Back to the future: Miller Robinson’s “Of this body; of this earth” at the Southwest Museum, presented by Holiday

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.

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Interior view of tunnel entrance to the Southwest Museum

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.

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Installation view of Songs of Fire (2018) and Of this body; of this earth (2018)

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 could break 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.

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Installation view of Embryonic Abacus (2018); plaster, glass, artist’s blood, latex, and egg yolks.
13.5 x 13.15 x 1.75 in.

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.

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Installation view of Orichalcum Balance (2018); brass, copper, and zinc
40 x 16 x 5 in.

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.

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Installation view of Primate’s Grip (2018); soot and bone glue. Multiple of 23. Dimensions variable. Paint Brush (2018); artist’s hair and brass. Multiple of 23. Dimensions vary. Inkstone (2018); graphite and artist’s blood. Multiple of 23 1.5 x 5 x 3 in.

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.

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Installation view of three Egg(s) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary. Chalk-board for Paintbrush and Sumi (2018); plaster, sumi, and chalk. 17 x 21 x 1 in.
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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.

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Installation view of Spirit Level No. 1 (2018); plaster, egg tempura, glass, and artist’s blood. Multiple of 3. 2 x 12 x 1 in.

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.

Miller Robinson at the Southwest Museum_Install_4
Installation view of Of this body; of this earth (2018); chalkboard, chalk, carbon-filament lightbulb, stones, charcoal, artist’s boots, and ash. Dimensions vary with installation.

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.

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

 

Suit as site: A quickie on Alika Cooper’s “Buoy” at Odd Ark LA

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.

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Running a temperature (2018), 48 x 36 in

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.

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Installation image of Buoy

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.

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Lake (2018), 48 x 36 in

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.

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Blot out the Sun (2018), 24 x 20 in

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.

Buoy is on view at Odd Ark LA in Los Angeles, CA from May 12 to June 24, 2018. For more information on Alika Cooper, please visit her website: http://www.alikacooper.com/

The featured image at the top of this post is Seaside (2018).

All images courtesy of Odd Ark LA.

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

A quickie: We’re already women—do we have to be on fire? Lara Salmon’s “Ice and Fire”

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.

Georgia is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

Willing to fail at eating your own chocolate face: Rachel Yezbick’s “Cover Me” at Garden

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.

Rachel Yezbick, Cover Me, Garden, 2018, installation view. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.
Rachel Yezbick, Cover Me, Garden, 2018, installation view. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.

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.

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Rachel Yezbick, It’s Kind of a Scary Feeling 2, 2018. Video projection. 42 minutes, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.

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?

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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.

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.

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Rachel Yezbick, Epicurus’ Conundrum, 2018. HD video, mirrored TV frame. 42 minutes, 44 x 49 x 8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.

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.

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Rachel Yezbick, An Articulated Image, 2018. Edible cast of artist’s head. 9.5 x 6.5 x 6 inches. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.
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Rachel Yezbick, Where are you now? Are you inside? 2018. Archival inkjet print. 44 x 56 inches. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.

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.

Cover Me was on view at Garden in Los Angeles, CA, from March 17-May 5, 2018. For more information on Rachel Yezbick, please visit her website:  http://www.rachelyezbick.com/

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.

Georgia is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

Scramble: A quickie on Charles Williams’s “SUN + Light” at Residency Art Gallery

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.

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Yellow (Freedom Riders), 2018 (Set of 17) Oil on Mylar 9 x 11in (Residency)

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.

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.

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Power + Love, 2017 Oil on Gesso Watercolor Paper 30 x 38in (Residency)

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.

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Scramble, 2016, triptych (panel 2) Oil on Gesso Watercolor Paper 90 x 38in (Residency)

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.

“SUN + Light” is on view at Residency Art Gallery in Inglewood, CA, from January 20 to March 10, 2018. There will be a closing reception on Sunday, March 11th from 4:00pm to 6:00pm. For more information on Charles Williams, please visit his website:  http://www.cewpaintings.com

The featured image at the top of this post is American Dream, 2017 Oil on Gesso Watercolor Paper 30 x 38in, courtesy of Residency Art Gallery

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

Little show, big, big, sophisticated heart: Anna Mayer’s “As I Say Dying” at AWHRHWAR

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.

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Left: Matter of Having 2, ceramic, glaze, paint, flint, 2018. Not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist. Right: Pale Clay (Sailor), hooked rug, 2017. (AWHRHWAR)

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 Having 1, 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.

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Matter of Having 1, 2018, ceramic, glaze, paint, flint; Matter of Having 2, ceramic, glaze, paint, flint. Not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist. (AWHRHWAR)

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.

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Pale Clay (Sailor), 2017, hooked rug. (AWHRHWAR)

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.

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Pale Clay (Unknown Grid), 2017, hooked rug. (AWHRHWAR)

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.

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Uttteruent -1 (Writing for Life), 2018, ceramic, glaze, paint, text. (AWHRHWAR)

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.

As I Say Dying is on view at AWHRHWAR in Los Angeles, CA, from February 15 to March 10, 2018. For more information on Anna Mayer, please visit her website:  http://annamayer.info/

The featured image at the top of this post is Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2, image courtesy of AWHRHWAR.

All photographs by Jason Gowans.

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

 

 

 

 

 

An OPaf quickie, but really, Artemisa Clark: Artemisa Clark’s “On Record” at ELEVATOR MONDAYS at Other Places art fair

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.

On Record was an artwork performed by Artemisa Clark on February 4, 2018 at the ELEVATOR MONDAYS booth during Other Places art fair at Angels Gate Park in San Pedro, CA. For more information on Artemisa Clark, please visit her website: http://www.artemisaclark.com/

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

 

 

Reagan as a Halloween costume, IKEA, and the downfall of civilization as plotted by teenagers in your garage: Regina Mamou’s “How the West Was Won” at Adjunct Positions

How the West Was Won is an art show by Regina Mamou currently on view at Adjunct Positions. Have you ever been to an art show at Adjunct Positions? The location alone is worth seeing—the house is not just any house but one of those classic craftsman things with a steep stairway going up the hill through a surprisingly lush (but water wise, of course) garden of mature succulents. And unlike other houses in the neighborhood, it doesn’t look like its been “restored”; it feels old, authentic—meaning, it isn’t playing a version of itself to sell an idea of east LA; rather, it stayed put in the hillside, hidden in plain sight, protected by the flora and maybe even some invisible fauna (there is a catio, aka, cat patio). What I’m saying is, I like this place. The vibe is less “art as party” and more “art as block party.” Some of this vibe is due to the location of the first gallery at Adjunct Positions—a street-level single-car garage built into the hillside and outfitted with french doors. The rest of the artwork is shown up in the house, which causes a stratification of audience across the property—little art people and artworks dotting the hillside. For some reason it makes me think of the SIMS.

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Looking for Freedom by Regina Mamou. (Austin Radcliffe)

Getting a grip on the variety of elevations at Adjunct Positions is only necessary in so far as it seems to have influenced How the West Was Won. Looking for Freedom is the title of the artwork in the garage, and on opening night, it contained a performance. I find it so tricky to write about these spaces in which performances happened, and then, for the duration of the exhibition, just the “traces” of the performance are left. Where did this idea come from? Not strictly for Regina, but for all of us? I am tempted to bow out of Looking for Freedom completely, because I almost can’t wrap my mind around reconciling its two forms: the opening performance, which featured two Reagan-masked men in black behind generic-looking stanchions, pulling pre-”glitched” screen prints of David Hasselhoff from an almost fetishistic-looking, handicraft, customized revolving four-station print cart, and piling them up on an IKEA table; and the gallery without the performance, which is the IKEA table with two floppy Reagan masks, a few beer cans on the floor, a print display rail affixed to the wall, and a tornado of Hasselhoff prints looking as if they were thrown about the room, in a fit of rage, or total indifference. The stanchions, which the night before had served as a pseudo fourth wall for the printing performance, were clumped toward the entrance, so that they stanchioned nothing at all.

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Looking for Freedom (opening night performance) by Regina Mamou. (Regina Mamou)

In a reductive way, this is a very straightforward artwork to interpret, even with a minimal understanding of its references; the Reagan-masked screen printers stand in for a kind of political propaganda machine; and David Hasselhoff, of all people, is a cheesy celebrity whose heterosexual-but-pretty-boy values are being espoused. The “glitch” in the print signals that all is not right; and the stanchions, while playing to their divisional strength, also serve as a cue of both a corporatization, I guess, but really, a “genericism” (not a word, sorry).

I’ve said I am being reductive, and really, I don’t want to be. What if I take my artwork-goggles off and assume that nothing is standing in for anything? Not all artworks are symbolic. They are not all metaphorical. So, this is where the garageness of the gallery comes in—the kind of production that happens in the marginalized space of a garage, disconnected from the house, segregated from the family, away from “creature comforts” (I hate that term, sorry), but also away from the authoritarian eye of the parent. The garage, people, is the place where we find freedom, even if it is a sort of reductive, adolescent, mask-wearing one; and so Looking for Freedom becomes less about a hoaky Hasselhoff we can all easily recognize as satirical, to a teenage, fuck-the-world, punk-rock DIY printing party where we’re all getting fucked up and plotting the downfall of civilization. Of course, this (wild) interpretation is predicated on the location of the other artworks on view, Looping Swans and Kimilsungia; predicated on the idea that the “domestic” (cringe again) locations of those artworks is indeed significant; I think what’s probably more important is the fact that Looking for Freedom is itself an artwork which performs a production that is likely, or at least plausible, to be taking place in that location (a garage). Therefore, Looking for Freedom doesn’t transcend the space of the garage; rather, it uses it as a subject. Now let’s go up to the house.

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From foreground to background: Kimilsungia and Looping Swans by Regina Mamou. (Austin Radcliffe)

First of all, that the gallery space of Adjunct Positions is designated by a four-foot wide installation of white laminate flooring over whatever synthetic oak-looking flooring makes up the rest of the house is architecturally insane but pleasantly mysterious. I won’t dwell on it here, because chances are if you visit this space enough, you get used to it, and you adjust; but Kimilsungia, the artwork installed therein, seems tailor-made for it, which consequently makes it seem like an additional, utterly artificial addition to the artwork. The artwork itself is a series of identical orchids in matching pots displayed on those floating white laminate IKEA shelves. The artificiality of this artwork is overwhelming, despite the “natural” flowers, and I don’t know what to make of that feeling quite yet. Another part of Kimilsungia is the bronze plaque, which you could almost miss if it wasn’t so clearly defined on the gallery map. The plaque reads “In 1964 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea acquired its own flower, a botanical symbol of the nation. Its name is the ‘kimilsungia,’ or ‘flower of Kim Il Sung.’ Later, in 1979, a special greenhouse, the Central Botanical Garden in Pyongyang, was created to specifically grow ‘kimilsungia,’ also known as ‘the flower of loyalty.’”

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Kimilsungia (detail) by Regina Mamou. (Austin Radcliffe)

Actually, the first thing I did when I walked inside the house was go straight for the couch, to watch whatever was on the little TV, an artwork called Looping Swans. The artwork is the television set, VCR, and VHS tape, and a looping video, 1 minute 28 seconds in length. At the opening, which was a perfectly lovely event I could have spent all night at, I sat for at least a half an hour on that couch, watching/looking at Looping Swans over and over until I no longer saw or heard anything in particular, but was instead hypnotized by the incessant stepping, glitching, and musical stylings of that video. But what was I looking at? A ballet, of course; or, a recording of a performance of a ballet. An old recording, made apparent by the filmic blurring and stretching of the image, and the otherworldly blue light emanating from it. I’ll guess that the ballet is Swan Lake, but only because of the title of the artwork, Looping Swans. Oh, and there’s an orchid on the table next to the TV set, and the table is from IKEA.

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Looping Swans (video still) by Regina Mamou. (Austin Radcliffe)

Have we covered everything, at least what there is to be seen with the eyes? Looping Swans is a sculpture and a video, set up in the weirdly tight living room at the back of the house. According to the title sheet, its media is listed as Television set, VCR, VHS tape. Kimilsungia refers to the orchids and the bronze plaque; its media is listed as orchids, bronze plaque. Looking for Freedom is the opening night performance, and its media is listed as stanchions and screen prints. So, what patterns are emerging? We’ve got celebrities hither and thither; Reagan, Hasselhoff, Kim Il Sung, Swan Lake. We’ve got flowers; orchids, to be exact; the Flower of Loyalty, to be exacter; and, perhaps most profoundly and transcendently, we have IKEA.

My idea of what this show is is a really bumpy roller coaster ride. One minute I’m thinking it’s all about garages and rebellion (especially in contrast to the uniformity of flowers and ballet, sitting docile in front of the TV set, blending into the domestic scenery, yet totally artificial, banal); the next, I’m thinking it’s all about the transcendental, cross-cultural power of IKEA (313 stores across 38 counties!). It’s fucking fascinating (curse word used for emphasis) that IKEA  never makes its way into the materials list, since its the clear through-line between all the artworks, bringing How the West Was One closer to a cohesive thought made up of small, distinct artworks. If IKEA is missing from the materials list, then what else must be missing? It could be anything.

Regina walked me through How the West Was Won on the Monday after the show opened. BUT that was nearly a week ago (at the time of this writing), and so I cannot remember the specifics of what she said. This memory lapse allowed me to retain most of the original sensation of encountering the show, and before I discuss our conversation a little bit, I will make a few last observations.

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From left to right: Kimilsungia (detail); Looping Swans by Regina Mamou. (Austin Radcliffe)

When you sit and watch Looping Swans for a long time, you start to feel exhausted; exhausted empathetically for the performers, but also visually and aurally fatigued by the repetition. In some way there is a cruelty to this kind of endless loop of dance, which outside of being impossible is also painful. So, we are presented with this kind of fantasy world of pain and rigidity, so much so that the orchids, a beautiful and somewhat reputationally temperamental flower, become a little bit human. The rigidity and suffering of the endless performance in Looping Swans is transposed onto the orchids of Kimilsungia, which appear in your peripheral vision (and to the left of the TV) and it is suddenly very, very clear how a flower could be used as a means of subjugation, especially in a gendered way. And if flowers can be used in this way, so can anything, right? Even Hasselhoff? Exactly.

Earlier in this writing, I was making some crazy argument about garages; I was thinking about the site of the house as being specific to a house and its house-parts. Partially, this is because my disbelief in the site as a house is never suspended, and this complicates my interpretation of the artwork. I don’t really think Regina meant for the garage to “be” a garage, although it did not come up in our conversation. We did talk about the complexities of having a performance, and then showing the gallery/garage with the performance “remnants.” She was undecided about what purpose the stanchions now served; should the audience be prevented from walking around in the previously “performers only” area, scattered with the Hasselhoff prints and beer cans? Actually, there were only two cans, and we dedicated a significant amount of time discussing if the cans should be in there, or not. Like, who wants to see empty beer cans in an art show? It seems sort of pretentious. For me, it always makes me feel like I missed the party, and I hate missing the party, because if I missed it, I probably wasn’t invited. I think I saw Looking for Freedom in a kind of intermediary state; it was still literally “as-is” from the performance, with nothing re-staged, nothing moved. We were both looking at it, trying to make sense of it—me from the perspective of having witnessed the performance, and Regina from the perspective of having conceived and staged it. This is a good place to be in art; something intermediary, where thoughts have an opportunity to form, float, and dissipate, maybe even stick. If I was unable to form a non-reductive cohesive thought about Looking for Freedom, it’s because it’s not an artwork that values cohesive thoughts, or finished products; it’s a series of suspiciously clear moving parts waiting (and willing) to be surprised by what they produce.

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Looking for Freedom (detail) by Regina Mamou. (Austin Radcliffe)

That being said, I learned a lot of really interesting stuff from my walk-through with Regina. Apparently Hasselhoff has a much greater political resonance than I knew—especially in Germany, where he is über popular (haha). And I thought Regina said that during the cold war, the Russian government played Swan Lake on repeat, so that no news coverage was accessible; but clearly my brain oversimplified that part of the story, because Regina sent me this to clarify: “When tanks rolled into Moscow on 19 August 1991 during a dramatic anti-Perestroika coup by Soviet hardliners, the USSR’s state-controlled airwaves offered a curious response—a continuous loop of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.” The story of the orchids is practically a hero’s journey, involving a trip to North Korea where Regina purchased these special orchid seeds, and then worked with a greenhouse in Hawaii for the past year to grow them in a special way. The IKEA fixtures are not coincidental, either, but Regina explained that she wanted to limit the information she gave about the work, so that the interpretations could be broad. I can totally appreciate this instinct; artists like Regina, driven to research-based artwork (based might be too strong, perhaps inspired) often have a clear, correct outcome for their work. That Regina is focused on ways to expand the possibilities of content, not restrict them, is certainly something I feel excited about—I just wonder if the instinct to broaden a specific artwork through omitting the specifics of its making really achieves that. After all, isn’t it structure itself that helps us test the boundaries of our thought, our production?

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Kimilsungia (detail) by Regina Mamou. (Austin Radcliffe)

I said that IKEA was the only clear through-line between the artworks, and in a superficial way, it is; but the title of the show as a whole, How the West Was Won, is spinning political; that there is a west, yes, but also, that it was won. Okay, that’s quite obvious, but I am saying that each individual artwork depicts a kind of nationalism, or some kind of propaganda—Swan Lake was used somewhat openly as a means of propaganda, if I understand the story correctly; the Kimilsungia is also thinly veiled, or not (the flower of loyalty!); and then Hasselhoff; of course he’s being sold and disseminated to us, too. How the West Was Won is a complex art show, and has proven good at producing some complicated, albeit slightly confusing, thoughts in response, at least for me. This may sound silly, but my favorite part of How the West Was Won is that IKEA products slip there way into all of Regina’s artworks, hidden in plain sight. It gives them, of course, the same status as the orchid. And while we do not all have rows of exotic plants or a penchant for screen printing 80s-era celebrities, we probably have a Hemnes or a Billy somewhere in our living spaces, secured to the floor or wall, affordable yet stylish in a “neutral” way; keeping us satisfied, if not aspirational—at least for the moment.

How the West Was Won is on view at Adjunct Positions in Los Angeles, CA, from January 13 to February 24, 2018. For more information on Regina Mamou, please visit her website: www.reginamamou.com.

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

 

Return to Witch Mountain: A Q&A with Arden Surdam on “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies”

Last summer, when Sarah, Adrienne, and I got together with the vague idea of starting some kind of writing thing, pretty much everything was to-be-determined. All we really needed was accountability to each other—that is, the feeling of not being alone, you could say—and the rest would figure itself out. This approach was by design; we agreed on a name, a place, and a first assignment—to write our own bios. It was this that allowed us not to be beholden to a particular editorial vision, since each of our individual visions were clearly expressed, and could be applied independently. I’m proud of this approach, and expect that unpublished will stay this way; there is no great authority; we speak for ourselves; and we can own our own participation in whatever way we like.

Which brings me here, to Arden. My first to-be-determined post on unpublished was a writing on “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies,” Arden Surdam and Stephanie Deumer’s two-person show at College of the Canyons Art Gallery this past fall. Since I had not yet written anything for unpublished, I didn’t really know what to expect; I didn’t have an “approach” in mind. In fact, I had not spoken to either artist about “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies,” and had not seen any of the work in it before. I saw the show once; wrote about it the next day, from memory, with no images or notes; Sarah, as always, was my proofreader and editor; and it went live a day or two later.

Since that very first post, I have formed my own internal methods and structures for writing about art, and a lot of these methods and structures come from lessons learned in the process of writing about “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies”—as well as the aftermath of posting that first writing in a public way. Now, I typically review one-person shows, because I realize group shows don’t allow for the kind of in-depth focus of single works of art that I am interested in; if I write about a group show, I might only write about one artwork; and, perhaps most relevant to this particular topic, when I write about two-person shows, I prioritize equity within that writing, and push myself to devote equal amounts of space and energy to both artists. That being said, it is clear to me, through conversations with Arden (many social/gallery-hopping chit-chats; several email exchanges; a studio visit!) that my writing on RSFMB did not give Arden’s work the kind of consideration it would have or should have gotten if it had been, say, anything except the first writing I posted—therefor, a re-visit to Arden’s contribution to RSFMB is in order.

This preamble brings me to the little piece of writing that took both Arden and myself a big piece of time, energy, listening, forthright-ness, and of course, a commitment to the subject. Rather than try to return to the headspace of RSFMB as it was at College of the Canyons, and rewrite the piece myself, I invited Arden to do a Q&A with me for unpublished, and give her (finally!) a chance to speak on the work’s behalf. “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” was a special show, and I’m delighted to add this Q&A to the dialogue it inspired.

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Installation image of “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies.” Paired Pomegranate by Arden Surdam (left) and Untitled by Stephanie Deumer (Arden Surdam)

G: When I first saw “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” (RSFMB), my initial reaction was that it was several contemporary-looking sculptures interspersed with very formal photographs. The scale of the sculptures was also much larger than the photos, except for Gladiolas for a Funeral, which is elongated by the curtain that hangs from it. Can you discuss the use of scale in this show, and the various visual juxtapositions you were considering when making your work?

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Gladiolas for a Funeral by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

A: The works for the exhibition were deliberately small. I used scale as a tool to signify to the viewer that I would like them to look in a specific way (up close, patiently, with sentimentality etc). When I was constructing sets for the images, the work had a much more intentional sensibility unlike the lovely haphazard moments that can occur in portraiture. Instead, my internal dialogue was closer to– “Should I place this object here, should there be even lighting or dramatic shadows?” etc. So I came to see scale functioning as a parallel or rather, in conversation with the preciseness of a still life. The scale also recalls the print size of the 1930s and 40s images I was looking at; mostly the work of the prolific couple Leslie Gil and Frances McLaughlin-Gil.

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Untititled #1 and Untitled #2 by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

And still lifes are unique in that every gesture becomes an opportunity to further convey a thought. In the exhibition’s case, this was a moment in the narrative of the myth or an element of an art historical trope that could be referenced in either the framing, installation, or image size. I ended up seeing the images themselves more as small objects rather than photographs. The aluminum framing, the colored mats, the silk curtain are all essential elements that formulate the work as a whole rather than independent entities. I should say that I don’t see the images as a retelling of the narrative but rather as deconstructing the myth.

G: When I was reviewing the images of RSFMB, it struck me that Gladiolas for a Funeral was mimicking the shape and scale of Stephanie’s Untitled works made of PVC and paper (the “vanities” if you will). So, while your artworks are mirrored in Stephanie’s sculptures (literally printed onto them), your artwork reciprocally mirrors Stephanie’s artwork. Can you discuss how ideas of mirroring play into this show, especially in light of the story of Echo and Narcissus?

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Untitled by Stephanie Deumer. (Arden Surdam)
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From left to right: Fixed Gaze by Arden Surdam; Untitled by Stephanie Deumer; Gladiolas for a Funeral by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

A: The concepts of the exhibition began with Stephanie’s video, so under the parameters of her fountain/video piece (which was from 2016) the curtain was meant to mimic the fluidity of the water. I think it was a bit later that Steph decided she wanted to use the vanities without objects, closer to a photography set. But regardless of the timeline, the works do mimic one another. This idea of twinning or mirrored reflections is integral to the communication of the myth and photography. Of course photography is associated with its own mythology, and so a lot of the tropes that I used to represent the myth of Narcissus also embody photographic traditions. This includes the glass lens heads from a darkroom enlarger, mirrors, reflections of my studio lights, etc. Objects more specific to the myth of Narcissus were flowers, which I was presenting as the ultimate symbol for beauty and narcissism. For images like Paired Pomegranate or Gladiolas for a Funeral, the pairing is meant to symbolize the relationship between Narcissus and Echo, Narcissus and himself, mythology, and art. There’s no clear delineation, but instead this gesture of an omnipresent coupling.

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Echo by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

G: During our meeting, we discussed the kinds of things we both like to read; I shared that personally, I feel more inspired by reading a Virginia Woolf novel than heavy art theory. Is there anything you would consider “required reading” for viewing your artwork?

A: Yes, absolutely! Fiction functions as a source of inspiration for me. At the time I was shooting, I was reading Elena Ferrante’s  Neapolitan romance novels. The texts are addictive and pleasurable in the sense that the narrator makes a series of choices that are not always in her best interest, but highly indulgent almost akin to Narcissus. Both the stories (Narcissus and the Ferrante series) function as tragedies filled with unrequited love and life lessons. In that way, the book felt like a contemporary fable much like Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

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Fixed Gaze by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

More directly, I would say the catalog essay from Mathew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton’s 2009 exhibition “Blood of Two” influenced the work. It was a collaborative show on the island of Hydra at the Deste Foundation. I was studying in Greece at the same time on the Cycladic Island of Paros and was never able to see the exhibition so the show itself (which included performance and a resurrection of a series of drawings from the sea) had its own mythology constructed around it.  The catalog features a dialogue between Barney and Peyton discussing what mythology is, which has this wonderful act of perpetuating the “virality” of a myth by retelling it.

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Paired Pomegranate by Arden Surdam (Arden Surdam)

G: In a similar vein, I have a question about audience. My personal stance on audience is that there is no “universal audience” for art, and therefore trying to construct art “for an audience” is almost an impossible task. (I always just picture my mom). Do you have an ideal audience for RSFMB, or for your work in general? What is your take on the relationship between audience and artwork?

A: I’ve only “constructed art for an audience” once and that was during my first year at CalArts in their Photo and Media MFA program. The work required viewership participation in order to be activated (I asked the audience to eat cake) and it verged on a vulgar spectacle. Now when I consider an audience, I think of a passive viewer.  I make two types of work; one that is more installation based (not present in RSFMB) that often involves decomposing materials and another which incorporates more formal elements of photography. Both overlap in their exploration of fetish, organic material, mythos, sexuality, etc., and rely on the audience to be present but not actively engaged. For the installations, passive participation includes scent and so I’ve become more invested in the concept of entering a viewer’s “space” without their consent beyond their choice to enter a room. The photographic work present in RSFMB hinges on observation, and so choices like scale or installation are integral to the work.

To return to your initial question, I agree there is no universal audience so the notion of an ideal audience is difficult to imagine. When creating work I’m focused on my ability to translate ideas to a viewer. However, if there was such a thing, I guess I would say the audience would be invested in concepts that trigger me. This would include major leaps between mediums, romance, magical realism, suspicion of photography.

“Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” was on view at College of the Canyons Art Gallery in Valencia, CA from September 5 to October 12, 2017. For more information on Arden Surdam, please visit her website: http://www.ardensurdam.com

For the original article on Real Shadows for Mere Bodies posted to unpublished, click here

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

 

Painter, painting, painted: Joiri Minaya’s “Siboney” at LAXART

Siboney is the title of a video work by Joiri Minaya which was on view at LAXART from September 17th to December 16th, 2017. It was installed next to another artwork by Joiri Minaya called Plumerias (after Siboney). Both of these artworks appeared in a show called “Video Art in Latin America,” which was itself part of Pacific Standard Time LA/LA: Latin American Art in LA; which is itself a Getty-funded initiative in which institutions apply to fund a research-driven curatorial project which will end in an art show of some sort. You follow me?

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Joiri Minaya’s Plumerias (after Siboney) (left) and Siboney (right) installed in the atrium at LAXART. (Joiri Minaya)

So, to begin with, Siboney and Plumerias (after Siboney) exist within a construct so convoluted it took me 100 words just to describe that construct; and, as a person weary of constructs (such as: schools, galleries, coffee shops, theory of any kind, and most obviously, art), I consider it almost a miracle that I landed on these two particular artworks, of all the PST artworks across greater and lesser Los Angeles.

Of course, this isn’t as accidental as I’d like it to be; these artworks were in the front of the gallery, in what is referred to as “the atrium” on the gallery map. And it’s actually situated in such a way that when you walk through the doors, (the entrance to LAXART is set back at the end of a short path through a small, gated courtyard, a little bit secret-gardeny) Plumerias actually blocks the rest of the show; it’s painted directly onto a wall that appears built for that very purpose, jutting out oddly from the permanent wall, creating its own little contained spot for itself and for Siboney. And of course, despite being included in a show called “Video Art” Plumerias is not a video at all, but a painting; and, unlike videos, generally speaking, it is smudged, smeared—the paint veers off its awkward wall and hits another wall, next to the flat-screen TV where Siboney loops every ten minutes—bang! That little print of paint tells us a pivotal, indexical piece of information; this took place here. Instantly this diptych of painting and video transcends the banal structure of a show called “Video Art.” It announces that it is present, and in turn, demands my presence. Certainly the curators of “Video Art” were acutely aware of the energy force this artwork would channel inside this small but prevalent location; the entrance, but of course, the exit too.

I’ve already gone in further than I wanted to before discussing more the significance of constructs in relationship to these two artworks. While I can’t even bring myself to read the whole curatorial statement for “Video Works,” my experience of the show was that the videos were displayed in such a way as to create a kind of video Russian-roulette; three different galleries within the show, all with their own individual line-ups of videos, all looping, practically guaranteed that timing, and not interest or intention, would determine which works you saw and which you did not. On top of that, some videos (including Siboney) were shown on their own monitors, creating what I thought of as a questionable hierarchy between videos. If endless video loops in several galleries were meant to purposefully vary the content depending on when you visited, than the individual monitors undermined that intent; but, they gave us Siboney. This is another thing to like about Joiri’s artwork; it undermines its own curatorial construct, in the sense that it is a giant painting dominating the entrance of a show titled with and predicated on video art. For me, all of these elements together turn “Video Art” into a dreamy and mesmerizing one-woman show; with the help of some false walls and other spatial and sonic elements, I have made Siboney just the thing I want it to be.

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

Siboney opens with a quote from Ana Mendieta: “I was looked at by the people in the midwest as an erotic being, aggressive, and sort of evil. This created a very rebellious attitude in me until it sort of exploded inside me and I became aware of my own being, my own existence as a very particular and singular being. This discovery was a form of seeing myself separate from others, alone.” I have a picture of the screen (I took 79 pictures of this show! 79!) and I typed the quote from that picture. But even as I zoom into it to read the text and type it up here for you, I don’t like it. I mean, I don’t like this way of writing, of looking at pictures one by one and going through the video by each frame and extrapolating on what it might mean. Aside from everything I have already discussed, Siboney caught my eye when I realized it was a narrative; that meant I would need to watch it from beginning to end, so that I could understand that narrative. So I did that, and then I realized that this was a very, I don’t know how to say it “polished” or editorialized video; or more like, it had a high production value, and on top of that, it had many different kinds of shots and angles; it must have been conceived of in a very cinematic way. It was wicked professional, as we say in New England. The video, the way the video was shot, seemed smart and self-aware. There is a part of the video where Joiri rubs herself all over the painting she has made (which looks a lot like the painting we see IRL right next to the video we are watching), and I’m not sure if it’s because that was the majority of the footage or not, but every time I passed Siboney (as I mulled pathetically around the gallery, unable to commit to anything in particular), she was rubbing her body on the painting. So, I thought it was a video that was a documentation of a performance where she makes a painting and then rubs her body on it. When I watched it through a second time, I understood that this video was an artwork on its own terms, with a heightened awareness of the tension between its medium and its message. In fact, I will argue that it is this tension, between video, painting, and performance, that this artwork seeks to participate in; more specifically, the tension of objecthood and ownership that arises when we think about an artwork which is a video of an artist making a painting for an institution which will own the artwork, but not the act of it’s making; which is what we see when we watch Siboney.

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

Since I have decided I will work from memory instead of frame by frame, I will recount the narrative of Siboney briefly, and perhaps inaccurately, for you. It opens with the Ana Mendieta quote, as I mentioned; there is a short scene of Joiri walking up a staircase in what looks like a museum; she passes a painting. The next few shots zoom in on different parts of the painting, and have more text. I can’t remember the text, but it says something like “who gets to decide?” There is also the word “gaze,” I’m sure of it; and also a short sentence about representation. Maybe that it goes both ways? Next is a shot of a big empty gallery, really big; and a big false wall against the actual gallery wall, with a white bra and underwear hanging up next to it. Joiri takes the underthings, and in the next shot, puts them on, maybe in a different room, or at least at a closer angle. We see some skin, but nothing frontal. I’m not too clear about the order of the next few shots, but we see a canvas, I think, laid out with all her painting tools; and then she mixes a paint (to me this is the most memorable and clear of all the shots in the video: it is close-up, and from above; she has a palette knife and is making a well inside a mound of blue pigment; then she squirts something from a bottle inside the well she made, until it gently overflows, and runs out). There’s also a shot of mixing red or orange paint with an egg yolk inside it, breaking the yolk apart with the tip of her paintbrush. Next I think there is a montage of her making the painting on the false wall; she uses stencils and a paint roller, and then removes the stencils and paints in some leafy details by hand. She’s painting a pattern; it looks tropical, I guess, and has a repeat like a wallpaper. By this time she is wearing an all white, sort of translucent short dress, that looks like a uniform, maybe for a nurse or a maid. At some point the painted false wall moves from being flat against the gallery wall to perpendicular to it, now mimicking the rest of the blank walls in the gallery. There is a shot of Joiri laying on her side on a canvas rolled out in front of the painting. She pours water along her body, in a rhythmic, seductive sort of way. At some point music starts playing, and she rubs her wet body across the painting, which smears easily. The paint gets on her white clothes, and she continues to work the painting with her body, almost dancing with it; at some points the dancing reaches a high intensity, and she slams into the permanent gallery wall that her false wall is perpendicular to, leaving a paint-body mark. I know that at some point before all this, Joiri is posing in front of the un-smeared painting, looking directly into the camera, and I’m pretty sure the words on the screen say “I am not for you to look at.” I don’t remember how the video ends. Maybe the song ends?

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

If you think my description from memory is an exercise in confusion or perhaps misrepresentation, you may be right. But what I am trying to value here is the moment of Siboney as it appears at LAXART; that is, next to the painting called Plumerias (after Siboney), in a show filled with other videos, each one more or less memorable in their own way. There is the video Siboney itself, which is unchanging and representable; and then there is the painting Plumerias which is unchanging and representable, but then there is a third thing, which is Siboney next to Plumerias; it is that relationship that is unrepresentable, and that I am trying to value with the experience of my memory.

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

Siboney is a really tricky video, because it incorporates layers and layers of meta-art information. There is the gallery itself (Centro León in Santiago, DR) which is complicated by several important things: 1) as Joiri walks up the stairs, she passes an artwork by Jose Vela Zanetti; 2) she’s making a painting directly on the gallery wall, only it isn’t really directly on the gallery wall, because the wall can be moved; 3) she performs a dance on her painting, thus getting reciprocally painted on herself; 4) she poses in front of her painting with a subtitle that says “I am not for you to look at.”

Jose Vela Zanetti’s painting is titled Trópico Suelto. It means “Loose Tropic.” So aside from invoking the much-invoked Ana Mendieta, the most obvious (and of course worthy) feminist Latin American spirit-artist martyr, Joiri is positioning us to see her (own) artwork as a kind of institutional critique. From the beginning, we understand that it is not just our perception of the artist that will be challenged, but our perception of art. That she makes the painting in the gallery (aside from the obvious logistical reasons) also references the kind of labor that is performed there when no one is around; if you look like her, wearing that outfit, you’re more likely to be cleaning the gallery than showing your art in it (at least from a stereotypical American perspective). I also think the use of the false wall is interesting—while it seems to me that it would have been technically much more difficult to make the painting if it were perpendicular (and even more difficult to film it in the varied and stylized manner it was made in), it becomes an odd, almost art-uncanny thing; it’s not a mural, though it’s directly on the wall; it’s not permanent, though it can’t be easily shipped or shown somewhere else. Yes—it is this false sense of permanence, this instability, that I find the most unnerving.

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

As for the dance she performs on her painting, this is what I really find thrilling; rubbing yourself in paint means you get paint on your body; you become a painting too. This is an artwork about objectification; that much is obvious. But what is less obvious is the complicity this artwork wants to grab and shake; what she is implying here is that the painting, which we have mis-recognized as passive, participates in objectification; it is the act of art, of being an artist, of being a place that proclaims art as passive and stands to speak on its behalf, that Joiri is upending. Art itself is as corrupt as the world it seeks to intervene in; and none of us, not artists, writers, institutions, or audiences, are free from blame: we are at once the painter, the painting, and the painted.

Of course, because this artwork is self-aware, it is not without irony. Take the scene where she poses, wet and beautiful, in front of her painting, which is also wet; fresh; perhaps vulnerable, corruptible. The words “I am not for you to look at” appear, but that’s just what the artist wants us to do; and could we resist if we tried? There are lots of juicy details in Siboney that suggest a frame-by-frame explication might result in pure delight, but I’ll leave that to the video itself. The vaginal lump of pigment overflowing with medium, in the color blue, like both the Virgin and the most objectifying of art-devils, Yves Klein, is an early highlight. And the moment of high dancy-rapey tension where she bodyslams the wall in an orgasmic, or aggressive, burst of rage, leaving her mark in the only way us women know how—that’s awesome, too.

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

But I should get back down to earth a little bit. Let’s get back into the atrium at LAXART, back to “Video Art in Latin America.” Though Siboney demands ten whole minutes of our time, Plumerias demands almost none at all. And if we walk through the courtyard and pass through the atrium on our way to read the wall text or sniff out that artwork made of decaying bananas, we might misread Plumerias as simplistic; cliched; perfunctory; another feminist bodily smear through a representation that we understand, because this is a gallery after all, meant to stand in for all things wrong with America, and there are many: colonialism, white supremacy, eroticisation of the other, reductive multiculturalism, cultural appropriation, to name a few. The reason Plumerias transcends this plausible, yet anti-nuanced interpretation is because it doesn’t stand alone. It is, in itself, a representation of an action that cannot be bought or explained or even replicated; it’s the evidence that what happened in Siboney was the real deal, and that any gallery that wants to show it must also come face to face with a real body; as powerful and complex as Siboney is on its own, it remains somewhat sanitized, stylized. It lacks intimacy. Plumerias is there to make sure we remember her body, that we remember real bodies make this stuff. In Plumerias, she also achieves her disappearing act; she isn’t there for us to look at; she isn’t there.

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

Earlier I said I would argue that this was an artwork about objecthood and ownership, and I’m not sure I did that. Perhaps it’s more that this artwork blurs those lines, and also claims a special kind of new territory, maybe a ghosty territory. Like, you may own the artwork, or show the video, but you’ll never own the experience. That sounds sort of silly. What I’m trying to say is more complicated than that. The way Joiri shows this artwork—as Siboney and Plumerias (after Siboney) side by side—she’s creating a revolving door of content; she’s constructed a way for the work to remain site-specific, but return to that original point back in the Dominican Republic. Would it be logical to reshoot that same kind of performance every time she makes a painting that she knows she’s going to destroy? I see Plumerias as a kind of rebirth or reincarnation of Siboney. Perhaps that’s made obvious in the title. What I want to say is, it’s not just a critique of Centro León, the museum that would show a Spanish artist’s rendering of the primitivos in the DR called “Loose Tropics,” but of all galleries who would dare stake a claim to her heritage, her body, her story—her labor.

There are so many things I haven’t mentioned—I’ve said almost nothing about the painting itself, either its techniques or its motif; and while I am interested in what the painting looks like, (which is especially striking in the context of Los Angeles, considering its proximity to the Beverly Hills hotel, famous for its banana leaf wallpaper, known as Martinique), I am less interested in how paintings are made. I have said absolutely nothing about the title Siboney, or its namesake, the 1960 Connie Francis recording of the song that accompanies Joiri’s paint smearing dance seduction. Both of these things, among others, deserve their own inquiries.

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Screenshot from Siboney (Joiri Minaya)

As always, I know I’ve come to the end here, but I’m clueless as to how it will happen. I’ve written extensively and repetitively about a few things, and I remembered to point out the things I didn’t write extensively about, which is something I like to do. When I watched an excerpt of Siboney just now on Joiri’s website, to double check that it was in fact Connie Francis singing Siboney, I realized how bastardized my description of the video really is; there is wayyyy more text in it than I remember, and what text I did remember, I completely misquoted. This is yet another example of how memory plays into our interpretations—both individual, and collective—and I’m guessing Joiri would approve of this conclusion. Look, no one and nothing is perfect, and everyone is fallible, me especially. I dare you to go back to her work and find the things I missed, that I imagined, that I erred on; go back to her work and try to jump out of the skin you think you occupy—painter, painting, painted.

Siboney and Plumerias (after Siboney) were on view at LAXART in Los Angeles, CA, from September 17th to December 17th, 2017. For more information on Joiri Minaya, please visit her website: http://www.joiriminaya.com/

Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net