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?

Plumerias (after Siboney) at LAXART 1
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

 

How Sharif is Sharif? Smokeless Fire by Sharif Farrag at Gallery1993

Smokeless Fire is a show of artworks by Sharif Farrag currently on view at Gallery1993. Gallery1993 is a car used as an exhibition space. Typical viewings of the show take the form of a ride in the car. In my case, the car pulled up in front of my neighbor’s house; I read an exhibition text in the form of a poem written by the gallerist, Seymour, while I stood in the street; we drove around for maybe 15 or 20 minutes while he explained what each artwork was; and at some point, I requested we pull over so I could get a closer look at the artwork. To end the appointment, I was dropped back off at my house. There it is.

Let me start over. Smokeless Fire is a show of artworks by Sharif Farrag currently on view at Gallery1993. There are five distinct pieces in this show, only one of which has a title, and it’s a damn good one: Hanging Up Sharif. I’ll call the other works the “wheel piece,” the “drawing,” the “lighter piece,” and the “door lock piece.” They don’t have titles now, according to Sharif, but they may eventually. This is a difficult show to approach because while there are many unique and interesting objects to draw connections between, it’s quite difficult to contextualize any of them, other than their location on or inside the car. I’ll start with some descriptions.

(Gallery1993)

The wheel piece is a small drawing attached to the center of the hubcap of the front passenger wheel. I’m not sure how it’s attached, I think it’s just underneath a prefab plastic hubcap piece, but I’m not familiar enough with specialized car parts to really know. The drawing looks like it’s in pen; the paper, which appears to be ripped off of a larger paper, has a hole punched out of the corner; it must be three-ring binder paper. The drawing itself is a dotted line that goes diagonally across what I’ll now call this “slip” of paper, with a little scissor drawn next to the dotted line, and, I am told, something (but not what!) written in Arabic (to me, sadly, it just looks like scribbles). Again, I can see that the slip of paper has been torn away from the larger piece of paper, not cut cleanly, as a scissor would indicate. And again, I don’t know what the Arabic says, but I suppose scissors and dotted lines are universal symbols. The wheel of the car gleams, damp and freshly washed; another kind of universal symbol.

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(Gallery1993)

Next is the drawing inside the glove compartment. You open the glove, and there it is, just lying there by itself. Seeing it is akin to a surprise, like opening a drawer and finding a chocolate bar (which can be either exciting or gross). It also reminded me of a flat file. I’ll touch back on the idea of drawings in drawers later. The drawing itself is small, less than letter size, rendered in pen and watercolor, I think. It depicts a group of men waiting in line at a store window to buy bread. Some men are wearing pants and t-shirts, and others are wearing robes; some are wearing noticeably funny combinations of traditional clothes and western clothes, accessorized with baseball caps and sunglasses; one even carries an American-looking plastic bag with a yellow smiley face on it. The drawing itself is pretty; while the characters are comic-bookish, there are many subtle colors and textures; Sharif has paid special attention to patterns, in both architecture and fabric; he has also rendered, I think importantly, the hair on the men’s legs which stick out from their robes. This scene is clearly not from here. During my car ride appointment, Seymour mentioned something about Morocco, but I couldn’t quite make sense of the story.

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The lighter piece is a sculptural form (I thought it was resin, it’s actually epoxy clay) that’s “plugged-in” to the cigarette lighter; it’s hard to place the form, and Seymour describes it as a paper clip.

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(Gallery1993)

The door lock piece is wilder, and also kinetic (because it goes up and down); again made of epoxy clay but painted to look like metal (I am told), it’s a skinny thing that looks like it grew somewhat organically out of the knob. It also looks like a wisp of smoke, which is what it reminds me of; or, it’s just a two-pronged form that resembles the letter Y, and really nothing else. Seymour doesn’t offer specifics on the referential shape of this one, that I can remember.

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(Gallery1993)

Lastly there is Hanging Up Sharif, a puppet-like version of, I presume, Sharif, draped over an epoxy clay covered coat hanger. It hangs from the roof handle of the rear-passenger seat, in the same place where I hang my dry cleaning, once or twice a year.

Do you see what I’m saying about the lack of context? Sure, the car is the context, but it’s the exhibition space. I struggled to determine on whose terms to interpret this artwork. The car’s or Sharif’s? Perhaps they were one in the same. I decided to meet with Sharif to figure it out.

It will be hard to describe our meeting without just gushing about how nice Sharif is, how kind and genuine he comes across. He’s tall and pretty, with long, thick hair and full, though not dramatic lips. We meet on the USC campus and he walks me around, pointing out artworks he made. He doesn’t have a studio on campus (undergrads don’t), but he’s made himself comfortable here, especially in the ceramics studio, where he also holds a job. At one point we have to retrace our steps to a towering artwork he made (it is literally modeled off of an electrical tower) because we were talking, and he didn’t want to interrupt our conversation. This man is sweet as pie and polite as fuck. He’s also mysterious—who is this person who made Hanging Up Sharif, but also, like, a clay smoke-wisp exploding out of a door lock, painted silver? While I cannot recount our conversation in any faithful way (I don’t take notes or record), Sharif is figuring things out. He’s trying different mediums to see what suits him, using ceramic, metal, drawing, free-writing, fabric, incense, ritual, and now, this car. For Sharif it’s both an experiment and experience to be working closely with a gallerist. The upside is that he feels encouraged, motivated, excited; the downside is he has to hand over some creative control, perhaps without knowing. While we sit on stools and talk in the empty, dusty ceramics studio, he shows me a series of censers he made; these censers (incense burners) were used during the opening of Smokeless Fire (the title of the show starts to make a little more sense now). I tell Sharif I didn’t go to the opening, and usually the reason I don’t go is because I won’t get to see the art. He describes the opening to me; it took place at his house near USC; they drove the car into the backyard and created an installation of censers arranged in a circle around the car, burning an incense of frankincense and myrrh. I tell him I wish I had known that there would be a one-time installation at the opening, because then I would have come. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking genuinely sorry; “it’s not really part of the show, it’s just something we came up with at the last second. You didn’t miss anything, we just lit the incense to purify the car before it went out.” I laugh and say “Oh sure, I didn’t miss anything important, just THE PURIFICATION OF THE CAR!” It seems important to me.

This is something you need to understand about Sharif; it’s not that he doesn’t have particular ideas about his work, or how it should be installed or perceived; its more like he’s open, like actually open, not open by necessity, to new ways of thinking about what he’s doing. That me missing the purification of the gallery and its contents is to him not a big deal speaks to his unpretentiousness; my agitation at having missed this event because of lack of advertising speaks, paradoxically, to my pretentiousness. As our conversation goes on, I soften a little; I am learning something new about art and about myself, and about where we place value. I wanted to be at the car purification, but to Sharif, what was important was that it happened. It wasn’t a performance, but an action; it had a purpose. An actual purpose. (When fact-checking this writing, Sharif wrote to me “The purification of the car goes back to Muslim traditions, not the sage-burning nag champa type of cleansing. It’s based on something called bakhour, my mom used to bombard me with it every Friday. It also can be used as a gesture of hospitality when inviting guests over a house, or to celebrate holy days or weddings.” I don’t see his comment as antithetical to my interpretation, but I wanted to include it nonetheless.)

Before I forget, I also have to say that early in our conversation, in the context of making intuitive work invested in materials, Sharif said “it’s not that I don’t have concepts, it’s that I’m weary of them.” Sharif’s art practice, if not the art itself, is invested in an exploration; an exploration of the possibility of art. Not a public exploration; but more like, the possibility of making art as Sharif, of being Sharif. I see this both clearly and subtly in Hanging Up Sharif.

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(Gallery1993)

Hanging Up Sharif at Gallery1993 is the third iteration of Hanging Up Sharif (he told me that). The first iteration was in a cabinet filled with ceramic trophies; the second iteration was hanging on the wall with the trophies underneath; and in fact there was another iteration, which Seymour told me about, if I remember correctly. During my car appointment, I asked Seymour if the artworks were made especially for this show, and he said some were, but when he first saw Hanging Up Sharif, it was literally in Sharif’s bedroom closet. Clever art storage, indeed! That this is the only artwork in the show that’s been shown before, already “iterated” if you will, fits well with its content. The most obvious way to read the work is that it’s a comment on identity politics; or, not a comment on, I guess, but more an embodiment of it. In fact, it’s almost a caricature of the idea of identity politics, because it is literally a puppet that Sharif made of himself; a version of himself, presumably one of many, that hangs in his closet, and that must be occasionally (or rarely, if he’s like me) taken for a cleaning. I totally see the Sharif in the car as drycleaning, if I haven’t made that clear enough. The title of the work, too, is clever, but also dark. The idea of hanging yourself up can be interpreted in many ways—the first that comes to mind is the idea of retiring (like “hanging up your jersey”); Sharif is letting go of a certain identity that this puppet represents (though I couldn’t tell you which one). The next thing I think of is “hang me out to dry,” an expression that means to abandon or to betray in some way. The third is my personal favorite, the quintessential breakup song “Hang Me Up To Dry” by Cold War Kids, which refers more to finally being let go (the lyric goes “so hang me up to dry/you rang me out too too too many times). It’s actually a great song full of laundry metaphors, and I must listen to it immediately (now you do it too). The last, and darkest reading of Hanging Up Sharif is the idea of hanging—of an execution. The sculpture itself, all floppy and cute and slung over a coat hanger, does not visually read this way, but the title of the work suggests it anyways. I don’t know any other way to say this, other than that I think, perhaps even unconsciously, I’m not sure, it represents the pain of the bigotry and violence of our disgusting country, along with what seems to be its logical conclusion: you can hang up Sharif, or just plain hang him. This is an artwork where the title complicates its interpretation and makes it nuanced. It makes the show; it saves the show; it embodies the spirit of the car and its journey, while staying true to its own journey. This is what I mean by the possibility of being Sharif.

There are two other important aspects of our conversation I want to share; the little bit about his family life (it really accounted for maybe, three percent of our conversation), and his responses to my questions about each artwork. Since the exhibition text that Seymour provided was a semi-abstract poem which did not give standard information such as titles, materials, dates, a bio, or anything of the sort, I wanted to share the context of the works (as told to me by Sharif, because I specifically asked).

That little slip of paper from the wheel piece is ripped off of a larger drawing that Sharif bought from a beggar in Morocco. He was in Morocco on a travel grant from USC; he had wanted to visit Syria, where his mother’s side of the family is from, but based on the stipulations of the grant, Syria was deemed too dangerous. While in Morocco, Sharif spent many hours at local cafes, basically people-watching, eating bread and honey, and drawing. He said it’s common for people to approach you at cafes, wanting money; one man handed Sharif a comic, and then made his rounds at the cafe. When he came back to Sharif, he wanted money, or he wanted the comic back. Sharif bought it; that little piece of paper on the hubcap, with no title and no subtitle—it says “thank you.”

The drawing in the glove box was kind of an exercise for Sharif; he also made it in Morocco, sitting in a cafe, because he didn’t know many people and didn’t have a lot to do, and he wanted to practice his drawing, because he doesn’t think he’s good at it. He drew that particular scene because of what he saw as the silliness/absurdity of the traditional dress combined with the western accessories.

The lighter piece is a baby rattle, and it’s supposed to make noise as you drive. That’s all I can remember about that.

The door lock piece is in the shape of a slingshot. A slingshot!

I think the context of this work gives it legibility, and I think the context of the car gives that legibility a new context; as in, I like considering Sharif’s work in the context of being installed in a functioning car, but I would argue that that consideration is only possible (or at least more accessible) when I have more information about the artwork. That a little slip of paper was carried thousands of miles and then glued to the wheel of a car inspires the idea of a journey—of some kind of communication across cultures, and perhaps most poignantly, an appreciation for little, little things; a slip of paper from a stranger that says “thank you.” It could bring me to tears.

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(Gallery1993)

Something I like about the drawing in the drawer is that it makes me think of flat files, the fanciest and art-iest of drawings in drawers (personally I own the largest style you can buy, and on wheels!). For a native Angeleno, raised in Reseda and educated between El Camino Real High School and a Muslim youth group which met at the Mosque every Saturday, the contrast between the world depicted in Sharif’s drawing and the world both immediately within and outside of the car, a Crown Victoria, presents a paradox of place, and a reality of present. The world is small, and both of these cultures live and thrive together, not just in Los Angeles, not just in Sharif, but in this little box inside this sumptuous, clean, and straight-up super duper fly car. You can make a bunch of drawings alone in your studio and store them in your convenient and very functional flat file, where they won’t be damaged, or even seen, for that matter. Or, you can stick your drawing in the glove box and cruise anywhere you want. I’m starting to think it’s not the car that’s the context, but what it represents; a kind of freedom.

As for the slingshot and the baby rattle, those are a bit more mysterious and random. I don’t think I would have ever guessed it was a baby rattle—maybe I would have if I heard it rattle, I don’t know. That it was described to me during my car visit as a paper clip whose negative space was somehow important did not help, but nothing really would have. I suppose that plugging in a baby rattle where you would normally light a cigarette is humorous, but I don’t really get it. But nothing ventured, nothing gained!

The slingshot is a little bit of a different story. During my talk with Sharif at USC, the first artwork he took me to was a huge sculpture he made in the shape of a slingshot; it was made of different fabrics, mostly plaid-patterned, stretched and glued over a giant slingshot armature, not in the “resting” position, but in the aim/fire position, so it’s stretched backward to the max. (When fact-checking this writing, Sharif wrote to me that his intention was for it to be a “gummy slingshot that if you tried to pull it would just slump over.” I would argue that gummy things don’t have metal armatures, but that’s my interpretation.) I thought it was a cool sculpture; I like how he made it human-like by basically dressing it up in clothes. Its posture was such that it was on the verge of firing, and firing hard. But of course it isn’t really a slingshot, because it’s not designed to shoot anything; so the posture is ultimately a let-down. No climax. The slingshot on the door lock knob (Sharif told me that’s what it’s called) is similarly functionless, and I can’t really make sense of it here, other than it would be considered a kind of “customization” (a word both Seymour and Sharif used), to have that thing instead of normal knobs. It’s not what I would choose! But I suppose that’s the point. I think slingshots are an important and interesting aspect of Sharif’s visual vocabulary, but it’s sort of blah here. It should go in the big slingshot show I think Sharif should do…

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I could have said more about about the structure of the gallery, but I’d rather try to make sense of its contents. I think the experience of the car appointment probably changes depending on who you are; honestly, I felt my experience was a little bizarre. That being said, let me point out that Seymour’s decision to write a poem (the thing I find myself most critical of) instead of providing a bio, or blurb about the show, or even a title list, is interesting because it values experience over understanding, which is exactly how my car ride felt. Seymour’s poem is a gesture toward-non understanding, or toward confusion; something Sharif and I talked about at length; that art is confusing, to do and to experience. Sharif is not a didactic artist, and is not invested in placing his artwork in some kind of lineage or traditional compressed press release form, so why should Seymour be? As frustrating as the poem was, knowing all that I know, I think it was a gesture of kindness, of camaraderie, understanding, sympathy—i’m just not sure it functioned that way in the end.

If I had to ascribe a theme to this show, it would be “Sharif does Sharif.” The customizations, the personal drawings, the little thank you note from the Moroccan beggar tucked under the wheel; the effigy hanging like a costume in the back seat; it’s as if to say, which one of these is Sharif the artist? Is he the macho, opaque, abstract sculptor? Is he the collector of keepsakes, notes, and journals from travels? Is it the Sharif sitting anonymously in a Moroccan cafe, a Sharif among Sharifs, finding beauty but also irony, rattling ideas of authenticity? Is he the crafty type, gluing fabric and shoes and making dolls, making fun of himself and giving everyone a good laugh? Is he the hipster shaman performer, purifying the gallery which is itself parked in his backyard?

You’ll notice I titled this writing “How Sharif is Sharif?”; of course I’m thinking of Laura Aguilar’s multi-part work How Mexican Is Mexican (1990), which I recently saw at the Vincent Price Museum as part of the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. While Aguilar’s title lacks a question mark, making it as much of a question as a directive, (from something like “how Mexican is Mexican enough?” to “how Mexicans perform Mexican identity,”) I pose my title as a question, because again, this show is an exploration, not just for Sharif to figure himself out, but for all of us to figure ourselves out. How Sharif is Sharif? How Georgia is Georgia? And across the spectrum of identity.

Lastly, I want to address the title of the show, Smokeless Fire. Though I did not know what it referred to, it sounded vaguely biblical. I thought perhaps it was a reference to Moses and the burning bush; a fire that famously burns, but does not consume, a bush. I searched for “smokeless fire” and found that the Quran refers to creatures called Jinn, who were created from a smokeless fire. Jinn, from my very brief reading, are like spirits; they aren’t angels, but more like fallen angels, or less-than angels. How does this affect my interpretation of Sharif’s work? I’m not sure. In the most basic sense, it indicates that the show is somehow coded, or that there is more than “meets the eye” so to speak. This would be absolutely true. But it also evokes spirits, and perhaps even the spiritual. Smokeless Fire, though it is just a title made up of an adjective and a noun, is also a way of looking; as in, the show itself is smokeless fire; it conjures the invisible and opens the possibility to another realm, one that we cannot access through just our eyes; Sharif’s realm.

Of course it takes a certain level of commitment to get to the lengthy interpretation of this show I’ve presented here, but that’s who I am. After all, this is what I look for in art—some kind of transformation. If I were you, when I go to see this show, (or really, when the show comes to see me), I would try to look past the car and the ride, and forget the pressure to listen or engage in a conversation, or the pressure to be, well, moved (the car does plenty of that for you). Sit in the back and focus on taking in the artwork more than the scenery; look for the artist inside the work; become a little more Sharif.

Smokeless Fire is on view at Gallery1993 from October 7th to December 30th, 2017. Email seymour@1993.gallery to make an appointment. For information on Sharif Farrag, please visit his website: http://sharif5.tumblr.com.

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

We’re all beginners here: support, for beginners by Josh Atlas at Elephant Art Space

support, for beginners is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Josh Atlas. As I sit down to write this, the first thing I have to do is take a deep breath—this is a small show with just several small things; and the material of these small things is in itself small; diminutive, you could say: paper, paint, and wood. Josh calls them slight. He also refers to the wood of these sculptures as spines. So already the artworks are human, somehow, in their nature, at least in the very polite way that the artist describes them. This makes them seem fragile, maybe even emotionally fragile, and this makes me a little bit nervous. Why the deep breath? Because I know that writing on this show is going to present a special set of difficulties and questions, and one of those difficulties will be coming face to face with the very slightness that this work wants to explore. In a community of shows which pride themselves on heavy-handed and specific curatorial visions; in a community where often more is more is more (until it isn’t); and also in a moment of research-driven text-heavy shows (thanks to generous support from the Getty), we walk into this small but pretty room to experience a self-selected show of slight objects by an artist who I would call not-overly-confident, and hasn’t even shown very much. So even though I feel a strong sense of being quantitatively underwhelmed, I simultaneously feel overwhelmed by what must be at stake in these artworks and for this artist. Quiet and empty and deliberate, the sense that something deeply personal, and yet confounding, permeates the space. Both times I entered the gallery, I dealt with this issue by immediately sitting down. Sitting down and breathing, and I suppose, preparing, for the subject to hit me like a ton of bricks. Did it happen?

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Stacks (7), 2017 and Mounds (8), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

I have a tendency to veer away from symbolism when thinking about art, because it never gets me anywhere, unless there is something signaling to me within the artwork that it wants to and must be read in a symbolic way in order to be its authentic artwork-self. If we look for that here in Josh’s work, I think we end up with something vaguely sexual and perhaps banal; what stands out to me is the penetration happening here, specifically the penetration of wood through paper. I’m trying to think of other circumstances where wood penetrates paper, perhaps in the non-art world. Maybe just, arrows through an archery target? And this is only if you stick a paper target up on the foam or hay thing. And arrows have metal on the tip, so it doesn’t totally count. (Something funny about this observation is that I know Josh enjoys archery, and has spoken frequently of Eugen Herrigel’s 1953 book Zen In the Art of Archery; I’ve also dabbled in archery myself.) This penetrative act of wood through paper, since I can’t really place it anywhere, is totally new; and things that are totally new are really great at referencing nothing at all. Except, of course, now we are left with just the penetration, and I guess the archery too, so there must be “something to that.” Or not. It doesn’t really seem like it.

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Stacks (6), 2017. Acrylic, crayon, paper, and wood. 29 5/8 x 4 7/8 x 3/4 inches. (Josh Atlas)

The other vaguely sexual thing is that all the works are called either Stacks or Mounds, which sounds pretty sexy to me. Let’s say this is an unconscious aspect of the artwork, and let’s move on from it—at this moment it’s not that helpful.

What else? Even though these sculptures are simple or minimal in their materials, I wouldn’t call them minimalist, and I don’t think anybody would. They’re kind of crafty, with their cheap un-fetishized wood (I called it balsa; Josh informed me it’s really red oak) and slightly streaky application of brightly-colored acrylic paint; they employ some “collage” techniques, if you will, with cut-out pieces of paper painted different colors and layered on top of each other; they also, I think, have sparkles on them (of note here; I asked josh to review this writing for factual accuracy, and he assured me there are no sparkles, but I’m still sure I saw sparkles!). Even when I describe these works, and then I look at them, I think, what the hell is this? Why why why?

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Mounds (8), 2017. Acrylic, paper, and wood. 17 3/4 x 3 x 1/4 inches. (Josh Atlas)

And yet there I sit, on those little protruding steps, sitting and thinking and breathing. Something important about the gallery steps is that they offer the work a direction. Sit on the steps and feel suddenly grounded in this calm but esoteric presentation of paper and paint. support, for beginners feels less like an art show and more like a place to sit and think—a meditation space? I’m not into meditation but I am into thinking, and conversation. Josh told me, because I asked, that there were several more works that he proposed to be in this show, but in the end, he only ended up installing six of them. He described the difficulty of decontextualizing them from the space they were made (his living room-now-studio, a place I’ve been many times over many years) and finding the right installation. A balanced installation, you could say. It makes sense to me that editing his work down to a few perfect pieces in the perfect arrangement for this show was challenging, but you can also feel the focus and determination in those choices when you sit down. It feels like a meditative space because so much meditation went into configuring it. It feels like a place for conversation because instead of underwhelming, the artworks are actually, modest. In fact, I would call them submissive. Ah, so there is a connection with those vaguely sexual elements of penetration and mounds! The work is submissive. We dominate it with our presence, with our thoughts, with our desires for what art should be, or our own insecurities about what it is, or what meaning it could have. And, like all dominant/submissive relationships, it satisfies our desires by consenting to our control. It complicates the idea of control. Okay—it complicates the idea of meaning, and how it could be expressed. It’s an artwork (thank you Leslie!) that proposes what an artwork could be. And we, sitting mutely and perhaps judgmentally on those wooden steps, are stuck proposing what kind of an audience we are, and therefore what an audience is or does. If we have some sort of responsibility here, or not.

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Mounds (1), 2017 and Stacks (6), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

This is something Josh and I discussed at the show. He wondered if people really like, or get anything out of his work, or if it’s just him they like, and want to support. I asked “what’s the difference?” After some moments he explained that he’d like for his work to be able to live without him to an extent, to be able to sort of, let go of it, but be confident in it. Almost like a parent/child relationship, but not exactly. Josh, you show your work love and care; you’re kind, gracious, and patient with it—and with me—as we sit and have a conversation which, at some point, I realize has become more about me than about Josh, or his art show.

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Stacks (6), 2017; Stacks (7), 2017; and Mounds (8), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

I didn’t mention this yet but it’s really important—as soon as I came into the show and sat down (we met on the Monday afternoon following the opening), I immediately started talking about myself. Why I write, what I want out of writing, studio visits I’ve had that seemed weird or bad, things I read on Facebook that infuriated me (a very lame and irrelevant complaint on my part); this is NOT standard procedure for how I behave, or how I want to behave, when talking with an artist at their show. And I would argue that this share, and maybe even over-share, is a function of Josh’s work. It seems, I know, that we were just chit-chatting, since we are friends, and we are both artists, or whatever; but that really isn’t it. The meditative, conversational space that is support, for beginners is to me the crux of the work; heck, it’s even in the title. Support. And yes, I guess I am a beginner. Case and point.

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Mounds (9), 2017, and Mounds (1), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

I’ll admit I am being some form of gracious towards this artwork, because that’s how it makes me feel; like if I am somehow unkind, or overly critical, then I will miss the point entirely with all my blustering and hard-headedness, all my expectations and demands and superiorities. My “art world pretensions” if you will. But there are criticisms worth bringing up, and I would be doing this work a disservice if I simply glossed over them.  

These works are really opaque. As in, for me, it’s really hard to just look at them and get something out of them. I mean, transparency is not necessarily a quality that I value in art, but in the press release, Josh writes “They present themselves clearly and plainly, giving all they have to offer.” I hate to call out artists’ writing on their own work, but they are just not plain and clear. Like, absolutely no way are they plain and clear. Damn it Josh, they are complicated and difficult! And I do not mean that as a criticism. I think what Josh means is that they aren’t works that have been worked to death with symbols and concepts and ideologies; I think he means to back away from being convoluted; however, not being overly-complicated does not render an artwork plain, and definitely not clear. Let’s remember that. And let’s not sell ourselves short when describing our own work. To Josh, the content of the work may be clarity, openness, whatever; but that doesn’t have to, and will likely not, do a one-to-one translation to its form, despite what art school may want us to think.

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Mounds (5), 2017. Acrylic, paper, pastel, and wood. 13 5/8 x 6 7/8 x 1/4 inches. (Josh Atlas)

Since I am being picky about language, I think the use of the word “empathy” when describing this work is odd, too, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Like, empathic toward what? Is it to Josh? Is it to artists? Is it to ourselves? While I get that I have almost already argued that the nature of this work is in fact empathic, (empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner, definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster online, my writing bible), isn’t all art? And, isn’t everything? Without empathy, we are all totally lost and screwed. A singular artwork dedicated to empathy is so broad as to be meaningless. And this isn’t meaningless, is it?

My harshest criticism by far is that I wonder if I could get away with an artwork like this. As in, something that could be argued is at best interested in formalism and other boring un-contemporary aesthetic ideas, and at worst is an a-political artwork that privileges some kind of transcendental experience which seems genderless and raceless and classless, but of course is not. I don’t see it in either of those ways, and I would encourage others not to, either; but I have the time and privilege of figuring out what it could mean, and really, what it could mean to me. This is something I like about this work. If I believe Josh when he writes “they give all they have to offer,” (and I do believe him), then I in turn feel obligated to give back. A question of audience? Asked, and answered.

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Stacks (7), 2017. Acrylic, crayon, paper, and wood. 37 x 96 x 1/2 inches. (Josh Atlas)

Even after all this, I don’t know. I’m still really puzzled by this work. It really, really wants a lot from me. It’s like, we all want something from art, a lot of things, but we don’t know how to get them. This work is an attempt to do something that for once I do feel is beyond language; it’s floating a way of working, of thinking, of absorbing. For some people this will click, and for some it won’t; I can tell you I walked away feeling like art is even more mysterious than I ever understood. That I still can’t really tell you anything about this artwork, why this, why that, but I am willing to try. And so was Josh. We don’t want ideologies, we don’t want arrogance, we don’t want didactics, or to join a new religion. What we want is something that can be close to the truth, even if it’s a truth we can’t understand; that’s what support, for beginners, is; if there’s a revelation here, it’s that we’re all beginners, after all.

support, for beginners is on view at Elephant Art Space from October 7th to October 28th, 2017. Elephant Art Space is open on Saturdays and by appointment. For information on Josh Atlas, please visit his website: http://www.joshatlas.com.

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

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Stephanie Deumer and Arden Surdam. I’m not too familiar with Arden’s work, but from what I know about Stephanie, it sounds like she may have taken the lead on titling. All of Stephanie’s artworks have serious titles. By serious, I mean thoughtful, and also leading; while the content of the title of this show sets us up for what may be a kind of existential experience (in body, out of body, shadow body, etc. etc.), the poetics of its phrasing also claim an important stake on language and its place in art; namely, that it belongs, and will likely serve us as we approach this exhibition.

I can’t actually get past the title. What is a mere body? As a noun, mere means an expanse of standing water, like a lake or a pool; as an adjective, it means pure. It also means no more than, but it simultaneously means no less than. It’s a fascinating word. The formal poetics of the title work the magic, too; real/mere look very similar and are both monosyllabic; I consider them off-rhymes. Shadows/bodies are both polysyllabic, and are also arguably off-rhymes. And then, perhaps most beautifully, the mirroring of the title, accomplished with a preposition, which can be applied in several ways; for can be a “function word,” indicating a purpose, goal, perception, or desire; it can also have an autonomous, non-function word meaning: because of, in place of, in spite of.

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Installation view of Real Shadows for Mere Bodies. From left to right: Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 76.7″x20″x20″; Arden Surdam’s Gladiolas for a Funeral, 2017. Archival inkjet print, 28″x24″; Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, paper, PVC, paper. 74″x43″x21. Image courtesy of Stephanie Deumer.

Because Of, In Place Of, In Spite Of would also be a good title for this show; for it is predicated on the existence of another artist’s work (in this case Arden’s), and this predication is perhaps the most interesting, but also disconcerting, and even annoying, aspect of this show. (Here I will add that though it’s hard to tell from the documentation of the show, images of Arden’s work appear on, as in are printed directly on, Stephanie’s sculptures.) Is annoying a bad thing? I don’t really think so.  Something that is annoying is often something that must be tolerated, because it is essential. For example, waiting in line can be annoying, but its an essential aspect of life that must be managed; or, the sound of bees buzzing can be annoying, but this is fundamentally beautiful and vital; its buzz is characteristic to its being. So, the buzz characteristic to Stephanie’s being is this thing where she literally uses, typically through photo or video, things that are in the space already, or that will be there at the time of the exhibition. What’s annoying about this is that Arden’s work must go up first, which must be annoying for both of them. But it also raises the question of temporality that i’m not convinced is meaningless: Arden’s work must always come first. Stephanie’s must always come second. Stephanie must always come around and eventually use, steal, borrow, echo, shadow, Arden’s work. And in this sense, someone’s work must occupy the place of the mere body, and someone’s must occupy the real shadow. It may not be a fixed position.

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x19.25″. Image courtesy of the artist.

Stephanie’s fountain piece is clearly the centerpiece of the show. As you make your way into the gallery (a small-ish room, albeit with unusual architectural characteristics, like a sloped ceiling, and, I think, skylights?) it is basically the first thing you see. It is placed diagonally toward what I believe is the most trafficked entrance to the gallery (an exterior door all the way to the left), so that as you enter the actual exhibition space, as opposed to the entryway, you’re squared up with the thing. The thing is a working fountain that looks a lot like a mantle; I don’t know anything about making fountains, but presumably there are pipes inside, and a hose, or another pipe, that cycles the water through. It looks kind of like a window with a planter box. I don’t know what it’s constructed out of, but the outside may be wood or plastic; either way, the pipes are housed inside of this window/mantle structure, which is itself covered in faux-marble contact paper, or something of the sort. Water flows down from the top of the window over a piece of plexi, I think, and it certainly makes a nice, relaxing sound. Overall it looks like Stephanie knows how to make a fountain, and the faux-marble contact paper (which is grimy, and not pristine, and not mis-recognizable) is the only thing that gives away that this structure is meant to represent something fake, something obviously fake; and that this fakeness may be more important than the fountain’s fountain-ness, which is to produce a jet of water in some form.

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x19.25″. Image courtesy of the artist.

This is not the whole artwork, although it could be. In fact, there is a 10-minute video projected onto the “screen” of the fountain, but from the back. This may explain the location of the fountain in the gallery (it seems the most logical, and the only practical) but it may not. I don’t really want to describe the video. I think the most important things about it are that women are in it, and only women; that these women are either faceless, or simply tropes of women, putting on makeup, or swimming up at us seductively and ethereally from a very blue pool. There are fish swimming upstream, or dying out of water; it’s hard to tell, and its disturbing. Also, there are a lot of meta-screen things happening, like a tablet screen the size of the fountain screen, and then scrolling through the screen, and maybe screens popping up and becoming other screens. There is a voiceover that accompanies the piece; another poetic thing, a story about reflection and love and recognition, which implies the myth of Narcissus very clearly, but never uses his name. A transcript of this voiceover is offered on paper in the gallery, which seems unusual and maybe odd, made odder by the fact that it is formatted for, and then cut to, a smaller paper size. Or perhaps it is useful to those that are hard of hearing.

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Installation view of Real Shadows for Mere Bodies. In the foreground: Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 74″32.5″x22″. In the background, from left to right: Arden Surdam’s Untitled #1 and Untitled #2. Both are archival inkjet prints, 5″x3.3″, from 2017. Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x”19.25″. Arden Surdam’s Echo, 2017. Image courtesy of Stephanie Deumer.
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Arden Surdam’s Untitled #1 and Untitled #2. Both are archival inkjet prints, 5″x3.3″, from 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Arden Surdam’s Echo, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

I’m trying to understand if my reaction to the fountain video can be separated from my reaction the fountain, or from the other works in the show. The worst part of the video, which I  am really leaving many interesting and worthy details out of, is that it makes the fountain into a prop; a mechanism for screening. It is a really, really clever way to screen a video, and I can’t stop thinking about that. When I say worst part of the video, what I mean is that the video is having a weird effect on the fountain—it’s almost revealing too much about the fountain—its revealing this really direct relationship between the insinuated story of Narcissus told in the voiceover, and the fact that when you watch the video, you’re also staring into a stream of water. And yet you can rarely see your reflection when you watch; you can only see it in those two minutes between video loops, which I happened to ruin by crassly yelling to Stephanie, “hey, is this thing gonna loop again??”

That only women appear in this video in various forms seems to be besides the point. That a video about, say, in a superficial sense, the narcissism of our culture should be directed at or performed through only female bodied people seems tragically unfair. Why Stephanie, why? I know a little bit about the myth of Narcissus. Its most important and most misunderstood attribute is that Narcissus doesn’t fall in love with himself; he falls in love with an untouchable, unknowable creature that has no materiality at all. It is a fundamental misrecognition; he doesn’t know it’s him. The tragedy here isn’t that he’s fallen in love with himself: it’s that he doesn’t recognize himself. Is that our problem? Is it that as women, we don’t recognize ourselves, since we’ve become immaterial, digital versions of ourselves? I don’t know. I mean, it is possible that Narcissus, in this artwork, represents a kind of male gaze, but it would be hard for me to argue that at this point. I struggle with the dualities represented in this artwork; the tropes of women in opposition to, I guess, the tropes of humankind? In the artwork, is Narcissus a man or a myth? A man, or a metaphor? A metaphor for man? For the male-bodied?

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 74″x”43″21″. Image courtesy of the artist.

When we step away from the video, we encounter several other sculptures and images. Stephanie has built what I think of as very, very weird structures out of PVC; she mentioned to me that they are like “vanities,” which are, essentially, dressing tables. Sometimes they have mirrors affixed to them, or just sitting on them (like what I have at home, an antique desk that my grandmother used for letter-writing, that my mom used as a vanity, and that I gave to my wife as a dressing-table, which is what I call it). Stephanie’s vanities, made of PVC and paper, mimic the kind with the attached mirror; the outline is similar to her fountain, but with a much taller base. There is a photograph attached between what would be the “top” of the mirror (though again, this is made of PVC) and the front edge of the desk part (also made of PVC). This has the effect of looking somewhat crude, but also like a photographers sweep; the kind of thing you rig up to take photos of soft goods, or of anything, I guess. The images on these sweeps come from the gallery space itself; they are literally photos of different angles of the gallery, which include Arden’s prints; in this way, her work subsumes Arden’s by reproducing it; another kind of gesture towards Narcissus.

But of course, the myth is only partially complete. In fact, it is the myth of Echo and Narcissus, who were never meant to be, but seem perfectly at ease in Real Shadows For Mere Bodies. Echo was the beautiful nymph cursed by Zeus’s wife, Hera (because she was flirtatious, and talked too much, and covered for her slutty nymph-friends). Hera’s curse was simple; instead of initiating her own sentences, she could only speak when spoken to, and could only repeat back what was said to her. She fell in love with Narcissus but was rejected by him; soon after, he saw his reflection, and fell in love. Echo, with her curse, was unable to tell Narcissus that the love he sought was his own, and soon she wasted away. The only trace left of her was the sound of her voice, scattered among the mountains and caves of the countryside.

The idea of such a curse is a clever one; being confined to speak only what is spoken to you is so twisted. And yet this is what Stephanie’s work performs. It is not Narcissus that Real Shadows For Mere Bodies represents, but Echo; the manifestation of the work is confined to the space of the gallery, and as an artist, Stephanie is cursed only to repeat that space, back into her work; into her images; into her representations.

At this point I start to get it a little more, but its very complicated. Stephanie’s work, in this show and in general, proposes that as artists, we are stuck inside of some kind of self-centered (narcissistic?) repetition when it comes to art-making. And this show in particular is proposing that part of that loop is our woman-ness; it is the state that is reflected back to us, and that we reflect back, in turn.

It’s hard to know how to wrap this up—I like Arden’s prints; this show renders them banal while quietly allowing them to be exquisite. I think this is what they do best—reminding us of tradition, of composition, of semiotics, and other intriguing, pretty, docile things. They ground the show, and whisper, ever so faintly, that not all manifestations of art are clever, and not all of them are masquerading as something else. They represent one version of a way out of Echo’s curse.

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Arden Surdam’s Fixed Gaze, 2017. Archival inkjet print. 28″x24″. Image courtesy of the artist.

It is very, very difficult to see this show as nine separate artworks, so I have answered my own question. I think it’s a perplexing show, with so many different materials and layers of ideas. It’s interesting that some things are so obvious, like a fountain and Narcissus, and some things are so obscure, like skeleton vanities made of PVC with photographer’s sweeps on them. It’s a sensory overload, if you’ll let it be, but also, these are structures you can see right through. I think these artworks should always be shown together, and I hope that when they are separated, they lose all meaning entirely. Like Echo and Narcissus.

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is on view at College of the Canyons in Valencia, CA through October 12, 2017. For more information on these artists, please visit their websites: http://stephaniedeumer.com/ and http://www.ardensurdam.com.