s windows. Take, for example, the text from Key Observation Point 5:
KOP 5: Eastbound State Route 126
Figure 15-6a depicts a representative existing view looking toward CCL from eastbound SR-126 at a point west of the landfill entrance. The landfill site is located beyond the hillsides visible along the highway in this view, but the existing landfill is not visible from this location. The natural-appearing hillsides and SR-126 are both dominant elements in this view.
The hillsides are visually pleasing, but are not highly distinctive. Thus the level of vividness of this view is average or moderate. The visual unity and intactness of this view are reduced by the visual dominance of the roadway and the presence of a skylined transmission tower. Overall, this view has a moderate level of visual quality. SR-126 is a First Priority scenic route that carries high volumes of traffic; however, because travelers along this segment of the highway are moving at high speeds, this view is visible for only brief periods of time. The overall visual sensitivity of this view is moderate.
I thought—in fact I was certain—before I had read the big wall drawing or before I had read the opening text, that the paintings were a kind of weird, art-centric mediation between the idea of an idealized landscape versus an actual one; for me, it was all about the tension between inside and outside. After all, there was no view of any painting which was not mediated by, interrupted by, something else in the visual field. Reading the text on the “back” of the painting meant facing the streetscape, which created a relationship between what was read and what was seen through the window. Conversely, looking at the “front” of the paintings meant looking inward at the gallery—literally turning one’s back to the present landscape, the authentic landscape, so to speak—but also having the paintings interrupted by clumsy, practical things, like tables and chairs, stacks of books and ephemera, a sink. I felt totally engaged with this idea, totally in love with it—and while I don’t know if it was the central interpretation I was meant to walk away with, honestly, it was profound—and I believe that because of Susanna’s investment in the visualization of and relationship to the landscape in the context of art, she achieved something exceptional without even knowing it. It is to her credit.
What else? Susanna asked me what I thought of all the text in the show, seeing as I’m a writer. I told her I thought it was pretty good—I was surprised that as a government document, it wasn’t riddled with errors. I thought “someone who knows how to write wrote this.” Or maybe they even had a real editor. Who knows. It may be disappointing that I was not somehow more invested in the language of the show, considering I am a language-investor—I don’t know, to me all the texts Susanna points to do read as silly, but I get why they’re written that way, based on their genre and the purpose they’re meant to serve. I agree, the highly-subjective made-up way the scale and the key observation points are described is its own kind of scary—but it leaves me feeling like the fallacy is the belief that any writing could reflect something objective. Honey, it can’t.
The minute I walked into the show I liked it instantly. Last week at an impromptu dinner at my house, my friends and I were discussing a recent video screening we’d all attended, and my friend said something like “I was entertained by it, but I didn’t like it.” I said, “I think for me, they are the same thing.” I am trying to say that I really was thrilled and enthralled by Susanna’s show, despite that, in a way, I grossly misunderstood it—and in that sense perhaps I should be entertained by it, but not like it—alas, I like it anyways. Not that any of that matters. Let me put it this way—at its worst, “Key Observation Point” could be seen as a didactic, research driven project manifested as paintings for the sake of tangibility—but it’s not this, because Susanna isn’t confused about what is and is not art—and I’m never able to put the clues together into a thought cohesive enough to achieve didacticism. I think she slips a little in getting me to grasp the significance of the research, which I swear I am capable of—but I have a feeling this understanding lies within the scope of Susanna’s work, and I feel I cannot make a fair value judgement on that, since we are all limited and not in control of how, where, and how much art we can show. But more importantly, at its best, the show takes complex, disparate ideas of a place which around here only exists in most people’s imaginations (the landfill) and brings it into dialogue with the landscape we take for granted every day—it offers a vestige into a peripheral yet significant world—the world of the way things look, and how we describe those things, and the consequences or possibilities of all those things combined—it’s a language which determines where to build a new strip mall, or expand a garbage dump, or even, dare I say, how to make a painting. I’ll take it at its best.
“Key Observation Point” is on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive from August 31-September 29, 2018. For more information on Susanna Battin, please visit http://susbatt.com.
The featured image at the top of this post is Gallery Map, Key Observation Point, laminated ink jet print, 8.5″ x 11″ (Susanna Battin)
The generic flat-screen monitors that loop Martina Onyemaechi Crouch-Anyarogbu’s Discommercial 1 (2016), Discommercial 2 (2016), and Discommerical 3 (2016)do little justice to the complex conceptual counterpoint they offer to much of Juried Exhibition 2018, a show which takes seriously its mission to present a flavorful array of recent MFA graduates—all youngish artists who we hope (or secretly do not hope) go on to be, say, Senga Nengudi, or even John Baldessari, both veteran LAMAGers. Such is the weighty and important history of this knock-off Frank Lloyd Wright temple situated on yet another scorched but glorious Los Angeles hilltop, complete with views of the Hollywood sign. Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is a classic, and I would be lying if I said showing an artwork there wasn’t, as Missy Elliott once said, super duper fly.
What makes Martina’s Discommercials super duper fly is that they are a classic bait-and-switch—not an epicly scaled artwork, or one with many impressive or unusual materials; not an artwork that has the potential to be permanently installed at a subway stop, or stakes its relevance in the temporal—no, there is nothing penis-like in this artwork, or shiny, just a drab display of three small flat-screen tvs, depicting something recognizable yet uncanny, and three sets of headphones, which, from a distance, insinuate a time commitment many gallery-goers are not willing to make, especially in a show with so many artworks.
I am stuck on this point of presentation—as in, the way the artworks appeared from a distance, versus what you get when you actually watch and listen to them. It’s possible that this is a redundant observation about videos in galleries, but there was something about the plainness of the monitors, the conventionality of the way the screens hung there, the limp headphones on their little hooks, everything so neat and precise—that discovering this monster-mask purple thing talk about color-coded keys while eating candy and saying “food products”—that just frankly shocked me. (You can find the transcripts of the Discommercialshere, which I’ve added per Martina’s request). It’s a fact that video is further complicated by its apparatus; and these videos, whose presentations incorporate neither a projector or an iPad or a retro TV monitor, or some kind of sculptural stand or other non-video physical addition to the artwork—defy what I think of as the zany, installation-heavy tropes so common to contemporary video work. And in that defiance, the Discommercials stay eerily close to the typical viewing experience of the thing they satirize—the commercial. I’m not sure what all this means, other than that I felt somehow I was instantly at the bare bones of the Discommercial, the weirdness of it, the scariness, the un-prettiness, the dis-composed-ness of it.
Each Discommerical features the same purply-blue character wearing a Phantom of the Opera-esque mask that reveals only their eyes and mouth. However, this mask serves an opposite purpose to the original Phantom’s mask, since the mask itself is disfigured and lumpy—an unconvincing appendage. The masked character’s lips are pasty yellow, and they wear a yellow shirt; their skin replicates the electric mauve color of their mask, and their fingernails are painted in yellow or red. The whole image looks electric and artificial, as if the character came to life straight out of MS paint; their hair, twisted into pinky-size dreadlocks, appears almost drawn-on, aside from sometimes sporting a yellow or red hair elastic, or even a yellow headband. The background of the scenes jumps between green (green screen, we know from the wall text) and black; and all the dialogue is captioned. The narrative in Discommercial 1 and Discommerical 2 is something about color-coded key nutrients, and something about food packaging. The cuts jump around, and the dialogue is a bit choppy; there are times when the character laughs, as if to a director off-screen. I would say the videos are reminiscent of an old thing called “bloopers.” Still, it is hard to describe the Discommercials; the look of them is so specific, the fuzziness, the glitching, the alliteration of the words, the cadence of the actor, the music from like, a horror leprechaun movie or a children’s show with talking pigs—this is the stuff of nightmares, people.
Oh, and there is an almost imperceptible image that pops up at the end (or is it the beginning?) of each video—a geometric configuration of blue/yellow/red that is reminiscent of a NFPA fire compliance sign (google it), which I have seen at least one other time in Martina’s work, circa 2016.
So you’ve got the feeling of the artwork, and you’ve got the picture, perhaps as best I can without narrating each Discommerical shot-by-shot. This brings me to the apex of all art-writing: what could this succession of colors and words mean? (I forgot to mention the M&M-like candies the character eats in Discommercial 1, also with a red, yellow, and blue candy coating). And could this meaning, in turn, mean something to me? I wrote extensively about legibility in my last text, because it was something that the artist was interested in; in this case I haven’t spoken to the artist about the work at all, but I would argue that Martina uses the form of the commercial (or discommercial, as its called) to plant a legible foot in the soft, wet garden of idiosyncrasy and weirdness she is walking barefoot through. Yes, I too get to do my own weird thing.
Let’s say the character, we’ll call them Phantom, represents a painting. I don’t think Phantom is actually meant to represent a painting, but they are certainly painted. This is one of the many satirical layers that Discommerical 1 and Disommercial 2 are operating on; as opposed to Martina actually making a painting, her character, and perhaps even the screen itself, is “painted”; so Phantom becomes a kind of intermediary object between a painting and a video and a person. Before abstraction, and certainly before minimalism, colors represented things. For example, the Virgin Mary was always depicted in blue. And then we get Phantom, who is also colored, as in, a color (in this case a purply-blue), in the visual sense. But lest we forget, our Phantom is a speaking subject, spitting out alliterative lines about “color-coded,” so we have both visual and linguistic ways that the work draws attention to both colors and codes, or, being both colored or coded. The more times I watched 1 and 2, which are less than a minute each, the more my brain conflated the words with the images, which have the almost unconscious effect of jumbling into a flash of colors, sounds, and shapes that seems destined to be a commentary on codes and colors, especially body colors, which is another way of saying skin colors, which is another way of saying: race. So in a way it seems obvious that the Discommericals should be about the subjectivity of color, but they are also about symbols, and the meaning of the colors themselves, which is a concept that reaches far beyond what painting usually wants from us—it reaches through most modes of contemporary art practice, wraps its iridescent purple fist around a loose piece of modern painting, and pulls it right through into the future, ending up as an artwork that to my amazement manages to transcend its medium, even as it remains quietly mounted to the wall—and at an appropriate height, too.
But back to red/yellow/blue, the specific and decidedly loaded palette that Martina chose to structure this work around. There are a few things to grab hold of—that they are primary colors, of course, which to me insinuates a kind of primary relationship between the subject (or in this case, the character) and its manifestation as a character. Is that clear? I guess I’m saying that primary is a tricky word that means both of first order of importance, but also basic, primitive, direct. It seems a character cast in such colors is being washed over, somehow neutralized, certainly obscured, by their primary coloring. In many artworks, color is used as a tool of aesthetic expression—here it amounts to a kind of technological obfuscation that is as silly as it is alarming. Sarah pointed out that primary colors are also “unmixed,” in terms of paint or painting; she immediately thought of them as a symbol of something “pure” and “original.” I assume others, especially painters, would have similar associations.
The red/yellow/blue image that flashes at the end of each discommercial is likely, as I have established earlier, a reference to the similarly composed fire compliance sign, a symbol with its own specific set of codes and meanings, which in the context of the video, casts a big-brother-esque vibe on the whole artwork. The thing about this compliance symbol is that it exists independently of Martina’s work—it is a symbol out in the world, so to speak, appearing in, I believe, any and all institutional spaces. The recurrence of this outside symbol serves to link Martina’s Discommercials with an image that frequently enters our visual field but is communicated in a symbology unknown to most people—which sounds a lot like how an artwork can be constructed. This is a subtle, unnerving way of insinuating the possibility that her artwork may be inserted everywhere, or is perhaps not an artwork at all—or worse, that we are surrounded by codes that could be broken, if only we had the skills, or the intellect, or more information.
As I read through what I’ve written so far, it occurred to me that I’m missing something really fundamental. The character is talking about food products. And Discommercial 1 is essentially a spoof on commercials (I literally just saw one) that advertise food products that have, say, “no artificial colors.” Of course in Discommercial land, there is no specific food brand, just “food packaging”; and while many conventional commercials will advertise that they are decidedly non-artificial (“natural,” if you will), the Discommerical is utterly unnatural; the character has a weird digitized skin and lumpy purple mask face. There is, I believe, a tension between that unnaturalness of what we see, and the rhetoric that the commercial satirizes; not only are we being sold products that claim to be artificial-free, but we are so clearly being suckered—Phantom’s decidedly unnatural (but perhaps still neutral, or primary, or un-mixed) appearance lays bare the culture of fallacy we continually expose ourselves to, and, quite literally, eat up.
Thinking about Discommercial 1, 2, and 3 has been a difficult task. There are artworks that function on a gut level, and no matter how you try to explicate or describe them, to academicize them or strike out into some kind of expressive, revelatory territory, it doesn’t help. They do their own thing. For me, this work is like that. There were a few other ideas I had about the Discommericals I couldn’t quite work into a narrative—perhaps because they’re not really there, or because they’re more like subliminal messages. For example, the combination of red/yellow/blue is reminiscent of the so-called “forbidden” colors, which scientists and color theorists have argued that the human eye cannot comprehend (yellow-blue, red-green). This took me down a path toward Ellsworth Kelly (Blue Yellow Red IV, 1972), and Sol LeWitt (Wall Drawing 880, Loopy Doopy (orange and green) 1998), but these thoughts brought me back to the satirical, biting nature of Martina’s color choices, only emphasizing that she is poking fun at such artists, whilst reminding us that their ideas of color neutrality are only available to some artists, in some contexts.
I must also admit that while Martina did send me the video files for each Discommercial, at my request, I found them difficult to refer to as a tool for thinking—the videos really do shine “in-situ,” so to speak—the importance of the loop, which is at first not discernible (it looped several times before I realized it was the same thing over and over), is critical to the incessant quality of a commercial—and that they play over and over with nearly nothing to distinguish the beginning and end is also reminiscent of our streaming-centric video experience, in which tv just tends to play and play, as if it has a will of its own to be seen. My point is that I had the files but I didn’t really use them—I have a feeling Martina will approve of this caveat.
I think lastly I’ll call myself out for focusing on Discommercial 1 and Discommerical 2; Discommerical 3 had a different thing going on, there was no mention of food, and I was put-off by the affectation the character took on in this iteration, which to me sounded like a stereotyped gay affectation, something I don’t feel I can take on in the scope of this writing.
Lastly lastly, when you write about art, you have to be careful not to write instead about yourself—something I’ve always failed at. I think Martina’s work spoke to me perhaps because I’m her intended audience—someone who makes a hobby out of a kind of judgment—who searches for codes, keys, colors, whatever—and is occasionally, if not frequently, deaf to the biases which color their own thinking, their own experiences—who need something wacky to shake them up or slap them around—to make an artwork beyond logic, which treads into the territory of magic, and cannot be exposed within a series of sentences, unless those sentences give way to the artwork’s own spells. I don’t know. Who can say what things are? The Discommericals mesmerized me with their freakiness, their indiscernibility, hell, their colors; and I’m not sure I came out the other end articulating much more than they articulate for themselves. But I do have an understanding that I ought to be more thoughtful about just what kind of crap I’m eating up, and especially, to unpack the way I project my own primary colors. I’ll do it.
While DeLoreans may abound in modern-day Los Angeles, they are not, in fact, time machines; they may show us an image of the past along with that past’s hopes and idealizations, but the person behind the wheel is under no such delusions about breaking through the space-time continuum.
No, it is not the DeLorean that can take us backward in time, but the museum—with its double-consciousness of past and present, its old things, its signs and pamphlets, its landscape, its facade, its people—all of which contain, as Joan Didion wrote on another California-y subject “the unconscious instruments of values.” But a museum with nothing in it? It is lovely, it is sad—like a beautiful empty house, it’s a space that retains a certain sort of melancholy—the arrogance of preservation against the reality of dust, and dirt, and time, and money. That said, the empty museum offers up one unique and profound question that typically only the most elite of our society get the chance to ponder with any authenticity—what would we fill it with? “Of this body; of this earth” offers an answer to that question, at least for one artist, at one museum, in one long, dank, subterranean hallway; a place where no art goes, or at least, can ever stay.
There are two ways to enter “Of this body; of this earth”; I mean that literally. You can drive or walk up the surprisingly lush hillside on a steep one-lane road, entering the museum by walking down a series of steps, past colorful tree-height carved totem poles, across a wide courtyard with ornate, high-backed, thick wooden benches, toward the museum’s historical marker that reads “The first museum in Los Angeles, Dedicated to the Native Peoples of the Southwest, Declared Historic-Cultural Monument No. 283,” through a set of simple double doors, where you will stop at the upper landing of a staircase, to the right of which is one of three functioning exhibitions at the museum; Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery, on view since 2013. Alternately, you can start at the bottom, and enter a tunnel.
I’m sure you can picture a water-damaged tunnel in a hillside. I bet you can even picture the niches in the tunnel, and the kind of dioramas they used to display (museum signage tells us they depicted the lives of various Native cultures). You may even be able to imagine the eerie shadows cast by the clunky 1920s fixtures that once illuminated this otherworldly place—part cave, part stage, part archaeological dig; you can imagine that it would have reminded museum founder Charles Lummis, with some delight, of his own adventures—in which he took, as was the fashion of the times, other people’s belongings (see the nearby and newly installed “Making a Big Noise: The Explorations of Charles Lummis”). This tunnel, of all art spaces I have ever seen, is one thousand percent metaphor, and the irony that it now sits mostly empty may not be an irony at all, but a kind of justice.
The metaphor, of course, is progress—that we might enter the cave and bear witness to an older, wilder, simpler way of being as we leave the bright heat of the day—we need this tunnel, lest we mis-recognized, say, the Pueblo Pottery as the kind of artwork which needn’t be contextualized by something dim, earthly, and utterly in the past. For what it’s worth, I would argue the most interesting iteration of this tunnel space as an artwork would be the tunnel as its empty self; a gesture against the narrative of progress in art, authored more or less anonymously by time itself—maybe that couldbreak through the space-time continuum.
Of all the artworks and all the positions artworks and their artists can take, Miller’s sits squarely within the metaphorical labor that I imagine Lummis imagined his tunnel would perform. I mean that Miller’s show, with its chalkboard drawings of apes and rocks, its soft, grey beds of ash, and its blood and hair, which of course stand in for her body, mimic what may be considered the same pseudo-anthropology that Lummis himself participated in. At first I was sure that Miller fell into Lummis’s trap; but the more I think about it, she may have beaten him at his own game.
Let me backtrack a little. “Of this body; of this earth” is a huge show, with twenty-four discreet artworks on the checklist. My perception was that each niche in the tunnel served as a mini-gallery for what I thought of as mini-installations; these mini-installations then resided in the context of the larger installation, which I considered titled “Of this body; of this earth”; I then presumed that “Of this body; of this earth” was a site-specific installation within the context of the museum as a whole, which therefore transformed “Of this body; of this earth” from a huge show into an incomprehensibly huge show, taking up big, blobby swaths of conceptual space ranging from museum politics to the politics of indigenous belongings, to the politics of the perception and display of indigenous culture, and on and on and on.
A few weeks after I saw “Of this body; of this earth” I asked Miller to meet me at the museum. I don’t know Miller, or her work, and after a long while of pacing up and down in the tunnel, looking hard at something and then spinning around and looking hard at something else, all in relative silence, I asked Miller to give me her “shpiel”; to tell me what she tells everyone else. I don’t know how many ways I can emphasize that I am not asking artists to tell me about their work because I can’t figure it out for myself—I am just really, really interested in how artists see their own work, or what kind of relationship they have to it. In this case I would say the press release description, “Robinson aims to understand and connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence” pretty much covered it. While I appreciate the ambition of this thought, I also find it quite silly—not because all art seeks to connect those dots (though all science may!)—but because as a statement, it does that funny thing that art almost always does—which is to set a task so impossible that its inevitable failure is so painless as to be imperceptible.
Faced with the self-imposed task of writing on such a show, I asked Miller something that is both banal and insane: Was there a question that she had about her own work that perhaps, I, Georgia, could answer? Not really, she said, but there was one thing. Miller told me that during one of the many walkthroughs/meetings/visits of the show, she received the following comment: the work seemed “private.” The word “private” was tinged with a mix of resigned heartbreak and disdain; it was a horrible word—gendered and counterintuitive, especially in the context of a show in a very public space, with no guard, no barrier, no camera, nothing to stop hands from shattering fragile things, or imprinting their palms like a tracing, or simply picking up and walking away with, say, a delicate brass paint brush tipped with the artist’s own hair—hell, private did not come anywhere close to what I imagine this work is for Miller—she probably bared her fucking soul to make it—if we believe in such things.
What I mean to say is the question of privacy led to the question of legibility. We assumed, Miller and I, that “private” meant “illegible” (though we’ll never exactly know). If that visitor meant that it was hard to read, or not clear enough to read, just exactly what it was that Miller wanted us to read, then I will have to politely agree. But this agreement would have to be predicated on the idea that Miller herself knew exactly what we were to read in the work, which would itself be predicated on the idea that artists are either responsible for and/or able to understand what is to be read within their work—and I simply do not believe such things—so I refuse to engage further with the question. Of course this is my rhetorical position, but I have a practical position, too. Instead of saying “it is legible,” “it is not legible,” let me try to read it, in specific.
Back to the sheer number of works in the show—I assumed that each niche contained a singular artwork with its own title made up of many objects (you know, like an installation); in fact, the many objects within each niche are all separate artworks with separate titles, many of which are multiples. I am perplexed by making multiples, but only displaying one, in the context of a work that is made for a specific site, as is emphasized in the press. While I’m unfamiliar with considering what displaying just one of a multiple might mean (though Sarah said duh, Joseph Beuys!), I am familiar with editions—and while Miller mostly calls her work “multiples,” not “editions,” either seems to insinuate that the work would be happy to inhabit nearly any site—or in the case of Paint Brush (2018), 22 other sites. This oddity of terms aside, I’m guessing the works are multiples as a nod to the fact that in this surveiless-space, they may well need to be replaced. But more importantly, calling them multiples tells us that these are not precious objects despite some of them literally containing matter from Miller’s body (another Beuysian nod). I find something fun and lively about this idea—like, of course there are many hair paint brushes—they practically grow themselves.
As for the artworks individually—yes, they’re tools; it’s pretty evident based on what they look like—a brush, a level, a paint roller—made further evident by the drawings of apes and hands and other cliched “early man” imagery. The Charles Lummis quote on the chalkboard at the opening of the show (the show’s namesake artwork, Of this body; of this earth (2018)) takes us there, too: “[man] cracked two stones together—a spark—and [he] was armed against the weather.” Within this quote, Miller substituted “she” for “he” and added the word “casual” before man—an intervention that for me, placed at the entrance to the show, teases with the possibility of an overt or embedded feminist gesture (I’ll take either!) that never materializes.
It’s clear that materials are of the utmost importance to Miller—she told me about different combinations of metals that make each other, and how she used them in the same sculpture, as a kind of unifying alchemical factor. Blood, hair, soot, lead, egg yolks, and the more grisly “bone glue” all sound mysterious and weird, and yes, they all seem rather at home buried in the hillside beneath this beautiful but dilapidated museum. Egg (sphere, cube, pyramid) (2018) is most interesting to me when it remains unbroken—I like using my imagination to picture the shapes’ pigmented interior—but even more so, I like the thought of the child or onlooker who has read nothing about the works at all, but strokes, ever so gently, one of their surfaces, only to be shocked and impressed when the shattered object reveals that it was more than just a delicate white shape, but actually contained something. If I’d had the gall to touch that object, with even just the tip of my unsteady finger, and felt the thrill of its collapse—well, that would have been the kind of messy, surprising experience antithetical to most museums—I think it would have been something special.
Installation view of three Egg(s) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary. Chalk-board for Embryonic Abacus (2018); plaster, sumi, and chalk. 17 x 21 x 1 in.
I also found some humor in Miller’s “trinkets,” for a variety of subjective reasons; Lizard Trinket (2018) reminds me of a silver alligator pin of my grandmother’s, which I coveted intensely, and both House Trinket (2018) and Studio Trinket (2018) recall Monopoly pieces, reminding me that the context and shape of a thing defines its status. Orichalcum Balance (2018), made of brass, copper, and zinc, is a delicate scale inscribed with “unless you tell me my name”; this piece again is reminiscent of jewelry, since it’s pretty, and has an inscription—the kind of inscription I would call cheesy, and romantic, and even…private. If I try really, really hard, I can imagine the inscription means something about the materials—like the metals themselves don’t understand that they’re separate from each other, unless we “name” them as separate entities; but this doesn’t make it less romantic, and also, I’m really not sure.
Though I am not squeamish per se, (I won’t faint or throw up at the sight of blood, though I did recently accidentally unearth an entire bowl of papery dead bees and ladybugs and ran screaming from the garage, unable to return until my wife came home and swept them up), I did find Spirit Level No. 1 (2018) to be quite disturbing and provocative—the blood as a kind of spirit, and the idea of leveling as something otherworldly or ghostly—for what “levelness” do we require blood as tool for measuring? Along with Orichalcum Balance, it reminds me of the ancient Egyptian ritual where our hearts may be weighed against a feather—either way, it represents an object that performs a kind of judgement, therefore becoming animate, or spirited, as the title suggests.
I could go into a close read of many more artworks in the show—but legibility was the question, any my answer is that legibility is subjective, and I can only succeed in describing what is legible to me; and while it would be nice to assume that all others share my perspective, it’s likely that the opposite is true. Also, remember that something that obscures the show is its sheer size, making it difficult to evenly and rigorously apply the nuance that this show in particular demands and deserves. “Of this body; of this earth” contains so many materials and shapes, so much specific language, so many subtleties—and as a rather unsubtle person, much of it goes over my head, though I can certainly appreciate the care embedded in the meticulousness of Miller’s labor, which I will argue she uses as the bigger, broader tool of her thought. And while for me, Miller’s chalk-boards do not bring clarity to her work, as I believe they were intended to, I wouldn’t have it any other way—the more idiosyncratic, the better. Chalk-board for Paint Roller (2018) is completely lovely—I have literally no idea what it means, but in the upper left-hand corner, under the word “paintings” is a plain little outline of a figure within a frame, a thin squiggle crossing the figure’s just-legible head. The quote underneath it reads “I swallowed water”—and if it means anything at all, it’s because it defies the material complexity of the rest of the tunnel, and does something more authentically akin to a cave painting, communicating a complex thought whose meaning we will never understand, all through a few lines and a squiggle. Wow.
Earlier I said I thought Miller was trying to beat Lummis at his own game—what I mean by this is that Miller uses something sciency to cast meaning, or doubt, or fascination, or however you might feel when looking at a periodic table and a pile of rocks, onto the objects in the collection, or in Miller’s case, onto the empty spaces where objects once were. In a roundabout, or painless, nearly imperceptible way, all of Miller’s niche’s serve to question the notion of progress within the museum; and to my delight, they serve to question the notion of legibility itself.
I called this piece “Back to the future” because of Miller’s desire to connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence. And I do see this show as a kind of DeLorean—it’s impossible, it’s theatrical, it’s nerdy, it’s goofy—but as an artwork, it achieves that tricky thing of palpably weaving the past and the present. What’s great about Miller’s work is that it demands that we develop our own tools for understanding—and while there may be thousands of possible interpretations of “Of this body; of this earth,” when we return to the Southwest Museum weeks or years from now, we’ll see much, much more than empty spaces where art once was; we’ll see possibility; we’ll see the future.
“Of this body; of this earth,” presented by Holiday, is on view at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, CA from May 20 to July 6, 2018. For more information on Miller Robinson, please visit her website: www.millerrobinson.net.
The featured image at the top of this post is an installation view of Egg (cube) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary.
Summer is something dangerous in LA. Fires speed across our crispy hills and canyons; mortars with names like Bone Breaker and American Dog Fight explode at all hours, offering up something more like rage than patriotism; the grid surges and dies under the load of our ACs and Apple products; and perhaps most importantly for readers of this blog, the art world takes a short and unfulfilling nap—the kind where you fall asleep sitting up and are jolted upright by the reliable yet embarrassing bodily gesture of your instinct not to face-plant. Just in time for this hazardous season comes Alika Cooper’s Buoy, a linguistic nod to this nautical beach-going time of year, and a visual representation of perhaps the most feared thing of all: the bathing suit.
I’m excited to be writing about bathing suits right now. Forget painting—this garment is in a class of representation all its own. If there was an object that could possibly represent the pain of the impossibly complex history of femininity, war, and the future destruction of the human race, it would be the bathing suit. I’m no historian, and have a horrible memory for such things, but even I know that the bikini, that two-piece corrupter of modesty and perpetual object of ambivalence in many a woman’s life—literally as representative of American freedom as abstract expressionism—was named after the Bikini Atoll—the site of a long series of nuclear testing by the United States, for which the inhabitants of that island were exiled. From now on, let bikinis and nuclear war be synonymous in your head. But back to Alika.
Alika is not an artist I knew until a few days ago. Through the magic of Instagram and art-world acquaintances, last Friday I landed at Odd Ark, a new-ish commercial artist-run gallery in Highland Park. The space itself, very professional but somehow unpretentious and at home in a strip-mall with a jiu jitsu studio, was pleasant to visit; not that any of this matters, but I like how the gallery is arranged so that visitors can be alone in the show. I’m always very self-conscious about looking, and here, I felt I was free to be a bit weird, and not feel the need to censor my odd facial expressions, for which I am unfortunately known.
But let me get right down to it. Buoy, like a beach toy that gets carried out on a wave but manages, to the child’s astonishment, to return, is not graspable, or perhaps appreciable, on first impression. There is something generic about Buoy at first, not boring, but unsurprising—the usual dangers of showing moderately-sized figurative paintings made with a marbleized, abstracted, colorful touch. Dare I say the paintings look very Los Angeles? No, I don’t, because I don’t believe LA looks like a thing, other than maybe a palm tree and a brush fire (and a helicopter?), and so my instinct was immediately to speak to the artist, who succeeded in making a show that one could tell was serious and perhaps even important, but not necessarily in making a clear way to find out just what that importance was. My journey would take the form of a sandwich; from the gallery, to the artist’s studio, and back to the gallery. Yum.
I like to talk to artists about their work because I’m interested to know what they think of it—or rather, what it means to them—and because I like talking. Our meeting wasn’t long, maybe an hour—and I took no notes, so I cannot perfectly nor faithfully recount anything that was said—but it was easy to be humbled by Alika’s approach to art-thinking. On the subject of bathing suits, she stated that it was a funny thing to be “into,” but she’s just “into it.” We discussed schools and methodologies, and I, like an idiot, asked her if she had an ethos. No, she said. We flipped through a few paper portfolios of Alika’s last few shows (she has had many; this is her third solo show in Los Angeles). We were computer-less, and while her work table was covered with remnants and future scraps for a series of bronze casting she’s been working on, the rest of her wares were modest. It appeared she had made no preparations for my visit, and this felt intensely admirable, because preparation is something that can be hard to resist. Here was an artist who was quietly, and without pretension, assembling something that might say something for her.
But back to the subject of bathing suits, and to painting. It’s true that Alika’s work may be described as something like collage; she more or less paints large swatches of fabric and then cuts them up and reassembles them into an image—in this case, images of women in bathing suits, which come from photographs of women in bathing suits. And in addition to being collage-y, they’re also puzzle-y; the fabric is not pasted over itself in a series of layers, but rather sliced open and placed inside, which disrupts, in the craftiest way possible, the picture plane. The first time I visited the gallery, none of this was evident to me. Each artwork appeared flat, and I was perplexed by what could possibly be at stake in a woman artist making faceless, detail-less representations of women in bathing suits. To put it plainly, it seemed like something a man would do—it made me frown in the same way I frown when I think of DeKooning’s women. That being said, curiosity got the best of me, and instead of being engaged in the materiality of the work or the “competition” (as Alika referred to it) between figuration and abstraction, I just wanted to know why she painted them.
I realize I’m working backwards here, but a bathing suit is a sight of anxiety. I think Alika’s perspective was invested more in the composition of the bathing suit photos, and not the suits themselves—more the idea of them as editorial scenes. In her press release, she wrote about the invisible labor of women “bobbing to the surface,” and about the suit’s floral patterns as “warning signs” and “markers of survival.” I see it a bit differently.
As an object, the bathing suit has a transitive property. This is so hard to explain, I’m really struggling—it’s like the bathing suit is the object that mediates the meaning of a woman’s body for that particular place and time—while a bathing suit takes on a similar form and function to underwear, it is necessarily public in a way that bras and underwear must be private; it represents the necessity for decency (to cover) while simultaneously requiring the display of femininity (to uncover). This garment determines when and how a woman can show her body, and in the process of this mediation, reveals the bafflingly incongruent expectation that we will inhabit all feminine ideals at once. To put it as superficially as possible, a woman in a bikini at a poolside restaurant is one thing; a woman in her bra at McDonalds is completely another. That the place where we are in relation to the design and fabric of the garment covering our nipples determines our level of decency and sanity is disgusting—furthermore, the double standard of male nipples versus female nipples is among the most disturbing double standards that exists in American culture, if not in the law—at least in the state of California. And in the context of bathing suits, the policing of women’s bodies, whether being told to cover or uncover, depending on where in the world you live, is two-fold; the bathing suit grants us cultural permission to physically be ourselves, while determining that the correct body is the one that fits inside the suit and appears, quite dumbly, like the women in Alika’s photographs.
It feels so crazy to be writing and thinking about standards of beauty—and yet that is where this work and this writing took me. I feel it goes without saying, though I will say it, that I have my own anxieties about bathing suits. I even have had bathing suit resolutions. I’ve said the phrase “beach body,” and meant it with some sincerity. I’ve envied skinny women in G-strings and athletic women in sporty one-pieces and I’ve especially envied the fat women in their snug-fitting bikinis, chasing their kids around the beach, or eating sandwiches, or boogie boarding, or sitting cross-legged at the edge of the surf and forming wet, drippy sandcastles on their knees. I have longed to banish my insecurities about my body, and while I still can’t totally wrap my mind around what this idea is doing in a crafty painting show, somehow the subject was just unsettling enough to squeeze it out of me.
Leaving lady-insecurity land and dropping anchor in modern painting, these are not abstract paintings. There is no tension between figuration and abstraction—what we have, actually, is an abstract painting on fabric that’s been cut up and re-configured into the pre-composed image of a woman. To me, this work is anti-expressive, and is a much more accurate and functional representation of the way identity is formed—a nearly-crude patchwork of moments that we hope will manage to express a kind of beauty or wholeness, despite the truth that we are just a series of fractured histories we did not invent but must dwell within. I agree that Alika’s paintings reference the idea of abstraction in the sense that the collages are made of abstract shapes that have been painted previously in an abstract style, but to me, they render abstraction useless. They say, guess what’s not abstract: woman. Hard to assemble, yes; not easy to represent in a simplistic way, yes; more labor than meets the eye, yes; but an abstraction—not I.
Maybe. I’m oscillating on my interpretation of the show, and while it isn’t exactly a comfortable feeling, it’s not undesirable, either. I still can’t make sense of the facelessness of the figures; and it’s true that when the women are non-specific, they become abstracted ideas of women, (though not abstract paintings!), which may be considered a criticism. On that subject, I am somehow reminded of Dana Schutz’s Swimming, Smoking, Crying (2009), which is—despite her issues with abstraction—a really good painting, and gets to the silly, simmering heart of the impossibility of being female—something that begins to creep up on you in Buoy. The second time I came to the gallery, the dimensionality of Alika’s work really stood out to me—the bumps, the raw edges—there is so much texture in the work, it made me want to run my fingers over it; something like the raised edges of a wound. There is also a prettiness to her paintings that is quite heartbreaking, which made me feel sad for all the flowers that have come to represent femininity in Western culture, and even sadder for the little girls who will wear the bikinis with the flowers, and even sadder for the garment workers around the world, many of whom are children, churning out colorful suits for women to feel self-conscious in, and for artists and writers to use as metaphorical objects of cultural significance.
So, what started as something that seemed flat ended up as something full of texture; what started as a puzzling gesture became a propositional space in which the work asked me questions, and I looked inside myself, and around a little bit, too, for the answers. Of course, there is no answer—the painting is as complicated as the woman who rendered it. Aren’t you? At Alika’s studio, she took me into the dusty, narrow hallway where she hangs her painted fabrics to dry. This was my favorite thing I saw there, and the thing that excites me the most about her work. There, in that hallway, pinned to the wall as unassumingly as if they were sheets on a line, exists the simple yet vast material of what might be formed into a kind of expression; and I can see that Alika’s work is a way of cutting and sewing her own garments—a gesture toward inhabiting a body that may one day finally be permitted to represent itself. In this indeterminate space, “being into it” is the first step in getting something out of it; it may not be an ethos, but it’s a hell of a way to move through the world. Even better.
I wanted to start by describing the performance, but I’m getting stuck on it. What should be narratable as a single event that took place at an allotted time in a specific location feels much more like a dream: the hazy pinkish air lighting the barren, low-slung industrial street; the patch of stubbly parking lot backgrounded by a high chain-link fence, all turned gray scale and shadowy in the smoggy chemical moonlight; the mute audience, our collective mood as ominous as a cloud; and the artist herself—as distinct and out-of-place as the towering tripod across from her, a flash affixed to its head, the green standby light cycling on and off—a visual metronome reminding us that time had not, in fact, stood still. I want to get across that this artwork had an aura, as much as it had a spectacle—that Lara would eventually set herself on fire, and, after silently writhing inside a bathtub of water, would rise, like a corpse coming back from the dead, take off her wet, murky clothes and redress herself in nude leggings—well, that all happened, but in a way, it wasn’t consequential.
The flowerless version is something like this: you show up somewhat late at night (9:15pm) on an off night (a Tuesday). The crowd is a decent size—Sarah and I arrive close to 9:00pm and already there are probably 20 people milling around, a little chitchat, some nerves (we brought a fire extinguisher at the artist’s request). There is a surprising amount of equipment dedicated to capturing this special moment—flashes, light meters, a photographer in a black hoodie with a second tripod—if this is Los Angeles, which it is—then Lara has created a set. She’s standing in what has transformed into her stage, talking with people, I think—I don’t look closely at her, but I notice her hair is different—I think it’s crimped, looser, and she’s a tall, absurd thing towering in a pair of figure skates and a skating costume—a leotard, and maybe a little skirt—the white, tightly laced skates fitted with blade guards. We are all waiting around in the street, forming a sort of crescent—no one is getting too close; we know the performance is imminent, and we know to expect something scary, or wild, or at least painful, and hopefully naked. I know Lara is frequently naked in her performances, and I was looking forward to that—to see her body, yes, but to see it in public, see it used as a thing, see her inhabit it as a tool; it’s a thought I am profoundly jealous of while I am seduced by it; I don’t know if I want it, or I want to be it; and already the thought of her project has made me feel simultaneously thrilled and ashamed. I hang my head a little.
As we wait, half-scattered into the street, Lara’s assistants, if that’s what they are, hand out two sealed bottles of Havana Club rum. Standing at the front of the audience crest, I get the first, fresh swig—it burns my stomach and makes me feel drunk nearly instantly—almost as instantly, I am transported back in time—to Boston, to boarding school, to dirty roofs and pretty, skinny girls, and waiting, hopelessly, for something to begin—then the sting of the drink wears off, and I feel like grown-up Georgia again.
I don’t remember exactly how it starts, but Lara greets the crowd. Now there are a lot of us, and it’s very, very quiet. It’s kind of dark. We can see her, and we can see the bathtub, and the rest of it is just fence and pink sky. Lara thanks everyone for coming. She tells us this is her most personal performance—she’s suffered from pain in her legs for half of her life. Right away there is something absurd about this introduction—the immediate breaking of the fourth wall, the story of the legs, her legs, made longer and lithe-er vessels for pain through the narrow and impenetrable ice skates. From the moment she opens her mouth, she breaks the spell—but I’ve come to believe that’s a subject of this work after all.
Next, Lara steps back into her stage and re-enters a theatrical position—we seem to disappear to her. I don’t remember if she takes her skates off herself, but I do remember that an assistant undresses her, taking off Lara’s skating clothes and dressing her back up in what looks like two layered pairs of pants and a short, loose t-shirt. This is a long, limp process.
Now re-dressed, Lara uses a spray can of something flammable to spray her clothes, just a little bit at a time—and after each iteration of spray, another assistant ducks onto the stage and lights Lara on fire. Each time, the fire burns, and Lara does a little spin, a little twirl, maybe like something you would do on those bright, clunky skates still on stage, leaning against the bathtub—an unlikely prop leaning on an unlikely prop, in an unlikely performance on an unlikely Tuesday night—definitely night time, not evening.
After a few rounds of this spraying, lighting, and dancing, the spraying jumps to an extreme—Lara sprays the front and back of her pants, up and down the whole length of her legs, covering every painful, beautiful bit—ass, thighs, shins, calves, crotch. She approaches the bathtub, looks around, then backward-straddles her body over it, holding herself up in an awkward and hellish crab walk—then she’s set on fire. Instantly she’s ablaze, the flames are maybe a foot in the air, and she lets it burn for a moment; the moment passes and she dunks herself into the tub—it’s an awkward, stiff, silent dunk—but she’s still on fire, and we watch her pump her arms and hips, her arms waving a little, but she’s quiet, and then finally, fish-like, she flops onto her stomach. The fire goes out, and everything stops; this moment is the end of one pain—and I’m certain—the beginning of a new one.
Now Lara rises, slow and steady, like a swamp thing—she’s wet now, it’s cold out, she was just on fire—she takes her clothes off, soggy and methodical, we can even hear them smack the ground—and sits down on the edge of the tub, facing us. Gradually she puts on fresh clothes—leggings it seems, perhaps a version of the skating outfit. I half-expected her to do it all again, but she stands, looks out at us with a little smile, says something like “that’s it,” and then announces we can all get in line to break her weed piñata, meaning, a piñata filled with weed.
I know what you’re thinking. Is it beautiful, like an epiphany, like a poem, or a pillow, or a soft rain? Is it crass, like a crab walk, or an ass, or thrusting hips, or a weed piñata? Is it profound, like driving by a burning semi, or seeing your neighbor’s house raided by police, or watching someone in pain and being unable to help them? Is it a dark kind of desire, like a beautiful naked woman on a dark empty street? Is it stupidity, a crowd of artists so jaded and ready for a show that they can watch her burn without throwing up all over the sidewalk? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
I thought that maybe by describing the show, I could describe how it made me feel. Not even close. So I’m going to take a break from feeling, and try to think.
My first thought after walking away from the performance was that it was the ultimate anti-climax. She burns, yes, but only briefly; there is no mystery; no back stage or offstage, or really any theatrics to speak of, other than the flame itself. As performances go, the work was totally choreographed—nearly every opportunity for deliberateness seemed missed, and I found myself wondering why Lara should do a costume change and spin and do a dance-y thing with her leg on fire and then employ two seemingly random, replaceable performers to disrobe her and light her on fire. Unless, in a way, they were meant to disappear—the stage hands that run on and off to do something practical and necessary that isn’t doable by machine. If this is so, we’ve got Lara on the stage, which is really a street-side parking lot, and she gets a costume change—certainly we’re meant to see her as a doll or a puppet, without agency, dressed and undressed, quite literally, by other women—who set her on fire. That can’t be right. It’s Lara who chooses to make herself flammable, so to speak, by spraying herself with the flammable material—so as a character, as a Lara-in-pain, she sprays, and she twirls, but she doesn’t dress or undress. And then after the ultimate burn, she puts out her own fire, undresses and dresses her own damn self, and leaves her skates where they lie. They never go back on her feet.
I feel really not good about sussing this performance out as a metaphor for ice-skating and pain and the pain of femininity in relationship to ice-skating. Watching her burn, I was unable to take any metaphorical value from it—instead, I saw a community, myself included, that assumed Lara hurting herself could be a valuable work of art instead of a work of ghastly self-inflicted pain, too abject and raw to transcend physicality and become a metaphor. Real fear and danger is not ubiquitous in art, and in a way, that’s what creates the unspeakability of this performance; I just don’t have the language to talk about it. That being said, I see her burning and I think of punishment, and fear, and how as an expression, lighting oneself on fire seems almost to mock those living in war-torn places, crossing borders, trying to go to school, whatever. You know what I mean.
On the flip side, I am completely engaged in her nakedness, which is brief but profound. Forgive me, I try to be honest but honest thoughts are so scary—seeing a naked woman, even a topless woman, in a context outside of sex, is rare, and it is a meaningful proposition. I dare you to say it isn’t. Even on the car ride home, Sarah and I talked about Lara’s body. Sarah thought that its look might represent the ideal female; I didn’t think so. For me she looks too strong to be a kind of idealized female form—I had never seen a woman so skinny look so strong. I was thinking of a recent screening of Martine Sym’s video titled Incense Sweaters & Ice (2017). There’s a “getting ready” scene where the main character, a woman, gets completely naked to get ready to go out—specifically, she’s putting on lotion. During the post-screening Q&A, Martine shared that at an earlier screening of that film, she was criticized for her character’s nudity. In response to that criticism, Martine basically said her character was nude because she was getting ready to go out—how else would it be? The crazy thing is that after that Q&A, I made it a point to be fully naked when putting lotion on my body. Why am I sharing this? Because I am an adult woman with access to any version of femininity I want to be or be with, and I am STILL learning about what I should or could do with my naked body. It fucking blows my mind.
Anyways, I feel very conscious and self-conscious about writing about Lara’s body—about her knowing how much I thought about it, when I was supposed to be writing about her art. But this is the thing. You took your shirt off, it was a part of your artwork, it was a semi-unnecessary intermediary step in the process of setting yourself on fire. In your performance last night, you were both naked and on fire—I can think of nothing more extreme, and I feel I could think and write endlessly about the gesture of your nakedness—but I am struck dumb by your fire. I am struck by the courageousness of your nakedness in front of your peers, knowing full-well the myriad of ways in which you will be judged, or at least considered— your breasts, your arrogance, your skinniness, your exhibitionism, your performativity, your underwear, your credibility, not just as an artist, but as an object, and on and on and on and on. We are already women—for god’s sake, do we have to be on fire?
I don’t know. This is a hard work to write about. It was scary, and emotional, and I was implicated, and I should never have allowed it to happen, but also I’m not the boss of you. I think all of this is precisely the point. In the same moment that we are exposed to the seductive possibility of her body, we are faced with its self-imposed destruction. I think this is a really strange artwork, with the ice skates, and the weed piñata, and the rum swigging, and the direct address. In a way, if I put some of those oddities aside, it’s a good artwork, but it’s not an artwork I feel good about. Maybe that’s the lesson here. Nothing gets resolved. We don’t get to go home unscathed. We were there, and for that, there will be consequences. We can only assume the extent of her pain—she was quiet as she burned, and so were we.
Ice and Fire was a performance that took place in a parking lot next to 3055 E 12th St in Los Angeles, CA on May 22, 2018. For more information on Lara Salmon, please visit her website: https://www.larasalmon.net/
The featured image at the top of this post is Ice and Fire (2018), performance by Lara Salmon. Photo by Julius Tanag.
There’s a lot you might not see at Cover Me, Rachel Yezbick’s solo show at Garden—like the opening night performances, which included multiple participants, multiple projections, stenography, face-eating, and holographic window reflections. You may have also missed the daytime call-in listening event, which I think involved Rachel recording conversations with her mother, but not knowing that she was calling her mother, but sometimes calling someone else’s mother, and somehow there was an 800 number. There was also Rachel’s artist pamphlet, with lots and lots of text, some of it written by Rachel, some of it e-mails between her and her subject Dale, and some of it unattributed or anonymous text pulled from a neighborhood-watch website. And there were the postcards, many postcards—depicting Rachel’s face in a few different expressions, definitely selfies, and also selfies of Rachel’s mom, and of Garden co-director Zachary, and of Zachary’s mom. Did I miss anything?
Of course there are all the non-ephemeral artworks within the show—not that many, actually—An Articulated Image (2018), Rachel’s downsized photogrammetry-produced blue-dyed white-chocolate face model, displayed on a mantel, which again, she ate; Where are you now? Are you inside? (2018), an arbitrarily-sized inkjet print of more photogrammetry images; and Epicurus’ Conundrum (2018), the artwork I would argue is the centerpiece of the show, mostly because it’s shiny and time consuming and occupies its own special area—the upstairs gallery, which most closely resembles a white cube space, although is still far from it. Epicurus’ Conundrum is a 42 minute HD video looping on a TV hung from the ceiling in the center of the gallery and adorned with a mirrored “frame,” which is like a mirrored box for the whole apparatus of the TV, with a window cut out for the screen. To really get a grip on what’s happening at Cover Me, I should have dedicated many weeks of my life beyond what I would consider the many hours and days I have already spent with Rachel’s artwork over the past several years—which is kind of a lot.
That being said, I promise I have seen Epicurus’ Conundrum in its entirety. In fact, I saw the very first cut that Rachel screened in Los Angeles. It was 2014, the first year of our MFA; it had a different title, and was a very different artwork. I’m saying this more as a disclosure of Rachel and I’s relationship than as a value judgement, but I also want to point out that this video has been years in the making. In a world of deadlines and fast-fashion-art-DIY-spaces, Rachel pretty much threw that out the window and doubled down. While I think she has known all along that the video and its premise are flawed, she never let that stop her; I admire that and value it deeply.
So why do I say the video and its premise are flawed? Well, because most things are flawed. There isn’t time to describe the video in detail here, but the gist of it, as you can read in the thoughtful press release produced by Garden, is that Rachel has been following and interviewing Dale, who owns, operates, and reports for duty at a private security company. Rachel’s is a very loose following; her and Dale’s relationship seems surprisingly intimate. Dale smiles often, relays personal stories along with espousing his views on crime and safety, and seems generally to feel both open to vulnerability (risking a kind of exposure, if you will), but also comfortable (there is nothing to expose, anyway). While Garden calls Dale and Rachel’s dialogue Socretian, I don’t know anything about that, so I think I’ll call it…gendered? Chalk it up to my own internalized sexism, but I can’t imagine Dale treats everyone with the tenderness with which he treats Rachel. While Rachel seems well-aware that her “documentary” style flows in and out of the many conflicting approaches to anthropological study, I wonder if she sees her relationship with Dale not as an unfolding one, but something more prescribed. This may be somewhat subverted because of race; Dale is African American, and Rachel is white. In her artist pamphlet, which is something close to liner notes, she touches on Dale’s desire to parallel his experience of living as an African American man in a racist society to what he imagines Rachel’s experience must be like living as a woman in a patriarchal society—a parallel Rachel is uncomfortable with. Where am I going with this? I’m just trying to figure out what their relationship is, and what it means. I don’t want to occupy the naive position that as a pair, they exist in a vacuum that transcends their positions—Rachel as the critical but sympathetic artist woman, and Dale as the good-hearted but oblivious ex-military man. I wonder how Rachel feels about the type of access she’s granted simply by being female bodied, and therefore, a non-threat. It may be obvious to Dale that Rachel is not a physical threat—though I wonder if her sex makes her whole project a non-threat, too.
But to step away from that and come in from another angle, I want to say that as an art viewer and lover, I, like all of us, have seen many artworks on the subject of surveillance. It’s what we call a “hot topic.” One of my recent favorites has to be the CalArts student who covered a few ceiling tiles in her gallery with a reflective, distortive metal material. It was meant to reference a kind of DIY surveillance that I associate with corner stores and their sometimes low-fi forms of preventing theft. What made that artwork stand out for me was that it conflated, perhaps by accident, the mirrored, privacy-invading surveillance apparatus with something that could be mistaken for a party decoration. It was impossible to tell if this material was insidious or fun, and for several weeks after that show closed, no one noticed the altered tiles enough to take them down. They were not seen as art; and therefore, they were not seen as invasive.
That being said, I am not the audience that really has a “thing” for art on surveillance. Part of this is because of my position as a white person who passes as a straight white person—the consequences of the surveillance that I’ve experienced have been nearly invisible, as opposed to physically threatening or violent on a daily basis, as they often are for, say, people of color and trans people. I’m also someone easily obsessed with voyeuring, and for that reason, I make an effort to stay away from aparati that allow me to surveil. (I installed a security camera on my gate and became so obsessed with watching it at all hours I had to take it down.) When I look at Epicurus’ Conundrum, what I see is this weirdly normative but still idiosyncratic relationship between Dale and Rachel. I see a video interspersed with expensive-looking photogrammetry, split-screens, well-timed and composed sound, plus the found footage of tactical training, subsequently falling somewhere between sci-fi, an intro to motion graphics class, and the “ride-along” genre. I suppose my pertinent observation here is that Rachel’s position in the video is never clear—is it a didactic video, warning us of the dangers of photogrammetry and private security? Is it about pathos and uselessness, watching Dale drive up on a suburban lawn to secure the perimeter of a house because of a barking dog? Is it a video about otherness? Is it a subversion of anthropology and documentary?
Not to be funny—and I’ve told Rachel this—but to me, the scene that stands out is when she’s shopping for camouflage pants. She’s in some store, maybe an army-navy or police store, looking through a display of these ridiculous-looking pants. The next scene cuts to Rachel walking around wearing the pants—crisp, clean, black-and-white camouflage, meant to be a kind of “winter” camouflage—but in the context of walking around suburbia in non-winter with a hand-held camera and a guy driving a Hummer, they draw attention to her in an absurd way. She is so not camouflaged in those pants—in fact, she becomes a spectacle. While I can’t really make sense of Epicurus’ Conundrum, and that’s a-okay with me, (there are many fascinating and worthwhile parts—it’s the video as a whole that I speak of), the pants scene is something I can hold onto. She’s a woman; she’s shopping; she’s shopping for pants. I like this moment because it’s human, and moves away from the stylized art vernacular of the rest of the video. I like it because it’s so blatantly about Rachel—but it’s also like that shiny mirrored ceiling tile nobody seemed to notice or care about. Rachel and her camouflage pants occupy an uncomfortable space in which we are unable to tell if they should be taken seriously or not—if she is satirizing Dale’s military-style garb, or if the garb is satirizing her and her position, or if the pants really do represent a form of power or protection. The pants have subtlety, the pants have complexity—they lead us toward humor, fashion, climate, design, capitalism, the military, the state, what it looks like to be female-bodied, some kind of passing or signaling, I could go on—but most importantly, they are the subtle amalgamation of the fallacy of our surveilled, militarized, and privatized world; that safety is another crappy product sold off-the-rack from the aisle of control.
Lest we forget Epicurus’ Conundrum could have just been a video—it’s not. It’s also that mirror-frame-box. What a strange, strange thing is going on there. It’s a big TV hanging down in the middle of a gallery that looks like a closed-in sunroom. In this squared-off room lined with transom windows on three sides, the light is abundant, and so is the view. The view alone could be an artwork—it plays on fantasy, or a sense of instability—surrounded by historic Victorian houses, you don’t exactly feel like you’re in LA, but it’s weird enough to feel exactly like you’re in LA. There is an odd contrast between the big, shiny TV, which draws intense scrutiny to its materiality and machine-ness, and the distinctly not-new, sometimes decrepit, steeply-slanted Victorian world outside. What does this do for me? I get the surveillance aspect (I am told the night time effect of the video reflecting-in and therefore reappearing-in the windows all around you is quite effective; I believe it); and I enjoy seeing the weird LA-ish architecture reflected on the apparatus of the TV, which to me shouts mostly that Rachel was paying attention, or at least trying to, when she considered the look of her installed video in relationship to its content. But when you walk around to the back of the screen—to the wide, shiny, (I refuse to stop saying shiny), TV-sized mirror—you see yourself. All roads lead home. It is the user that surveils themself, indeed—but what are we looking for? And will we know it when we see it? I think this selfie-surveillance is related to the more implicit content of Epicurus’ Conundrum, though it is off to one side. For me, it’s the more interesting side.
And what about Rachel eating a chocolate version of her head? Why is it blue? Why is she eating it? Rachel told a group of us, when we met for a Stone Soup (shout out to Adam Feldmeth), that she felt that the performance was a “flop.” I didn’t see the performance, but I was able to hold, smell, and closely observe that object—the teeth marks, the bits of waxy blue chocolate—the weight of the uncanny, wrong-sized Rachel head—I love this artwork in the context of this show. You see, Rachel is an artist who made a body of work about surveillance—actually spent years on it—taking more shit about it than you can possibly imagine—because for her, it is a mode of self-reflection. It seems that the “personal is political” absolutely does not apply here—instead of taking a personal approach to discussing something broad and consequential, Rachel chooses something a little bit broad, a little bit unclear, a little bit consequential, and uses it as a way to reflect on her own complex position. The chocolate Rachel-head embodies this idea—it’s a nonsensical mashup of her own subjectivity, hell, her own body, and the photogrammetry process, used to create the ultimate selfie. This object subverts the sinister logic of the video by becoming something absurd—it’s an object that represents the impossibility of logic within art; it’s an artwork that transcends logic; that Rachel thinks it “flopped” is hilarious, but also kind of beautiful—she has high expectations of herself and her artwork, and she’s willing to try and fail at nearly anything—even eating her own chocolate face.
And everything else? Where are you now? Are you inside? (2018) is a title searching for a form—I don’t like this print, though I think the images it contains could take up some space in Rachel’s artist pamphlet, or not—it is a poor stand-in for the role that photogrammetry, and the photograph itself, plays in Rachel’s work. The postcard selfies—it’s almost bizarre how every artwork in the show prominently features Rachel’s face, and then in Epicurus’ Conundrum it’s like we’re meant to think only about violence and the state and the privatization of the military. For me, it’s a leap too far. Yes to selfie postcards, absolutely, but I can’t help but feel they are crumbs on the trail to Rachel’s self-actualization through Dale, or something weird like that. And if I took a few home, I would have all these photos of Rachel in my house? A few artists I know do really interesting things with pictures of themselves, (Ann Hirsch, duh,) but I think Rachel needs to go further with the humor and ridiculousness of it. I know Rachel takes herself seriously, but not too seriously, and I would love for that to be reflected in some real way in the show, not just by way of the years we’ve spent together discussing artwork, and life, and our fears and insecurities, and whatever else friends who met in graduate school talk about. I can’t speak to the call-in, because I wasn’t there, so I’ll leave that to someone else, though it does sound elaborate, which is something I’m learning to love (shout out to Matt Town’s scroll series); and I also can’t speak to the projection and surveillance performances of the opening night, It’s Kind of a Scary Feeling (2018) and It’s Kind of a Scary Feeling 2 (2018), which I also didn’t attend. But from the images I’ve seen, and what I understand those two performances to be, they were a moment, really just a moment, when Rachel moved beyond the subject of herself with some purpose and authenticity, and touched on something truly creepy, at least for the people living inside the house onto which those artworks were projected—after all, it was a private space unwillingly and unknowingly posing as a thing for art.
The totality of the show—so many moving parts, perhaps too many, to wrap my head around. A lot of thinking and overthinking, though as my friend Leslie says, “nothing can be overthought. We should think more.” I walk away from this show thinking about the ways we challenge ourselves to construct a greater meaning from the meager parts and experiences we collect, especially when trying to explore a subject position outside of ourselves, or earnestly attempting to understand something greater than ourselves. I see a lot of labor—emotional but also technical, and the labor of machines, and of Garden’s directors, Britte and Zachary, who look past the intensely non-artness of their little green backhouse, with its overstuffed chairs and oriental-style carpets layered all over the brown shag rug—to host something imperfect but full of potential for discourse. Bravo.
The featured image at the top of this post is a screenshot from Rachel Yezbick’s Epicurus’ Conundrum, 2018. HD video, mirrored TV frame. 42 minutes, 44 x 49 x 8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text. Per usual, without her editorial feedback, nothing would make any sense.
Two weeks ago, Sarah and I set out to see “SUN + Light” by Charles Williams at Residency Art Gallery. A commercial gallery located on E. Queen Street in Inglewood, it was on the periphery of our collective radar, but not a space we had ever seen in person. The show was brought to my attention by the artist himself, who contacted us through our “want to get unpublished?” web form, requesting a review. Needless to say, the only other requests ever made for unpublished reviews were blatantly unethical (I won’t go into it), and could not be accommodated. This, however, was rather straightforward; after all, didn’t we have a web form where you could request to get unpublished? I think it’s a kind of poetic justice for my lack of web skills, and my over-delight in the non-specificity (aka possibility) of language.
But this is a quickie, and I’m not being quick. Let’s get to the point. “SUN + Light” is a show for people who like beautiful things, and find meaning in that beauty—for the most part. As Alessia Cara sang, much, much too profoundly for her genre: “Beauty is pain, and there’s beauty in everything.” What am I trying to say? As art, it’s amongst the prettiest works I’ve seen, ever. Charles is the kind of artist where you look at their work and say, yeah, this guy knows what he’s doing. A “master” of the figurative, and faces especially, his paintings capture expression in an almost implausible way. Take, for example, Yellow (Freedom Riders), a series of 17 oil on mylar paintings; the faces here occupy a strange figurative space between rendering and smudge; they look simultaneously effortless and incredibly specific, but also as if they could be wiped away in an instant.
Yellow (Freedom Riders), 2018 (Set of 17) Oil on Mylar 9 x 11in (Residency)
Yellow (Freedom Riders), 2018 (Set of 17) Oil on Mylar 9 x 11in (Residency)
I always find figurative works like this challenging; maybe even frustrating—we know from the title of the series that the paintings depict “freedom riders,” but not their names, or the freedoms they rode for. I would guess, though I have no way of knowing, that these portraits are meant to honor, or play a kind of homage, to those figured; that I am unable to identify them speaks to their obscurity within my field of recognition, and likely points to my lack of knowledge of important political figures (they appear to be all female, and a mix of races, as far as I can tell). Either that, or they represent the freedom fighters in Charles’ own life, and I am lost searching for a point of recognition in something that is fundamentally unrecognizable, aka, “personal.” The yellow mylar, the “SUN” part of “SUN + Light,” is operating as a color with positive connotations, or connotations of positivity, and is therefor acting as a “sunny” stage on which the portraits are presented—a golden hue to what could otherwise be interpreted as a police line-up. Wait a second. Is that what they are? And do I consider that possibility because they’re mostly unsmiling? Or because they’re called Freedom Riders? Or because they’re in a row? Or because they’re all potentially non-white? It’s interesting to see the way Charles reduces his portraits to simply yellow and black; the color of the sun, and conversely, the sunless sky. If I like this series of paintings, it’s because of that intermediate space I mentioned; between being a smudge, and being a painting; between being an abstraction, and having personhood. If I don’t like this series of paintings, it’s because I wish I knew who I was looking at, which would help me understand how to interpret that looking. Alternatively, the inability to recognize the faces serves as a kind of content, challenging me to acknowledge my lack of Freedom Rider historical knowledge. The problem with forming a cohesive interpretation of Yellow (Freedom Riders) is that so much of that interpretation hinges on the knowledge of the onlooker; and knowledge, as we know, can be dependent on one’s position. But the more I think about it, the more I like this turn; I know that Charles wants his work to inspire positivity, and in this regard, I am not only inspired to learn the names of those in the portraits, but to imagine the way in which I would construct such an artwork—my own line-up of Freedom Riders—art as an aspiration, reflecting not ourselves, but the heroes of our better nature.
Power + Love shares some of these qualities in terms of recognition, but none of the smudgyness. The composition of the figures, which is Statue of Liberty-esque, gets very much like a painting—what I mean by this I don’t quite know how to explain. There is a straightforward quality to Charles’s work—the directness of the media and the image; it’s rendered in the style of a trained hand, and more or less thoughtfully blended with that more abstract, painty-scratchy-watercolory thing that paint does when it’s not being refined into a figure, or other identifiable object. Power + Love lands firmly in the plane of Fine Art, as opposed to that ill-liked plane of “illustration,” which Charles certainly does well within all his work; but his nuanced application of color, and his slightly left-justified composition infers an artist who is interested in paint and painting, and combining it with his interests and making it both narrative and personal; in this case, as the press release says: “juxtaposing Williams’ own encounters, past and present, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” I don’t know about you, but this description alone sounds ghosty, and I think that hangs in the air at “SUN + Light.” Honestly, when I look at this painting, I see something that looks a lot like a Francis Bacon (Study after Veláquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X??!!), which would be a fascinating reference, albeit much freakier than I sense Charles wants to get.
The singular video in the show, UNTITLED (son), is really, really good. As a time-based media, I think it has the kind of immediate impact that Charles is looking for in his graphic work; but the thing about videos is that they speak, literally; and speak can be awfully inspiring. Untitled (son) is technically simple, but not simplistic; at under five minutes, the video follows a young boy as he travels through what appears to be a natural landscape (the video is hued yellow, of course—the overarching and heavy-handed color metaphor that won’t leave us alone); through the headphones comes the booming, impassioned voice of Killer Mike, questioning the notion that his community is really “ready for war.” “How many boys are currently enrolled in a martial arts class?” he asks; “how many people grow their own food? How many people practice shooting, and how many times a week?” What’s powerful about Killer Mike’s address is that he’s reminding his community that there is a realm of the real, and a realm of the imagined; while he appreciates that rhetoric is inspiring, representation is not enough—in fact, it’s naive. While his address is a call to action, it’s also a call to transcend ideas with actions; while this may be ubiquitous when talking politics, Killer Mike is really making a fundamental request: let us transcend abstraction, and do something real, that’s within our power, to nourish and protect ourselves; to survive. I would argue that in the context of this show, Killer Mike is arguing for an action that transcends art—and the irony that his address has become art is the crux of the work; it’s the tension between the importance of representation versus action; what we want to be, versus who we are; how we see ourselves, versus how others see us. See this video.
The last artwork I want to mention is Scramble, an alarming triptych in which Charles photorealistically renders the unfathomable encounter between a teenage girl at a pool party and the police officer who tackled her (while she was in her bathing suit) and drew his weapon against those who sought to come to her aid. This particular example of police brutality, although not unique in function, was certainly a formal nightmare; twelve police officers responded to the scene, which was literally a pool party at a private pool; the black teenage girl tackled by the police officer was wearing a bathing suit as she was forced to the ground; and those that would try to help her were in swimwear, too. That a trained police officer could so misunderstand the human beings in front of him, wearing bathing suits, as potentially armed and dangerous, presents a grotesque abstraction of human life; instead of a party, he saw a mob; instead of bare, vulnerable skin, he saw indestructibility; instead of seeing a body, he saw a color. For anybody that sees contemporary art on a regular basis (and I don’t mean Contemporary Art, I mean art-being-made-right-now), there are too many artworks to count that draw political images directly from their sources; and a passive onlooker could mistake Scramble for one of these well-meaning, political artworks that serves as a platform for activism; but that is not what Scramble is. Because Charles is an artist deeply invested in the tension between representation and abstraction—between a line used to render, and a brush used to stroke—he understood this image to be just that—the sublime image of racism, and, I would argue, the inverse of love. So, why am I so floored by the brilliance of this particular artwork? You see, Charles has taken this image, rendered it in this most photo-realistic, un-Modern way imaginable, and placed it on a plane of concentric squares, brushed almost randomly, but certainly abstractly, with that yellow metaphorical paint. Scramble is the place where worlds collide; where the racist and generally completely problematic and fucked up history of Modernism bears its destructive legacy. Art is an ideology, people, and it can be evil.
Now, I know what Charles wrote about his work—about God, and divine love, and his grandmother telling him: “Stay in the light. Stay positive.” Stay positive is a powerful message, and an important one. But I think there are moments where Charles has gone so far beyond the realm of positivity—far beyond it, and into the realm of complexity. When an artist tells you that they want you to be inspired—let’s just say I brace myself. Not because artwork can’t inspire—on the contrary. An artist that wants to inspire others through their work really cares about others; I value that. It’s a weirdly pure gesture for art, which is a thing I see as usually being so much more corrupt than that. Charles, I don’t know if I’ve been inspired in the right way by your artwork, but I am invested in your expression; what I see as your conflation of Modernism with the very contemporary fallout of its racist and sexist ideology speaks deeply to me. Thank you for drawing me to your work—I hope you find the sunshine that you’re looking for.
As I Say Dying is an art show by Anna Mayer currently on view at AWHRHWAR. Let me disclose that I am a little nervous about this writing, because…Anna. I was the first person to arrive at the opening of her show last Saturday, where I chatted awkwardly with Aline and gulped a glass of white wine that certainly emphasized the pink tones of my cheeks, under the harsh-for-skin but good-for-art light. I live down the street from AWHRHWAR, and when I realized they would be having a one-person show, I was more than delighted to attend and get that show unpublished, if you will. The first time I saw the show, I was into it, but it was a little elusive. I also felt weird being alone; like, performing looking? I was performing looking, but also I was looking looking, and when I’m looking looking, I’m looking for inspiration, or to be inspired—for that little sentence to pop into my head, so that I realize I can go forward with that sentence and turn it into a constructive thought, and this is why art is both mysterious and beautiful and upsetting, and the thing that makes life worth living, besides arguing, sushi, and the beach. But back to the art, and the artist, of course.
The night of the opening, Aline introduced me to Anna (I had told Aline right away that I wanted to review the show; Anna had not arrived yet, because I showed up early, in order to actually be able to see the show). I told Anna I intended to review her work, and that she could walk me through if she wanted, or not; she said we could meet over the weekend. Already the gravity and commitment of the situation is hitting me, and I’m thinking, I hope I can pull this off. I don’t know, this artwork just exudes confidence, steadiness; that was my impression. Not finished-ness, per se, but something deliberate, a feeling of being rooted. Anna’s urns seem to take up the “right amount” of space; they are on these absolutely huge pink pedestals (I am on the Ben Moore website now—is it Salmon Pink? I’m choosing a color “family,” and now scrolling across a color “spectrum”; is it Dusty Mauve? Peaches N’ Cream? Savannah Clay? I get it now, the color is a poem—it’s so linguistic and elusive, it’s absolutely beautiful). The tops of the pedestals, which have a little rim around them, are covered with sand, and the sand color very closely matches the pedestal color, if not exactly. I find stability in this sand/pedestal color-match decision; it seems a choice that requires planning; otherwise, it is arbitrary, which would be impressive, too. I have no cohesive train of thought here; let me try to be focused. When you enter As I Say Dying, there is an immediate consideration of scale; the pedestals denote the importance of the urns, the epic-ness of them, which they do not contain within their own rather modest scale; but their color and preparation resist the white-cube status that makes pedestals and plinths the bane of every artist’s existence. Lest we forget that a pedestal is a symbol, Anna is here to show us in this context, they have a different, and explicit, meaning.
Atop the pedestals (yes I said “atop”), are funerary urns. How do I know this? The title sheet, of course, which reads [smaller pedestal] Matter of Having1, 2018; ceramic, glaze, paint, flint; Not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist in 2017. And for the larger pedestal, the same thing, only, Matter of Having 2. I am not looking at an image of these artworks, and I have not looked at one since Sunday. But I can tell you about them, absolutely. Their surfaces are all about texture, subtlety, and impossibility (as in, ceramic or surface impossibility). The smaller urn has a diamondy court-jester pattern, and I know it’s blue (cerulean blue?) with like, little beads in it that look like round sprinkles—and gold. Blue and gold—campy like a sports team, but soothing, royal, tasty like a sprinkled donut. The larger urn is white, mostly, with a veiny texture—or is it more like the texture of a popcorn ceiling? Painted on the front and back of the large urn is a grid of colors—not a strict grid, but something more abstract looking, more pale; I know, because I know, that this is glaze, meaning it is fired, while many of the other applications on this work are paint, meaning, they are applied after firing—what I call on my resume “experience with cold-surface application.” The two vessels (the word vessel just came out, I meant to use urn) share a few important characteristics, and I don’t know which to point out first, because they both contain what lesser critiques of art call the “reward” of close looking; the lids of both urns have a yellow shadow inside the rim, by shadow I mean, the inner rims are painted in this subtle way, they almost look like they are glowing; and then there are the slits in the urns, which are magical if not a bit disturbing, they are so violent, and practical, and vaginal, and intimate, and strange.
I have written, much much too poetically, about how the artwork looks, and how that look makes me feel. But what about what they mean? At women’s crit crew the other night, I had an exchange with an artist who questioned my interest in the fantasy of art; in the possibility of what it could be, as opposed to what it is. To allow this aspect of my art-view to be questioned or even undermined would be too heartbreaking to abide (and also determining the difference between what an artwork is versus what an art could be is not something I think I believe is possible); but her counterargument was more related to making sure the artist has agency within their work—that it isn’t just sort of a blank canvas waiting for mouthy critics (like myself) to come along and torment it into the subject of our choosing. I don’t know where I’m going with that, other than I want to give a shout out to artist agency, and to acknowledge that Anna’s artworks have a lot of agency; perhaps this is a more politically apt, feminist, artist-friendly version of my initial impression of Anna’s work as confident.
So, titles first, or again, in this case: Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2. And the description: not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist in 2017. We know from the press release that the urns were made for family members; and we know that we are looking at replicas, not “the real thing”; so, I go back and forth between being certain that the urns were actually used for burial (the press release refers to the works as being made in a time of extreme grief), or if they represent a death, or the possibility of death, or impending death, or the fear of death. What’s really striking here is what I will call the “precise vagueness” of Anna’s language describing her work; it straddles, in the most emotional and yet object-centric, physical way, the edge of metaphor and reality; in the most sophisticated way I can possibly comprehend, these artworks occupy the space of what is, and what is not. Are they symbols, representing the anxiety of death, pain, and loss? Or did they contain a literal death, actual cremated remains? And in times of grief, just what is the difference? For me, this is the central question of this artwork; the inability, sometimes tragic inability, to separate what something is from what something could be; it is all, it is both.
What else should I say about Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2? I started with titles twice, but never got to them. Well, they’re a bit cryptic, but it’s a play on words; this is an artist who may be more invested in language than I am. All of her work has this metonymic quality, I can’t quite describe it, but the subject and the object are always existing on these planes that are just barely legible, but yes, they are legible. Matter means both subject and substance, which refers to what the vessels may contain; and having means, well, having; both an obligation to, but also in the sense of possessing; and to think of what we have means to think of what we’ve lost.
What else? That there are two urns; that they come in a pair; that one is larger; that they are decorated differently—all of this suggests a coupling, which in death signifies the most tragic of losses—parent and child; brother and sister; husband and wife (for me it would be of course be wife and wife); mother and father. I want to say something beautiful about this, but I don’t really know how. This is a sad story, regardless of how it ends; that it functions as an artwork in such a sensitive and sophisticated way is a testament to how Anna values art; it reflects her willingness to make herself vulnerable to its possibilities; to labor over its material demands; to speak through it what cannot, or who cannot, speak anymore.
I’m feeling sort of emotionally drained by this, but I want to continue just a little bit more, to address the other works in the show, so I’ll try to stay focused. Pale Clay (Sailor) is the back of a hooked rug; the image hooked into the rug is a section of a Paul Klee painting that Anna’s mother transferred into a knitting pattern (Klee was Anna’s mother’s favorite artist). This is an artwork that totally operates on subtlety and deep emotional reverence. I can tell you easily what it is not: an image hooked into a canvas rug and shaped like a painting, whose materials and presentation are intended to represent female labor or women’s work. What this artwork is is harder to describe; the layers of information are so complicated. My mom works in a knitting store, and has been knitting for as long as I can remember. The magic of the yarn store—the puffiness, and the colors, and the grids, and the sharp objects, and the manifestation of line into shape; all of this resonates with me. For Anna’s mother to create knitting patterns from her favorite artworks—it’s so intense, like, the beauty of the thought, the love of art and pattern and color and labor; I don’t know how to articulate it; it sounds just like Anna’s work. And in Pale Clay (Sailor), Anna honors that labor and the spirit of that gesture—not by knitting the pattern, no, not even by hooking it into a rug—but by translating it into an object that can be worshipped as work of art, as it deserves to be. I often wish I could worship my family through a work of art. I’ve certainly tried.
Pale Clay (Unknown Grid) operates in a similar way, emphasizing the grid even more, thus drawing a parallel between the grid of the artist, and the grid of the mother, and conflating them, which I love. This artwork is hung in the “office” of AWHRHWAR, which I also love, as a gesture toward gallery conventionality; the prized artwork in the back office, which lay-visitors to the gallery never see—it’s too special. And of course Pale Clay is a play on words (Klee is pronounced more like clay), so yeah, Anna is flexing her aural muscle here, if you will, but probably more importantly, satirizing the convention of titles; what they tell us about an artwork, and how.
The last work in the show, (I don’t know why, but I see it as last), Utteruent-1, is the most enigmatic. It’s extruded clay tubing, open on the end, with tiny words written on the tubing, so that you have to look really closely to read the writing. Honestly, I thought it was a sort of a sculptural bicycle frame until I saw the words on it; Anna explained to me something about the planes of the sculpture, and the different words representing language on different planes. I recall telling her I understood how she wanted the artwork to operate, though I would never have, in a million years, described it in those terms. By now, I have lost all sense of how I thought Utteruent-1 operated, but if nothing else, it is another iteration of Anna’s commitment to the material and conceptual versatility of ceramic; if it wasn’t already clear, her technical ceramic skill is on full view in this artwork, as well as her transcendence of it as a medium from which one well-known artist sold ashtrays at Gagosian, and another lesser-known artist made an unglazed hotdog in a bun that I use as a paperweight (with much affection).
As I Say Dying is a little show with huge emotional resonance; even for me, this writing has been a kind of catharsis; you don’t need to know this, but through much of this, I wanted to cry. Had I not been in a library, I very well may have done so. I don’t know. We have to let art be emotional. We have to let it be personal—to touch us, both as artists and consumers of art. This is a difficult time to argue in favor of emotions, and yet I must. Artists, if you are out there in your studios, agonizing over ways you can make your artwork both grandiose and intimate, while it simultaneously pivots on and transcends your identity, please cut it out and do what you really feel inside. Take Anna as your inspiration, and remember that you can be skillful, subtle, sophisticated, emotional, confident, vulnerable, and worldly, all without leaving your own head, if that’s what you choose. I’ll be there.
There are a lot of different kinds of artwork in the world. I am a believer in this difference—that it “takes all kinds,” so to speak. It makes no difference to me if art is good or bad; for the most part, I’m happy that it’s there. I’m going to guess that the organizers of Other Places art fair (OPaf) feel the same way—and for that, and their unsung efforts to successfully pull off this event, I say, thanks.
As a person that thinks about art a lot, and then tries to verbalize those thoughts regularly, I think it’s worth saying that most of the art I write about does not inspire me, or excite me, or generally produce any specific, pronounced feelings. It’s a slog; to use an annoying but apt athletic metaphor, art-thinking is a marathon, not a sprint. When I see art, I do not know what it means. I do not know what the fuck it is. But I trust that if the artist cares about their artwork, and is invested in it, I too can care, and become invested in it, and then I can get something special from it, that special art feeling where something you’ve encountered helps you articulate a complicated thought that maybe would not have been articulated if that artwork didn’t exist in that way. I am sure the many delightfully messy booths and intriguing but plainly odd installations (mudslinging?) at OPaf offer these delights, when given time, attention, and compassion (I should know; nearly all the shows I’ve reviewed had some presence at OPaf, either the space or the artist); BUT, there was one special thing at OPaf that really transcended my typical marathon approach and sent me into a full-on sprint; that is, Artemisa Clark’s performance, On Record, as presented by ELEVATOR MONDAYS.
Is it possible to write a full, essay-ish length review of an ephemeral artwork I saw at an art fair for about five minutes of what was a 300 minute duration? If you saw just 15% of a painting, would you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if you were a worthy vessel to appreciate this type of profound expression? If you deemed yourself worthy, would you be able to get your thoughts out in time to watch the Super Bowl? These are the hard-hitting questions.
What’s cool about OPaf is the same thing that is so uncool about Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC); whereas ALAC is just a transposition of art to a warehouse for ease-of-shopping (yes, it’s an airplane hangar, but that’s like a warehouse for an airplane, yes?), OPaf is taking the art wayyy out of the gallery, past the warehouse, all the way to the shipping yard itself. It’s outside, in like, a carved-out paved hilltop I cannot exactly describe. It feels sort of like an alleyway on the top of a mountain, (or “hill,” as we say in LA), and it also feels like an aqueduct, and also like a mote. There is an “entrance,” at the front of the mote, designated by a table and handmade sign suggesting a small donation. That’s fine. But what’s interesting about an arbitrary entrance to an outdoor space is that it gives what should seem to be a hierarchy-less landscape a quite profound hierarchy; there is a front, and a back. In flea-market land, (and I’m sure at ALAC, too), closer booths cost more $$. By the time you get to the “back” of OPaf, which takes about two minutes, you have to walk up a set of built-in stairs, next to a chain-link fence, to reach the top of a concrete retaining wall, to get to the last few galleries. I’m not explaining this well, but imagine that OPaf is a basin, with a rim at the top; when you get to the back of the basin, there are more galleries on the rim, but you have to walk up there.
The few galleries on the OPaf rim are all helplessly outshined by the epic view of the Port of Los Angeles. This is no typical ocean view; while us west-coasters pretty much guffaw at a blue blue ocean panorama on a warm February afternoon, this is not Venice Beach; beach bums and the tourists excited for the opportunity to blend in with them do not ride tandem bicycles and eat burritos from styrofoam Perry’s on the Beach containers; no, what we see on our way to San Pedro, and then from the top of Angel’s Gate Park, is the essence of a globalized world; the great migration of people and things, and the military that serves and protects that vision.
I see Don’s ELEVATOR MONDAY shirts hanging on the chain-link fence surrounding the basin, and we (Sarah and me) walk over. Right away Don is playing the gallery attendant, telling us to read the press for the show (his slim stack of press releases ripples in the wind, held down on the ground with a big old rock). ELEVATOR doesn’t have a table or a booth to indicate its presence, but it does have two site specific artworks: Nina Sarnelle’s Nike X and My Dead Hand, and Artemisa Clark’s On Record. Don tells us that Artemisa Clark is reading “right now,” and he points away from OPaf and toward the water; about 500 feet in front of us, separated from the crowds, stands a person, her back to the ocean, bent forward a little, holding something. No one is within earshot of her, and Sarah and I approach and stand there, listening, and looking, too.
It’s always weird when you approach someone doing a performance, and there’s no one else there. Like, they are performing to no one, sort of. Reading to no one really emphasizes this feeling of an absent audience, because reading out-loud is a labor usually performed for someone else’s benefit. So this is the first thing I feel, when I approach On Record; it is saying something profound about audience, or lack thereof.
Of course I am listening to her reading, and though she isn’t quite projecting her voice, I can understand her words clearly. The words matter, yes, but On Record is an extreme visual spectacle, glued together with the words Artemisa speaks while she shows us her body in front of this ultimate and awe-inspiring landscape. Let me explain this better. When I approached her, I did not know what she was reading. There is a clear description in the press release, but we didn’t read it until after. So I had no information about what I was about to see or hear, other than the artist’s name. It’s easy to tell right away that she is reading some governmental or other kind of institutional document, describing an inspection of a site (I assumed it was the site where we currently were; I was not far off). It’s a report, and it’s not a positive one; a lot of problem areas, and areas that need improvement. I can see with my eyes that there are redactions in the text (I think she also says the word “redacted” when she gets to those parts), but seeing the redaction visually assures me that this is a real government document. I can’t remember specifics of what was read, as in, specific sentences, and I have no transcript from which to quote. Certainly this was due to lack of time spent, aka, my fault, and not a lack of clarity on the text’s part.
Okay, so there is what was read (the content of the text), and then how it was read (everything else). First of all, she’s holding a huge stack of papers, at least a full ream (500 pages). And it’s windy. So her hands, with long, painted nails, have to grip the papers, and the papers are fluttering and flipping and all the while she is gripping, reading, turning a little into the wind, a little out of the wind, squinting a little at times, head bowed over the page, body a little bit forward, hair blowing into her eyes a little bit, a little bit sticking to her lips; my god, she’s like the Marilyn Monroe of alternative art fair performance art, windswept, a little messy looking, but totally determined, anchored to the earth by her beat-up looking combat boots, fitted to her bare, quivering legs. When a woman performs anything, it can become sexual; and I find my profound attraction this artist and this artwork a confusing and perhaps embarrassing mix of the romance of the ocean, my permission to look at her bare flesh, the sound of her voice beating back against the wind, and the power to stand alone, not feigning art but really being it, really doing it, on the periphery of the basin of man-made bullshit.
Yes, this is a site-specific artwork, and the text that Artemisa reads (“news articles and official documents regarding the now-defunct INS/ICE San Pedro Processing Center on Terminal Island”) is meant to be political. I mean, it is political, absolutely, and I do not mean to take importance away from the content of the text—but the thing that makes this artwork so poignant is not that it is a condemnation of the government, or that it calls attention to the tragic and dizzying human rights violations that took place so close to that beautiful site—it’s the fact that we, we artists, are oblivious to even the most basic cruelties, the ones that are taking place right under our feet, or just a short drive away; it is a condemnation of us, the audience, who is barely there; she stands on the periphery of the periphery, not just outside of Other Places, but with the backdrop of the edge of the earth; On Record is the condemnation of our smug outsider status, with our convoluted art-objects and Topo Chico, and our small talk and our car artworks and all of our insider fun and gossip. You see, there is nothing complicated about On Record; it’s just, a reading, outside, on a beautiful day. And when I say nothing complicated, I am talking of course about its execution, not its subject. Yes, yes, the wonders of object-based artwork are marvelous and many, but just think about this, her simple gesture, to read aloud in a performance where she plays herself, using the fucking world as her stage. It’s brilliant.
I think that’s all I’ve got. Don, I want you to know—it isn’t lost on me that a gallery typically the size of an elevator (since it is an elevator) was suddenly transformed into something expansive, massive, agoraphobia-inspiring, as opposed to claustrophobia-inspiring. I like that little touch—it shows playfulness, but also adaptability. You set a high standard, and I hope you always will. As for On Record—thank you to Artemisa for taking the opportunity to model how we as artists can be simultaneously peripheral and dominant; simple in gesture but complicated in thought; exposed, but somehow channeling the power of an entire coast. And as for Other Places art fair? Yeah, cool, I’ll be there again next year.