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.