Let’s try a gutsy opening line: Sharif Farrag’s crowded and conventional-looking show of ceramics at in lieu gallery proves that banality still reigns when it comes to the language of ceramics and display. Or: The blah-convention of vessel-on-white-pedestal at Sharif Farrag’s Snooze betrays the artist’s penchant for full-blown whimsy—his spirited and near-magical forms which, unlike many contemporary ceramophiles, are not invested in nostalgic notions of process and materiality. Better yet: If painters could do with canvas what Sharif does with clay, the arc of art history might have been a lot a lot wetter, mushier, certainly more mineral. Lastly: Part cartoon, part real psychic drama, Sharif makes so many lumps of clay into dizzying, tactile narratives that manage to reference Bernard Palissy’s three-dimensional snake-covered platters as much as the heavy metal band Slipknot.
Sharif is a supernova, partly because his work is fun and funny, and partly because it is formally and materially rooted in a tradition (the clay vessel), which is itself a unique art/artifice in that it occupies the rarefied space of transcending fine art while it is somehow always in the process of becoming it. He uses a broad, funky palette (you can attribute that to a high level of material literacy derived from that uniquely-ceramic combination of research, chemistry, experimentations, happy and not-so-happy failures)—a palette which immediately references painting and operates with painting’s nuance in comparison to, say, the dull, clunky, one-note celadons that come out of a crusty bucket at your neighborhood pottery shop. And then there’s the profusion of the work—there’s just so much of it, too much—a tendency Sharif understands as a way to avoid sinking down into psychic spaces that are of no use to him in art—you know, certain kinds of pain, misery, tragedy. Sharif’s work contains a paradox so profound that it just might work—that is, it tells the story of Sharif’s life whilst also working as a lovely, intricate, utterly contemporary barrier to its heartbreak. In other words: it is a distraction. And what a prolific and productive distraction it is.
While many artists with the aspiration to work clay into a critical discourse bump up against a desire to produce which outweighs a desire to convey, very little in Sharif’s work suggests he might be forming without thinking. In Garden jar (squideater), protruding traditional jug handles, mushy and black with iron oxide, give way to black clay squiggle-lumps that emerge as arms, legs, hands, eyes, leaves, petals, or even squids, as the title suggests. These appendages look as if they’re sprouting from the pot au natural, but they also look like they are outgrowing it, or overgrowing it; eyes manifest as simple carved lines, but also as lumps with un-earthly looking pupils. The underglaze to this underworld-on-a-pot is a spotty, almost scabby purply blue—a texture achieved by an understanding of when the chemistry of a glaze and the way in which it is fired will cause it to shrink and separate around a form—a term suitably referred to as “crazing.” What makes this a good artwork isn’t that its sloppiness belies a kind of material understanding and precision that reads as authenticity; or the novelty of the black clay; or the accessibility of the Dante-esque narrative; or even that it can neatly be sold and installed, take the pedestal, too, if you like—but that as an object, it so accurately embodies the place in the mind from which it comes—the form that is covered, smothered—the vessel like a body, from which the useless and the useful and the articulated and the in articulated sprout. It’s a Sharif.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’m not so hot on Bodach. Not to be contrarian, but the obvious time and effort it took to make a sculpture of such size and weight—to say it lacks subtlety is an understatement. And while subtlety is not the hallmark of a great artwork, here it only leaves room for over-sized, cartoonish interpretations of what should be a shadow Sharif—something more related to light and nether-spaces than the corporeal, breakable Bodach we are presented with. Put another way, the ghoulishness is too forward; it’s too much out of TV, and not enough out of a space Sharif can only access through his magical mind/body/clay combination, which is the thing we need from him, and that we look to him for. Staring at Bodach crouched in the corner of the clean, bright, pleasant gallery, my mind drifted to Sharif’s beautiful show at USC, where every detail of installation was approached as if it were (it was) the sculpture itself—the wire-y handmade pedestals, the way he used paint to trace lilac-colored lines around the contours of the room, the intricate and sometimes threadbare rugs taken from his mother’s house situated as soft, familial pedestals, they were like islands, and they said something about where he came from, and where he didn’t come from. This is an artist capable of making something haunting, weird, and unexpected, not just through smart and consistent production in an on-trend material, but through passion and longing, set like a jewel in the idiosyncratic soul of the maker.
Catching goldfish polishes that jewel to the extreme, or burnishes it, if we want to stick with clay metaphors. It’s such an odd artwork—a slightly warped slab of clay is the ground for a painting of a ghost fishing for goldfish; but it’s also a clock with no hands; and instead of a frame, the edge of the slab is fitted with little clay nubs, which may be some sort of nipple belonging to the two-dimensional creature whose hands reach out from the edge of the slab—but it’s not a painting, because there is no paint—so it dodges that sometimes tedious discourse of painting. It’s this: What I love about Sharif’s work is that it’s not didactic, and yet it radiates with purpose, all while having an affect that circulates beyond whatever that purpose might be. Like the side-kick Idea bats perched around Bodach, we remain oriented because we orbit materials and symbols we can understand—time, death, nipples, frames—but everything else is indeterminate—it’s up to where the bats land, or roost, or hang, or what have you.
There is another angle here, too. Sharif is my friend. He became my friend through art. I met him during the run of his show Smokeless Fire at gallery1993—a show made possible by a curator creating a space for Sharif to experiment with an art that had the potential to be misunderstood as something to covet. Not that there’s anything wrong with coveting art, but I think Smokeless Fire as an exhibition embraced indeterminacy in a way that Sharif’s narrative vessels and clay paintings, and shows like Snooze, will come to miss—not in terms of the way they are made, but the way they are received. A white box within a white box doesn’t recede so as to foreground the art; it sanitizes it.
You could argue that because I am a writer, I am drawn to indeterminacy—it’s true, I am apt to make the story my own. Although there is a lovely specificity and total Sharif-ness to the pots and paintings of Snooze (the ambiguous genital-like flower forms, the white-toed sneakers with their thick, floppy bows, the hands and spirals and grins and teeth and chains and smiley faces and critters of every glaze, oxide, slip, and surface you can think of), there is space for the wildness and aspirations of others—yes, the work’s openness to transference, to new ownership, to occupying a kind of shared space—certainly this is what makes it covetable, not just the alluring paradox of its goofy sincerity, which may or may not be considered goofy and sincere a few years from now. If you believe that art is fundamentally about finding meaning in spaces where no fixed meaning yet exists—as I do—then you’ll know what I mean here: Art is about finding: Sharif says “look.”
Snooze is on view at in lieu in Los Angeles from February 23 to March 23, 2019.
Georgia is a writer in Los Angeles. She is a co-founder of and lead contributor to UNPUBLISHED and a contributor to X-TRA. Georgia’s catalog essay on the work of Stephanie Taylor at LAMAG is forthcoming this May.
Delicate Machines is a funny title for a performance staged in a small, awkwardly-shaped room in which two women in color-block outfits primarily rub themselves across a dirty floor while making strange kissy-fart sounds, framed by sea-puke-green crepe-paper-looking sculptures draped over ceilings pipes. Also exhibited were curvaceous blobs of plaster poured on the floor with various debris stuck into them (a shoe, an iced-coffee cup, dirt, maybe glass); a few bricks scattered about with thin wires sticking out of them; and a grey felt floor-sculpture/rug/play mat cut nearly into strips, each strip staged with a gentle curve. In a way, this was a space which completely fulfilled the stereotype of anyone even mildly skeptical of dance-y performance art—the almost flippant, random use of crafty materials; the audience crammed together knee to knee; the painfully slow and intangible movements—which made it all the more joyful when Delicate Machines up-ended, without even asking, the silly tropes they had feigned for the purpose of humor, dramatic emphasis, and a quick, peppery dash of art world “made-you-look.”
Tenuous at first, the structure of the performance seemed to begin in the roomy hallway outside the gallery where visitors mingled, some crouched by a cooler mixing white wine LaCroix spritzers, others poking around the gallery, sipping beer and chit-chatting (that would be me), and some wondering aloud when the performance would start. Jared, the director of Central Park, confirmed that a performer was now in the gallery, but we needn’t stop our milling and sipping. Impatient and fixated on achieving a “complete” experience, I sat down against a wall and watched Jessica. She was barefoot, clad in tight, thick-looking burgundy work pants and an off-white long-sleeved top that was either two-tone or in shadow—the kind of garb that looks too blasé to be a costume, but too specific to be unintentional. Laying sort of on her side and her stomach, near the plaster blob in the back corner of the gallery, she pressed her naked foot into the plaster-sunk shoe, pushing back and forth off of it in a way that was both controlled and muscular-looking but also effortless, un-self-conscious. She held her head at a precise downward tilt so that her face was imperceptible—another round blobby thing with ropes of hair swinging and masking her face from every angle. I wanted to see it—badly—and this feeling was the first moment her movement transcended the icky space of blah performance art and rose into a self-aware realm of playing off of audience desire—which is not only the desire to see what the woman looks like, but to know how she’s playing it—in a thrust that may be a cross between waking-up and scrubbing the floor, or if we dare to be so crass, may infer a kind of one-sided, fully-clothed intimacy—without seeing her face, we cannot faithfully interpret her body. The gesture was thrilling.
Soon thereafter, the rest of the audience entered the performance, either sitting cross-legged or standing with their backs to the wall in a lean semi-circle, not more than two deep. Somehow Laurel appeared, it was either sneaky or I zoned out, but there she was on the floor next to Jessica, the two of them doing their slow-floor-writhe, Laurel also barefoot, also positioning her head so that her face was concealed, the two of them eventually folding into a sort of arm-leg knot which they shifted gently by rotating from their heels to the balls of their feet. Laurel’s appearance, too, proposed the same question as Jessica’s: am I composed? This would turn out to be a central question within an impressively long performance (nearly an hour!) which perhaps tiptoed up to the edge of narrative, but never slipped in. A showing of endurance and strength, along with the ability to act in harmony with an other’s body is impressive—it may even be beautiful—but what stood out was the intimacy of the details of their touch—the way Jessica (or was it Laurel) laid her palm flat against Laurel’s back—the way just her pinky moved, spreading slightly away from the rest of her fingers to feel just a little bit further—it was those little gestures that made it hard to take your eyes off of the two of them—that made it feel like time had suspended—yes, “time” (to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow) didn’t have a lot of clout in the gallery that night.
Fast forward a little. It would be beside the point, not just inaccurate, to describe every movement that took place in Delicate Machines. The moment when Jessica and Laurel stirred away from their body-tangle and threw back their heads to reveal Laurel’s exaggerated diva makeup and Jessica’s smeared-on moustache (was it dirt from the floor?) was laugh-out-loud funny, but also self-aware and challenging—it shattered whatever imaginary preconception the audience may have had of the earnest or gloomy tendencies of such performance art—and instead offered us lively, idiosyncratic gestures. The brilliance of the smeary moustache is almost inconceivable—just a touch of drag, a little bit of female-bodied-ness mixed up with something messy, goofy, unlikely, liberating, maybe even empowering.
The part where they stick their faces together, bodies pressed almost flat, standing upright but shifting their weight around as if balancing on the deck of a ship in a storm—again, their faces are obscured, and you can’t quite understand what they’re doing, but they’re making a cringe-worthy sound, it’s abject, like a cross between a wet kiss and a long fart—at one point I was sure they were kissing while blowing air through their lips, the next moment I was sure they were doing some kind of circular breathing. The unwillingness of Delicate Machines to give the audience a simple aura to grab hold of—it was at once silly, sexual, platonic, dramatic, stage-y, throw-back-y, and just plain dirty—it made me want to roll around on the floor and do something weird.
In yet another fourth-wall breaking gesture, Jessica and Laurel, bent at the waist like dolls, step-stuttered their way out of the gallery door, through the audience, and toward the adjacent stairs (at which point Jared yelled, follow them!). We did follow—all of us hanging over railings on various floors, bending this way and that to get a good look at them as they slapstick roll-walked down the raw, drab stairwell. Their last movement was to stunt-fall down one step onto the third-floor landing, ending in a heap reminiscent of a road-runner silhouette, faced-down, arms splayed out—dead, or perhaps faking.
Thinking of it now, I remember the little grunts that Jessica and Laurel made as they shifted their two-person ball over the gallery floor—maybe they were speaking, or exerting, or grumbling—but just to hear their sounds, the immediacy of them, the quiet rawness of them—it was so different, so perplexing. I think of the moment when Jessica ran her cheek down the side of a wide, floor-to-ceiling pipe—the way her face bounced against it, like a sweaty hand sliding down the pole of a metal jungle gym. For me, Delicate Machines does precisely what machines can’t do—they breathe, they touch, they fake, they roll their eyes, they share intimacy, they joke, they rub. Like the garbage-dotted plaster-pools, and the shredded felt rug prop, and the sea-weedy drapery, the title of Delicate Machines is a bait-and-switch—it is profoundly about our un-machine-ness, a celebration of the potential of communicating through bodies, of being fixated on and surprised by and grossed out by bodies. Delicate, perhaps; machine, certainly not; a little tonic to inject complexity back into a space where we feared there was none; absolutely.
Delicate Machines was a performance by Laurel Atwell and Jessica Cook which took place on October 30, 2018, at Central Park Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. This performance coincided with Laurel and Jessica’s residency at PAM in Los Angeles, CA.
Drive west up the 210 freeway—a curvaceous, breathtaking four-or-five lane highway that drifts through a basin of impossibly cinematic-looking hills alternating green and tan scrub. After a rather abrupt and wild interchange that spits you out onto interstate 5, past the Burbank Airport, far beyond the world’s largest IKEA, and even past the Juvenile Hall in Sylmar—at the crest of this hilly interchange, right after two of the now eight lanes curve off into the 14, as you dip back into the Santa Clarita Valley—your windshield will fill with the very real image of endless swathes of dry, lumpy mountains, inert against the ever blue, ever-cloudless (though sometimes smoke-filled) Southern California sky. If you stay your northerly course, you could be at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill in 20 minutes. Have you ever done it? I haven’t, and yet I make most of this drive nearly every day. Let me tell you, the optics of it never get old.
I would be lying if I did not admit that I had a similar, though smaller in scale, experience when I first summited the stairs of the Asian Center and spun to the right—I felt I was gliding, almost propelled forward into the airy, light-filled gallery/archive/non-circulating library, the door wide open, my field of vision confused by what appeared to be paintings that were not fixed, but floating. This description is silly and overwrought, but not inaccurate—and in the space of the gallery, the large geometric windows with their odd but inviting effect, I found the experience of approaching rectilinear shapes hanging on invisible strings to somehow mimic the experience of driving on a Los Angeles freeway and focusing my eyes on something far-away, electric-looking, and unexpected—something that practically materializes out of thin air.
But there is a lot more to “Key Observation Point” than paintings hanging on strings. In fact, what you see when you enter the gallery is, arguably, the backs of paintings, all which bear descriptive texts penciled delicately but visibly onto their raw canvas, while the canvas itself is folded neatly around the frame, held in place by dramatic and abundant blueish-black tacks. The wrapped portion of the frame is also painted in a kind of ombre effect, either red, yellow, or orange, depending on the painting. Before I even realized the paintings had paintings on the reverse side, I saw many other things in the space—a desk-like area under the far rectangular window, complete with a windsor chair, old-looking laptop computer (running Windows ’98, no less!), a big binder filled with papers laid open in a special open-binder holder, and a grey Bisley filing cabinet, on top of which was another laid-open series of papers, this time binder-less, but held together with loose rings. The thing that was nearly invisible to me, and stayed nearly invisible to me, was the nearly full-sized wall drawing of the Landscape Scenic Quality Scale, rendered lightly in pencil— a text which literally describes a rating scale used to rate landscape scenic quality.
The descriptive texts on the backs of the paintings are key observation points—texts which originate in and were taken verbatim from the Chiquita Canyon Landfill’s 2017 Environmental Impact Report—the massive document displayed in the binder-holder. I learned from the laminated gallery map, which was cleverly overlaid with a topographical master plan of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, that the placement of the paintings in the gallery mimicked the location from which each key observations point was written. The “fronts” of Key Observation Points 1-7, as stated in Susanna’s introductory text, are paintings made from collages. Susanna selected keywords from each key observation point and used them as internet image-search terms to create a sort of keyword composite collage; one for every painting. That giant wall-drawing I nearly didn’t see (funny how light can make pencil disappear!) defines the scenic quality scale itself—the scale responsible for the strange methodology and turn of phrase (visual unity, visual intactness, visual sensitivity, and so on) used in describing each key observation point. I began to really understand that all the elements of the show are deeply interconnected because Susanna explained it to me—she also explained the function of the office-looking area with the computer—it is a research station, where visitors can access both digital and print copies of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill 2017 Environmental Impact Report. The research station also provides access to the keywords Susanna selected for her image search, as well as the images those keywords generated.
I think there is a funny element of deconstruction here—a funny order of operations. We enter the gallery and see the stylized backs of paintings with paragraphs on them—this renders them “unconventional artworks.” We can then whip around and look at the front of them, and make some sort of connection between the words on the back and the painting on the front. We can then (or before) read the wall-drawing of the Landscape Scenic Quality Scale, and make yet another connection between the scale it describes and the paintings we can now see in-full from the position of reading the wall-drawing text. After all that, or perhaps before, we can research the way the paintings were constructed—the keywords used to generate each painting. I’m trying to describe what it felt like to understand the connections between the pieces—how one was generated from the other, and vice/versa. The approach this show takes to artistic production is quite strange, in the sense that it seems intended to reveal something—as if through understanding the keywords used to generate the image, we could understand something about that image. The interconnectedness of the work felt a lot like pieces to a puzzle, which, once assembled correctly, would be revelatory.
If we are meant to understand that the scale, i.e. the methodology, used to define scenic views is arbitrary and entrenched in a particular kind of thought—then so is using the internet to generate images which will then generate a painting. To me, it is arbitrary on top of arbitrary on top of arbitrary, mixed with the artist’s hand, the subjective decisions for colors, and then, painting…it was hard to wrap my head around. But perhaps that’s the point—perhaps the work proposes that just as the internet can randomly assign an image to a word, so can anyone, for any purpose—that the key observation points rely on imagination, as opposed to documentation. Perhaps the work says the descriptive and evaluative process meant to seem objective is as arbitrary as pulling images out of the giant, technological hat that is the internet. I’m just not sure I agree with that, since the internet is a programmed system, and all programmed systems come pre-programmed with the ideology of the programmers. It’s complicated.
From another angle, this project reflects Susanna’s investment in words, and how those words shape the things we see; in this case, language’s effect on the scenic value of a landfill, and how that scenic value has the potential to disrupt land value (i.e. development). It seems that for Susanna, the scenic rating system, which uses language to develop arbitrary value systems, is the key to her project. Furthermore, pushing that language as far as possible, squeezing it until it becomes a thing of art, in this case, a painting, is a way of undertaking what the original writers of the scale undertook themselves when they were charged with defining the undefinable—with connecting the topographical to the compositional, and then the compositional to the evaluatable, and then translating that into language in the form of a text, which will result, presumably, in a policy— a weird third thing that has real-world effects but no single real-world representation, unlike like a painting, or a binder. To put it in a simplistic way, Susanna’s project proposes a way of unraveling complicated things—to me it says, if only we had the language to describe things, and could agree on what they mean. It sounds a lot like a proposition for talking about art.
“Key Observation Point” doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it is wrapped up in an ongoing research project that Susanna has been invested in for nearly a decade. I don’t know much about the greater scope of this work, despite having known Susanna for several years. The second time we met at LACA, I told her I knew the research was the most important part of the project to her, but I was probably going to write mostly about painting. I’m the sort of person that writes about what they can see—and what I saw was paintings, pencil drawings, an incredible view of Chinatown through huge windows, a desk set up to explore the content that helped to generate the show—and also a laminated map.
These are the things I want to say about painting: not hanging the paintings on the wall, while a convention in its own way, allowed me to see the paintings as sites of meaning with some potential beyond art, and maybe even as non-art. The gallery walls, as pretty and inviting as they stood, would have compounded Susanna’s complex project into a simplistic art show where an artist uses a complex system to generate what is still a convention—a painting on a wall in a white cube. There is movement in this space, and mystery, and pathways, maybe even analogous to a mountain, or driving up the 5 toward Castaic. Take, for example, the brilliant installation of Key Observation Point 7, where you must duck under the painting itself between the LACA stacks to get a head-on view of it—far from contrived, this locates the work in the space of LACA, reminding us that art is archive, and Susanna’s work another version of such a process. It also reminds us that art is messy, it’s imprecise, it’s also where we store vacuums and recycle bins and monitors, and old tubes we may need, but probably won’t. Furthermore, we never have to look at Susanna’s paintings by themselves; we always get the full view, every angle of the show is a complete picture to some extent, since no painting has a distinct back or front—another gesture towards undermining authoritative ways of seeing. When all is said and done, I wonder if my interpretation of the artwork was skewed by one small but profoundly political and influential thing which was omitted from the show: garbage.
I am not saying a show about a landfill ought to have some garbage in it but…ought it to? Garbage is not antithetical to art, but it is often antithetical to art-spaces. And while I don’t miss “garbage” here, I felt an antiseptic quality to the show that perhaps Susanna forgot was a possible interpretation—for those of us who have never been to a landfill (it may be few or many, I have no idea), nothing in the show conjured up those particular images, and I found myself disconnected from the show’s content and its relationship to garbage, that thing without which there would be no Chiquita Canyon Landfill, and therefore no environmental impact study, and therefore no scales with odd phrasing meant to poeticize or even reinvent our language around landscape. Without being situated somehow in the space of what my imagination conjured at the word “landfill,” I engaged the work in the show in opposition to the very present, visually dominating landscape just through LACA’s windows—Chinatown. Let me explain.
Though “Key Observation Point” is filled with text, I was drawn back toward the floating paintings. The fronts of them follow the basic conventions of painting—in this case they were all in yellows and reds, all reminiscent of a sunset combined with an apocalypse combined with a construction sight combined with a landscape (LACA’s windows at dusk prominently capture similar images). My first reaction to seeing the paintings, which caused me to hop back and forth across the gallery based on their installation, was not that they were meant to be considered as paintings “in their own right,” in the way that “painters” mean “painting”; to me, they were oddly flat, almost like a wannabe Ed Ruscha, their style a familiar contemporary-looking combination of minimal geometry filled in with what wanted to be, but wasn’t really, a richness of color—that I immediately assumed the paintings were made in dialogue with the view right outside the second-floor windows of LACA—a view which from various angles contained neon signs, three-story buildings, cars, trees, two layers of distant mountains (one close enough to be green, the next its own purply-grey)—and an American flag. I thought that the paintings were purposely artificial-looking in contrast with the descriptive texts written directly on their backs—which although vague, are still attempts to describe a scene from nature; on top of that, I thought these descriptions of nature were being contrasted with the very urban scene just outside LACA’s windows. Take, for example, the text from Key Observation Point 5:
KOP 5: Eastbound State Route 126
Figure 15-6a depicts a representative existing view looking toward CCL from eastbound SR-126 at a point west of the landfill entrance. The landfill site is located beyond the hillsides visible along the highway in this view, but the existing landfill is not visible from this location. The natural-appearing hillsides and SR-126 are both dominant elements in this view.
The hillsides are visually pleasing, but are not highly distinctive. Thus the level of vividness of this view is average or moderate. The visual unity and intactness of this view are reduced by the visual dominance of the roadway and the presence of a skylined transmission tower. Overall, this view has a moderate level of visual quality. SR-126 is a First Priority scenic route that carries high volumes of traffic; however, because travelers along this segment of the highway are moving at high speeds, this view is visible for only brief periods of time. The overall visual sensitivity of this view is moderate.
I thought—in fact I was certain—before I had read the big wall drawing or before I had read the opening text, that the paintings were a kind of weird, art-centric mediation between the idea of an idealized landscape versus an actual one; for me, it was all about the tension between inside and outside. After all, there was no view of any painting which was not mediated by, interrupted by, something else in the visual field. Reading the text on the “back” of the painting meant facing the streetscape, which created a relationship between what was read and what was seen through the window. Conversely, looking at the “front” of the paintings meant looking inward at the gallery—literally turning one’s back to the present landscape, the authentic landscape, so to speak—but also having the paintings interrupted by clumsy, practical things, like tables and chairs, stacks of books and ephemera, a sink. I felt totally engaged with this idea, totally in love with it—and while I don’t know if it was the central interpretation I was meant to walk away with, honestly, it was profound—and I believe that because of Susanna’s investment in the visualization of and relationship to the landscape in the context of art, she achieved something exceptional without even knowing it. It is to her credit.
What else? Susanna asked me what I thought of all the text in the show, seeing as I’m a writer. I told her I thought it was pretty good—I was surprised that as a government document, it wasn’t riddled with errors. I thought “someone who knows how to write wrote this.” Or maybe they even had a real editor. Who knows. It may be disappointing that I was not somehow more invested in the language of the show, considering I am a language-investor—I don’t know, to me all the texts Susanna points to do read as silly, but I get why they’re written that way, based on their genre and the purpose they’re meant to serve. I agree, the highly-subjective made-up way the scale and the key observation points are described is its own kind of scary—but it leaves me feeling like the fallacy is the belief that any writing could reflect something objective. Honey, it can’t.
The minute I walked into the show I liked it instantly. Last week at an impromptu dinner at my house, my friends and I were discussing a recent video screening we’d all attended, and my friend said something like “I was entertained by it, but I didn’t like it.” I said, “I think for me, they are the same thing.” I am trying to say that I really was thrilled and enthralled by Susanna’s show, despite that, in a way, I grossly misunderstood it—and in that sense perhaps I should be entertained by it, but not like it—alas, I like it anyways. Not that any of that matters. Let me put it this way—at its worst, “Key Observation Point” could be seen as a didactic, research driven project manifested as paintings for the sake of tangibility—but it’s not this, because Susanna isn’t confused about what is and is not art—and I’m never able to put the clues together into a thought cohesive enough to achieve didacticism. I think she slips a little in getting me to grasp the significance of the research, which I swear I am capable of—but I have a feeling this understanding lies within the scope of Susanna’s work, and I feel I cannot make a fair value judgement on that, since we are all limited and not in control of how, where, and how much art we can show. But more importantly, at its best, the show takes complex, disparate ideas of a place which around here only exists in most people’s imaginations (the landfill) and brings it into dialogue with the landscape we take for granted every day—it offers a vestige into a peripheral yet significant world—the world of the way things look, and how we describe those things, and the consequences or possibilities of all those things combined—it’s a language which determines where to build a new strip mall, or expand a garbage dump, or even, dare I say, how to make a painting. I’ll take it at its best.
“Key Observation Point” is on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive from August 31-September 29, 2018. For more information on Susanna Battin, please visit http://susbatt.com.
The featured image at the top of this post is Gallery Map, Key Observation Point, laminated ink jet print, 8.5″ x 11″ (Susanna Battin)
The generic flat-screen monitors that loop Martina Onyemaechi Crouch-Anyarogbu’s Discommercial 1 (2016), Discommercial 2 (2016), and Discommerical 3 (2016)do little justice to the complex conceptual counterpoint they offer to much of Juried Exhibition 2018, a show which takes seriously its mission to present a flavorful array of recent MFA graduates—all youngish artists who we hope (or secretly do not hope) go on to be, say, Senga Nengudi, or even John Baldessari, both veteran LAMAGers. Such is the weighty and important history of this knock-off Frank Lloyd Wright temple situated on yet another scorched but glorious Los Angeles hilltop, complete with views of the Hollywood sign. Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery is a classic, and I would be lying if I said showing an artwork there wasn’t, as Missy Elliott once said, super duper fly.
What makes Martina’s Discommercials super duper fly is that they are a classic bait-and-switch—not an epicly scaled artwork, or one with many impressive or unusual materials; not an artwork that has the potential to be permanently installed at a subway stop, or stakes its relevance in the temporal—no, there is nothing penis-like in this artwork, or shiny, just a drab display of three small flat-screen tvs, depicting something recognizable yet uncanny, and three sets of headphones, which, from a distance, insinuate a time commitment many gallery-goers are not willing to make, especially in a show with so many artworks.
I am stuck on this point of presentation—as in, the way the artworks appeared from a distance, versus what you get when you actually watch and listen to them. It’s possible that this is a redundant observation about videos in galleries, but there was something about the plainness of the monitors, the conventionality of the way the screens hung there, the limp headphones on their little hooks, everything so neat and precise—that discovering this monster-mask purple thing talk about color-coded keys while eating candy and saying “food products”—that just frankly shocked me. (You can find the transcripts of the Discommercialshere, which I’ve added per Martina’s request). It’s a fact that video is further complicated by its apparatus; and these videos, whose presentations incorporate neither a projector or an iPad or a retro TV monitor, or some kind of sculptural stand or other non-video physical addition to the artwork—defy what I think of as the zany, installation-heavy tropes so common to contemporary video work. And in that defiance, the Discommercials stay eerily close to the typical viewing experience of the thing they satirize—the commercial. I’m not sure what all this means, other than that I felt somehow I was instantly at the bare bones of the Discommercial, the weirdness of it, the scariness, the un-prettiness, the dis-composed-ness of it.
Each Discommerical features the same purply-blue character wearing a Phantom of the Opera-esque mask that reveals only their eyes and mouth. However, this mask serves an opposite purpose to the original Phantom’s mask, since the mask itself is disfigured and lumpy—an unconvincing appendage. The masked character’s lips are pasty yellow, and they wear a yellow shirt; their skin replicates the electric mauve color of their mask, and their fingernails are painted in yellow or red. The whole image looks electric and artificial, as if the character came to life straight out of MS paint; their hair, twisted into pinky-size dreadlocks, appears almost drawn-on, aside from sometimes sporting a yellow or red hair elastic, or even a yellow headband. The background of the scenes jumps between green (green screen, we know from the wall text) and black; and all the dialogue is captioned. The narrative in Discommercial 1 and Discommerical 2 is something about color-coded key nutrients, and something about food packaging. The cuts jump around, and the dialogue is a bit choppy; there are times when the character laughs, as if to a director off-screen. I would say the videos are reminiscent of an old thing called “bloopers.” Still, it is hard to describe the Discommercials; the look of them is so specific, the fuzziness, the glitching, the alliteration of the words, the cadence of the actor, the music from like, a horror leprechaun movie or a children’s show with talking pigs—this is the stuff of nightmares, people.
Oh, and there is an almost imperceptible image that pops up at the end (or is it the beginning?) of each video—a geometric configuration of blue/yellow/red that is reminiscent of a NFPA fire compliance sign (google it), which I have seen at least one other time in Martina’s work, circa 2016.
So you’ve got the feeling of the artwork, and you’ve got the picture, perhaps as best I can without narrating each Discommerical shot-by-shot. This brings me to the apex of all art-writing: what could this succession of colors and words mean? (I forgot to mention the M&M-like candies the character eats in Discommercial 1, also with a red, yellow, and blue candy coating). And could this meaning, in turn, mean something to me? I wrote extensively about legibility in my last text, because it was something that the artist was interested in; in this case I haven’t spoken to the artist about the work at all, but I would argue that Martina uses the form of the commercial (or discommercial, as its called) to plant a legible foot in the soft, wet garden of idiosyncrasy and weirdness she is walking barefoot through. Yes, I too get to do my own weird thing.
Let’s say the character, we’ll call them Phantom, represents a painting. I don’t think Phantom is actually meant to represent a painting, but they are certainly painted. This is one of the many satirical layers that Discommerical 1 and Disommercial 2 are operating on; as opposed to Martina actually making a painting, her character, and perhaps even the screen itself, is “painted”; so Phantom becomes a kind of intermediary object between a painting and a video and a person. Before abstraction, and certainly before minimalism, colors represented things. For example, the Virgin Mary was always depicted in blue. And then we get Phantom, who is also colored, as in, a color (in this case a purply-blue), in the visual sense. But lest we forget, our Phantom is a speaking subject, spitting out alliterative lines about “color-coded,” so we have both visual and linguistic ways that the work draws attention to both colors and codes, or, being both colored or coded. The more times I watched 1 and 2, which are less than a minute each, the more my brain conflated the words with the images, which have the almost unconscious effect of jumbling into a flash of colors, sounds, and shapes that seems destined to be a commentary on codes and colors, especially body colors, which is another way of saying skin colors, which is another way of saying: race. So in a way it seems obvious that the Discommericals should be about the subjectivity of color, but they are also about symbols, and the meaning of the colors themselves, which is a concept that reaches far beyond what painting usually wants from us—it reaches through most modes of contemporary art practice, wraps its iridescent purple fist around a loose piece of modern painting, and pulls it right through into the future, ending up as an artwork that to my amazement manages to transcend its medium, even as it remains quietly mounted to the wall—and at an appropriate height, too.
But back to red/yellow/blue, the specific and decidedly loaded palette that Martina chose to structure this work around. There are a few things to grab hold of—that they are primary colors, of course, which to me insinuates a kind of primary relationship between the subject (or in this case, the character) and its manifestation as a character. Is that clear? I guess I’m saying that primary is a tricky word that means both of first order of importance, but also basic, primitive, direct. It seems a character cast in such colors is being washed over, somehow neutralized, certainly obscured, by their primary coloring. In many artworks, color is used as a tool of aesthetic expression—here it amounts to a kind of technological obfuscation that is as silly as it is alarming. Sarah pointed out that primary colors are also “unmixed,” in terms of paint or painting; she immediately thought of them as a symbol of something “pure” and “original.” I assume others, especially painters, would have similar associations.
The red/yellow/blue image that flashes at the end of each discommercial is likely, as I have established earlier, a reference to the similarly composed fire compliance sign, a symbol with its own specific set of codes and meanings, which in the context of the video, casts a big-brother-esque vibe on the whole artwork. The thing about this compliance symbol is that it exists independently of Martina’s work—it is a symbol out in the world, so to speak, appearing in, I believe, any and all institutional spaces. The recurrence of this outside symbol serves to link Martina’s Discommercials with an image that frequently enters our visual field but is communicated in a symbology unknown to most people—which sounds a lot like how an artwork can be constructed. This is a subtle, unnerving way of insinuating the possibility that her artwork may be inserted everywhere, or is perhaps not an artwork at all—or worse, that we are surrounded by codes that could be broken, if only we had the skills, or the intellect, or more information.
As I read through what I’ve written so far, it occurred to me that I’m missing something really fundamental. The character is talking about food products. And Discommercial 1 is essentially a spoof on commercials (I literally just saw one) that advertise food products that have, say, “no artificial colors.” Of course in Discommercial land, there is no specific food brand, just “food packaging”; and while many conventional commercials will advertise that they are decidedly non-artificial (“natural,” if you will), the Discommerical is utterly unnatural; the character has a weird digitized skin and lumpy purple mask face. There is, I believe, a tension between that unnaturalness of what we see, and the rhetoric that the commercial satirizes; not only are we being sold products that claim to be artificial-free, but we are so clearly being suckered—Phantom’s decidedly unnatural (but perhaps still neutral, or primary, or un-mixed) appearance lays bare the culture of fallacy we continually expose ourselves to, and, quite literally, eat up.
Thinking about Discommercial 1, 2, and 3 has been a difficult task. There are artworks that function on a gut level, and no matter how you try to explicate or describe them, to academicize them or strike out into some kind of expressive, revelatory territory, it doesn’t help. They do their own thing. For me, this work is like that. There were a few other ideas I had about the Discommericals I couldn’t quite work into a narrative—perhaps because they’re not really there, or because they’re more like subliminal messages. For example, the combination of red/yellow/blue is reminiscent of the so-called “forbidden” colors, which scientists and color theorists have argued that the human eye cannot comprehend (yellow-blue, red-green). This took me down a path toward Ellsworth Kelly (Blue Yellow Red IV, 1972), and Sol LeWitt (Wall Drawing 880, Loopy Doopy (orange and green) 1998), but these thoughts brought me back to the satirical, biting nature of Martina’s color choices, only emphasizing that she is poking fun at such artists, whilst reminding us that their ideas of color neutrality are only available to some artists, in some contexts.
I must also admit that while Martina did send me the video files for each Discommercial, at my request, I found them difficult to refer to as a tool for thinking—the videos really do shine “in-situ,” so to speak—the importance of the loop, which is at first not discernible (it looped several times before I realized it was the same thing over and over), is critical to the incessant quality of a commercial—and that they play over and over with nearly nothing to distinguish the beginning and end is also reminiscent of our streaming-centric video experience, in which tv just tends to play and play, as if it has a will of its own to be seen. My point is that I had the files but I didn’t really use them—I have a feeling Martina will approve of this caveat.
I think lastly I’ll call myself out for focusing on Discommercial 1 and Discommerical 2; Discommerical 3 had a different thing going on, there was no mention of food, and I was put-off by the affectation the character took on in this iteration, which to me sounded like a stereotyped gay affectation, something I don’t feel I can take on in the scope of this writing.
Lastly lastly, when you write about art, you have to be careful not to write instead about yourself—something I’ve always failed at. I think Martina’s work spoke to me perhaps because I’m her intended audience—someone who makes a hobby out of a kind of judgment—who searches for codes, keys, colors, whatever—and is occasionally, if not frequently, deaf to the biases which color their own thinking, their own experiences—who need something wacky to shake them up or slap them around—to make an artwork beyond logic, which treads into the territory of magic, and cannot be exposed within a series of sentences, unless those sentences give way to the artwork’s own spells. I don’t know. Who can say what things are? The Discommericals mesmerized me with their freakiness, their indiscernibility, hell, their colors; and I’m not sure I came out the other end articulating much more than they articulate for themselves. But I do have an understanding that I ought to be more thoughtful about just what kind of crap I’m eating up, and especially, to unpack the way I project my own primary colors. I’ll do it.
While DeLoreans may abound in modern-day Los Angeles, they are not, in fact, time machines; they may show us an image of the past along with that past’s hopes and idealizations, but the person behind the wheel is under no such delusions about breaking through the space-time continuum.
No, it is not the DeLorean that can take us backward in time, but the museum—with its double-consciousness of past and present, its old things, its signs and pamphlets, its landscape, its facade, its people—all of which contain, as Joan Didion wrote on another California-y subject “the unconscious instruments of values.” But a museum with nothing in it? It is lovely, it is sad—like a beautiful empty house, it’s a space that retains a certain sort of melancholy—the arrogance of preservation against the reality of dust, and dirt, and time, and money. That said, the empty museum offers up one unique and profound question that typically only the most elite of our society get the chance to ponder with any authenticity—what would we fill it with? “Of this body; of this earth” offers an answer to that question, at least for one artist, at one museum, in one long, dank, subterranean hallway; a place where no art goes, or at least, can ever stay.
There are two ways to enter “Of this body; of this earth”; I mean that literally. You can drive or walk up the surprisingly lush hillside on a steep one-lane road, entering the museum by walking down a series of steps, past colorful tree-height carved totem poles, across a wide courtyard with ornate, high-backed, thick wooden benches, toward the museum’s historical marker that reads “The first museum in Los Angeles, Dedicated to the Native Peoples of the Southwest, Declared Historic-Cultural Monument No. 283,” through a set of simple double doors, where you will stop at the upper landing of a staircase, to the right of which is one of three functioning exhibitions at the museum; Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery, on view since 2013. Alternately, you can start at the bottom, and enter a tunnel.
I’m sure you can picture a water-damaged tunnel in a hillside. I bet you can even picture the niches in the tunnel, and the kind of dioramas they used to display (museum signage tells us they depicted the lives of various Native cultures). You may even be able to imagine the eerie shadows cast by the clunky 1920s fixtures that once illuminated this otherworldly place—part cave, part stage, part archaeological dig; you can imagine that it would have reminded museum founder Charles Lummis, with some delight, of his own adventures—in which he took, as was the fashion of the times, other people’s belongings (see the nearby and newly installed “Making a Big Noise: The Explorations of Charles Lummis”). This tunnel, of all art spaces I have ever seen, is one thousand percent metaphor, and the irony that it now sits mostly empty may not be an irony at all, but a kind of justice.
The metaphor, of course, is progress—that we might enter the cave and bear witness to an older, wilder, simpler way of being as we leave the bright heat of the day—we need this tunnel, lest we mis-recognized, say, the Pueblo Pottery as the kind of artwork which needn’t be contextualized by something dim, earthly, and utterly in the past. For what it’s worth, I would argue the most interesting iteration of this tunnel space as an artwork would be the tunnel as its empty self; a gesture against the narrative of progress in art, authored more or less anonymously by time itself—maybe that couldbreak through the space-time continuum.
Of all the artworks and all the positions artworks and their artists can take, Miller’s sits squarely within the metaphorical labor that I imagine Lummis imagined his tunnel would perform. I mean that Miller’s show, with its chalkboard drawings of apes and rocks, its soft, grey beds of ash, and its blood and hair, which of course stand in for her body, mimic what may be considered the same pseudo-anthropology that Lummis himself participated in. At first I was sure that Miller fell into Lummis’s trap; but the more I think about it, she may have beaten him at his own game.
Let me backtrack a little. “Of this body; of this earth” is a huge show, with twenty-four discreet artworks on the checklist. My perception was that each niche in the tunnel served as a mini-gallery for what I thought of as mini-installations; these mini-installations then resided in the context of the larger installation, which I considered titled “Of this body; of this earth”; I then presumed that “Of this body; of this earth” was a site-specific installation within the context of the museum as a whole, which therefore transformed “Of this body; of this earth” from a huge show into an incomprehensibly huge show, taking up big, blobby swaths of conceptual space ranging from museum politics to the politics of indigenous belongings, to the politics of the perception and display of indigenous culture, and on and on and on.
A few weeks after I saw “Of this body; of this earth” I asked Miller to meet me at the museum. I don’t know Miller, or her work, and after a long while of pacing up and down in the tunnel, looking hard at something and then spinning around and looking hard at something else, all in relative silence, I asked Miller to give me her “shpiel”; to tell me what she tells everyone else. I don’t know how many ways I can emphasize that I am not asking artists to tell me about their work because I can’t figure it out for myself—I am just really, really interested in how artists see their own work, or what kind of relationship they have to it. In this case I would say the press release description, “Robinson aims to understand and connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence” pretty much covered it. While I appreciate the ambition of this thought, I also find it quite silly—not because all art seeks to connect those dots (though all science may!)—but because as a statement, it does that funny thing that art almost always does—which is to set a task so impossible that its inevitable failure is so painless as to be imperceptible.
Faced with the self-imposed task of writing on such a show, I asked Miller something that is both banal and insane: Was there a question that she had about her own work that perhaps, I, Georgia, could answer? Not really, she said, but there was one thing. Miller told me that during one of the many walkthroughs/meetings/visits of the show, she received the following comment: the work seemed “private.” The word “private” was tinged with a mix of resigned heartbreak and disdain; it was a horrible word—gendered and counterintuitive, especially in the context of a show in a very public space, with no guard, no barrier, no camera, nothing to stop hands from shattering fragile things, or imprinting their palms like a tracing, or simply picking up and walking away with, say, a delicate brass paint brush tipped with the artist’s own hair—hell, private did not come anywhere close to what I imagine this work is for Miller—she probably bared her fucking soul to make it—if we believe in such things.
What I mean to say is the question of privacy led to the question of legibility. We assumed, Miller and I, that “private” meant “illegible” (though we’ll never exactly know). If that visitor meant that it was hard to read, or not clear enough to read, just exactly what it was that Miller wanted us to read, then I will have to politely agree. But this agreement would have to be predicated on the idea that Miller herself knew exactly what we were to read in the work, which would itself be predicated on the idea that artists are either responsible for and/or able to understand what is to be read within their work—and I simply do not believe such things—so I refuse to engage further with the question. Of course this is my rhetorical position, but I have a practical position, too. Instead of saying “it is legible,” “it is not legible,” let me try to read it, in specific.
Back to the sheer number of works in the show—I assumed that each niche contained a singular artwork with its own title made up of many objects (you know, like an installation); in fact, the many objects within each niche are all separate artworks with separate titles, many of which are multiples. I am perplexed by making multiples, but only displaying one, in the context of a work that is made for a specific site, as is emphasized in the press. While I’m unfamiliar with considering what displaying just one of a multiple might mean (though Sarah said duh, Joseph Beuys!), I am familiar with editions—and while Miller mostly calls her work “multiples,” not “editions,” either seems to insinuate that the work would be happy to inhabit nearly any site—or in the case of Paint Brush (2018), 22 other sites. This oddity of terms aside, I’m guessing the works are multiples as a nod to the fact that in this surveiless-space, they may well need to be replaced. But more importantly, calling them multiples tells us that these are not precious objects despite some of them literally containing matter from Miller’s body (another Beuysian nod). I find something fun and lively about this idea—like, of course there are many hair paint brushes—they practically grow themselves.
As for the artworks individually—yes, they’re tools; it’s pretty evident based on what they look like—a brush, a level, a paint roller—made further evident by the drawings of apes and hands and other cliched “early man” imagery. The Charles Lummis quote on the chalkboard at the opening of the show (the show’s namesake artwork, Of this body; of this earth (2018)) takes us there, too: “[man] cracked two stones together—a spark—and [he] was armed against the weather.” Within this quote, Miller substituted “she” for “he” and added the word “casual” before man—an intervention that for me, placed at the entrance to the show, teases with the possibility of an overt or embedded feminist gesture (I’ll take either!) that never materializes.
It’s clear that materials are of the utmost importance to Miller—she told me about different combinations of metals that make each other, and how she used them in the same sculpture, as a kind of unifying alchemical factor. Blood, hair, soot, lead, egg yolks, and the more grisly “bone glue” all sound mysterious and weird, and yes, they all seem rather at home buried in the hillside beneath this beautiful but dilapidated museum. Egg (sphere, cube, pyramid) (2018) is most interesting to me when it remains unbroken—I like using my imagination to picture the shapes’ pigmented interior—but even more so, I like the thought of the child or onlooker who has read nothing about the works at all, but strokes, ever so gently, one of their surfaces, only to be shocked and impressed when the shattered object reveals that it was more than just a delicate white shape, but actually contained something. If I’d had the gall to touch that object, with even just the tip of my unsteady finger, and felt the thrill of its collapse—well, that would have been the kind of messy, surprising experience antithetical to most museums—I think it would have been something special.
Installation view of three Egg(s) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary. Chalk-board for Embryonic Abacus (2018); plaster, sumi, and chalk. 17 x 21 x 1 in.
I also found some humor in Miller’s “trinkets,” for a variety of subjective reasons; Lizard Trinket (2018) reminds me of a silver alligator pin of my grandmother’s, which I coveted intensely, and both House Trinket (2018) and Studio Trinket (2018) recall Monopoly pieces, reminding me that the context and shape of a thing defines its status. Orichalcum Balance (2018), made of brass, copper, and zinc, is a delicate scale inscribed with “unless you tell me my name”; this piece again is reminiscent of jewelry, since it’s pretty, and has an inscription—the kind of inscription I would call cheesy, and romantic, and even…private. If I try really, really hard, I can imagine the inscription means something about the materials—like the metals themselves don’t understand that they’re separate from each other, unless we “name” them as separate entities; but this doesn’t make it less romantic, and also, I’m really not sure.
Though I am not squeamish per se, (I won’t faint or throw up at the sight of blood, though I did recently accidentally unearth an entire bowl of papery dead bees and ladybugs and ran screaming from the garage, unable to return until my wife came home and swept them up), I did find Spirit Level No. 1 (2018) to be quite disturbing and provocative—the blood as a kind of spirit, and the idea of leveling as something otherworldly or ghostly—for what “levelness” do we require blood as tool for measuring? Along with Orichalcum Balance, it reminds me of the ancient Egyptian ritual where our hearts may be weighed against a feather—either way, it represents an object that performs a kind of judgement, therefore becoming animate, or spirited, as the title suggests.
I could go into a close read of many more artworks in the show—but legibility was the question, any my answer is that legibility is subjective, and I can only succeed in describing what is legible to me; and while it would be nice to assume that all others share my perspective, it’s likely that the opposite is true. Also, remember that something that obscures the show is its sheer size, making it difficult to evenly and rigorously apply the nuance that this show in particular demands and deserves. “Of this body; of this earth” contains so many materials and shapes, so much specific language, so many subtleties—and as a rather unsubtle person, much of it goes over my head, though I can certainly appreciate the care embedded in the meticulousness of Miller’s labor, which I will argue she uses as the bigger, broader tool of her thought. And while for me, Miller’s chalk-boards do not bring clarity to her work, as I believe they were intended to, I wouldn’t have it any other way—the more idiosyncratic, the better. Chalk-board for Paint Roller (2018) is completely lovely—I have literally no idea what it means, but in the upper left-hand corner, under the word “paintings” is a plain little outline of a figure within a frame, a thin squiggle crossing the figure’s just-legible head. The quote underneath it reads “I swallowed water”—and if it means anything at all, it’s because it defies the material complexity of the rest of the tunnel, and does something more authentically akin to a cave painting, communicating a complex thought whose meaning we will never understand, all through a few lines and a squiggle. Wow.
Earlier I said I thought Miller was trying to beat Lummis at his own game—what I mean by this is that Miller uses something sciency to cast meaning, or doubt, or fascination, or however you might feel when looking at a periodic table and a pile of rocks, onto the objects in the collection, or in Miller’s case, onto the empty spaces where objects once were. In a roundabout, or painless, nearly imperceptible way, all of Miller’s niche’s serve to question the notion of progress within the museum; and to my delight, they serve to question the notion of legibility itself.
I called this piece “Back to the future” because of Miller’s desire to connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence. And I do see this show as a kind of DeLorean—it’s impossible, it’s theatrical, it’s nerdy, it’s goofy—but as an artwork, it achieves that tricky thing of palpably weaving the past and the present. What’s great about Miller’s work is that it demands that we develop our own tools for understanding—and while there may be thousands of possible interpretations of “Of this body; of this earth,” when we return to the Southwest Museum weeks or years from now, we’ll see much, much more than empty spaces where art once was; we’ll see possibility; we’ll see the future.
“Of this body; of this earth,” presented by Holiday, is on view at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, CA from May 20 to July 6, 2018. For more information on Miller Robinson, please visit her website: www.millerrobinson.net.
The featured image at the top of this post is an installation view of Egg (cube) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary.
Summer is something dangerous in LA. Fires speed across our crispy hills and canyons; mortars with names like Bone Breaker and American Dog Fight explode at all hours, offering up something more like rage than patriotism; the grid surges and dies under the load of our ACs and Apple products; and perhaps most importantly for readers of this blog, the art world takes a short and unfulfilling nap—the kind where you fall asleep sitting up and are jolted upright by the reliable yet embarrassing bodily gesture of your instinct not to face-plant. Just in time for this hazardous season comes Alika Cooper’s Buoy, a linguistic nod to this nautical beach-going time of year, and a visual representation of perhaps the most feared thing of all: the bathing suit.
I’m excited to be writing about bathing suits right now. Forget painting—this garment is in a class of representation all its own. If there was an object that could possibly represent the pain of the impossibly complex history of femininity, war, and the future destruction of the human race, it would be the bathing suit. I’m no historian, and have a horrible memory for such things, but even I know that the bikini, that two-piece corrupter of modesty and perpetual object of ambivalence in many a woman’s life—literally as representative of American freedom as abstract expressionism—was named after the Bikini Atoll—the site of a long series of nuclear testing by the United States, for which the inhabitants of that island were exiled. From now on, let bikinis and nuclear war be synonymous in your head. But back to Alika.
Alika is not an artist I knew until a few days ago. Through the magic of Instagram and art-world acquaintances, last Friday I landed at Odd Ark, a new-ish commercial artist-run gallery in Highland Park. The space itself, very professional but somehow unpretentious and at home in a strip-mall with a jiu jitsu studio, was pleasant to visit; not that any of this matters, but I like how the gallery is arranged so that visitors can be alone in the show. I’m always very self-conscious about looking, and here, I felt I was free to be a bit weird, and not feel the need to censor my odd facial expressions, for which I am unfortunately known.
But let me get right down to it. Buoy, like a beach toy that gets carried out on a wave but manages, to the child’s astonishment, to return, is not graspable, or perhaps appreciable, on first impression. There is something generic about Buoy at first, not boring, but unsurprising—the usual dangers of showing moderately-sized figurative paintings made with a marbleized, abstracted, colorful touch. Dare I say the paintings look very Los Angeles? No, I don’t, because I don’t believe LA looks like a thing, other than maybe a palm tree and a brush fire (and a helicopter?), and so my instinct was immediately to speak to the artist, who succeeded in making a show that one could tell was serious and perhaps even important, but not necessarily in making a clear way to find out just what that importance was. My journey would take the form of a sandwich; from the gallery, to the artist’s studio, and back to the gallery. Yum.
I like to talk to artists about their work because I’m interested to know what they think of it—or rather, what it means to them—and because I like talking. Our meeting wasn’t long, maybe an hour—and I took no notes, so I cannot perfectly nor faithfully recount anything that was said—but it was easy to be humbled by Alika’s approach to art-thinking. On the subject of bathing suits, she stated that it was a funny thing to be “into,” but she’s just “into it.” We discussed schools and methodologies, and I, like an idiot, asked her if she had an ethos. No, she said. We flipped through a few paper portfolios of Alika’s last few shows (she has had many; this is her third solo show in Los Angeles). We were computer-less, and while her work table was covered with remnants and future scraps for a series of bronze casting she’s been working on, the rest of her wares were modest. It appeared she had made no preparations for my visit, and this felt intensely admirable, because preparation is something that can be hard to resist. Here was an artist who was quietly, and without pretension, assembling something that might say something for her.
But back to the subject of bathing suits, and to painting. It’s true that Alika’s work may be described as something like collage; she more or less paints large swatches of fabric and then cuts them up and reassembles them into an image—in this case, images of women in bathing suits, which come from photographs of women in bathing suits. And in addition to being collage-y, they’re also puzzle-y; the fabric is not pasted over itself in a series of layers, but rather sliced open and placed inside, which disrupts, in the craftiest way possible, the picture plane. The first time I visited the gallery, none of this was evident to me. Each artwork appeared flat, and I was perplexed by what could possibly be at stake in a woman artist making faceless, detail-less representations of women in bathing suits. To put it plainly, it seemed like something a man would do—it made me frown in the same way I frown when I think of DeKooning’s women. That being said, curiosity got the best of me, and instead of being engaged in the materiality of the work or the “competition” (as Alika referred to it) between figuration and abstraction, I just wanted to know why she painted them.
I realize I’m working backwards here, but a bathing suit is a sight of anxiety. I think Alika’s perspective was invested more in the composition of the bathing suit photos, and not the suits themselves—more the idea of them as editorial scenes. In her press release, she wrote about the invisible labor of women “bobbing to the surface,” and about the suit’s floral patterns as “warning signs” and “markers of survival.” I see it a bit differently.
As an object, the bathing suit has a transitive property. This is so hard to explain, I’m really struggling—it’s like the bathing suit is the object that mediates the meaning of a woman’s body for that particular place and time—while a bathing suit takes on a similar form and function to underwear, it is necessarily public in a way that bras and underwear must be private; it represents the necessity for decency (to cover) while simultaneously requiring the display of femininity (to uncover). This garment determines when and how a woman can show her body, and in the process of this mediation, reveals the bafflingly incongruent expectation that we will inhabit all feminine ideals at once. To put it as superficially as possible, a woman in a bikini at a poolside restaurant is one thing; a woman in her bra at McDonalds is completely another. That the place where we are in relation to the design and fabric of the garment covering our nipples determines our level of decency and sanity is disgusting—furthermore, the double standard of male nipples versus female nipples is among the most disturbing double standards that exists in American culture, if not in the law—at least in the state of California. And in the context of bathing suits, the policing of women’s bodies, whether being told to cover or uncover, depending on where in the world you live, is two-fold; the bathing suit grants us cultural permission to physically be ourselves, while determining that the correct body is the one that fits inside the suit and appears, quite dumbly, like the women in Alika’s photographs.
It feels so crazy to be writing and thinking about standards of beauty—and yet that is where this work and this writing took me. I feel it goes without saying, though I will say it, that I have my own anxieties about bathing suits. I even have had bathing suit resolutions. I’ve said the phrase “beach body,” and meant it with some sincerity. I’ve envied skinny women in G-strings and athletic women in sporty one-pieces and I’ve especially envied the fat women in their snug-fitting bikinis, chasing their kids around the beach, or eating sandwiches, or boogie boarding, or sitting cross-legged at the edge of the surf and forming wet, drippy sandcastles on their knees. I have longed to banish my insecurities about my body, and while I still can’t totally wrap my mind around what this idea is doing in a crafty painting show, somehow the subject was just unsettling enough to squeeze it out of me.
Leaving lady-insecurity land and dropping anchor in modern painting, these are not abstract paintings. There is no tension between figuration and abstraction—what we have, actually, is an abstract painting on fabric that’s been cut up and re-configured into the pre-composed image of a woman. To me, this work is anti-expressive, and is a much more accurate and functional representation of the way identity is formed—a nearly-crude patchwork of moments that we hope will manage to express a kind of beauty or wholeness, despite the truth that we are just a series of fractured histories we did not invent but must dwell within. I agree that Alika’s paintings reference the idea of abstraction in the sense that the collages are made of abstract shapes that have been painted previously in an abstract style, but to me, they render abstraction useless. They say, guess what’s not abstract: woman. Hard to assemble, yes; not easy to represent in a simplistic way, yes; more labor than meets the eye, yes; but an abstraction—not I.
Maybe. I’m oscillating on my interpretation of the show, and while it isn’t exactly a comfortable feeling, it’s not undesirable, either. I still can’t make sense of the facelessness of the figures; and it’s true that when the women are non-specific, they become abstracted ideas of women, (though not abstract paintings!), which may be considered a criticism. On that subject, I am somehow reminded of Dana Schutz’s Swimming, Smoking, Crying (2009), which is—despite her issues with abstraction—a really good painting, and gets to the silly, simmering heart of the impossibility of being female—something that begins to creep up on you in Buoy. The second time I came to the gallery, the dimensionality of Alika’s work really stood out to me—the bumps, the raw edges—there is so much texture in the work, it made me want to run my fingers over it; something like the raised edges of a wound. There is also a prettiness to her paintings that is quite heartbreaking, which made me feel sad for all the flowers that have come to represent femininity in Western culture, and even sadder for the little girls who will wear the bikinis with the flowers, and even sadder for the garment workers around the world, many of whom are children, churning out colorful suits for women to feel self-conscious in, and for artists and writers to use as metaphorical objects of cultural significance.
So, what started as something that seemed flat ended up as something full of texture; what started as a puzzling gesture became a propositional space in which the work asked me questions, and I looked inside myself, and around a little bit, too, for the answers. Of course, there is no answer—the painting is as complicated as the woman who rendered it. Aren’t you? At Alika’s studio, she took me into the dusty, narrow hallway where she hangs her painted fabrics to dry. This was my favorite thing I saw there, and the thing that excites me the most about her work. There, in that hallway, pinned to the wall as unassumingly as if they were sheets on a line, exists the simple yet vast material of what might be formed into a kind of expression; and I can see that Alika’s work is a way of cutting and sewing her own garments—a gesture toward inhabiting a body that may one day finally be permitted to represent itself. In this indeterminate space, “being into it” is the first step in getting something out of it; it may not be an ethos, but it’s a hell of a way to move through the world. Even better.