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.
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.
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.
There’s a lot you might not see at Cover Me, Rachel Yezbick’s solo show at Garden—like the opening night performances, which included multiple participants, multiple projections, stenography, face-eating, and holographic window reflections. You may have also missed the daytime call-in listening event, which I think involved Rachel recording conversations with her mother, but not knowing that she was calling her mother, but sometimes calling someone else’s mother, and somehow there was an 800 number. There was also Rachel’s artist pamphlet, with lots and lots of text, some of it written by Rachel, some of it e-mails between her and her subject Dale, and some of it unattributed or anonymous text pulled from a neighborhood-watch website. And there were the postcards, many postcards—depicting Rachel’s face in a few different expressions, definitely selfies, and also selfies of Rachel’s mom, and of Garden co-director Zachary, and of Zachary’s mom. Did I miss anything?
Of course there are all the non-ephemeral artworks within the show—not that many, actually—An Articulated Image (2018), Rachel’s downsized photogrammetry-produced blue-dyed white-chocolate face model, displayed on a mantel, which again, she ate; Where are you now? Are you inside? (2018), an arbitrarily-sized inkjet print of more photogrammetry images; and Epicurus’ Conundrum (2018), the artwork I would argue is the centerpiece of the show, mostly because it’s shiny and time consuming and occupies its own special area—the upstairs gallery, which most closely resembles a white cube space, although is still far from it. Epicurus’ Conundrum is a 42 minute HD video looping on a TV hung from the ceiling in the center of the gallery and adorned with a mirrored “frame,” which is like a mirrored box for the whole apparatus of the TV, with a window cut out for the screen. To really get a grip on what’s happening at Cover Me, I should have dedicated many weeks of my life beyond what I would consider the many hours and days I have already spent with Rachel’s artwork over the past several years—which is kind of a lot.
That being said, I promise I have seen Epicurus’ Conundrum in its entirety. In fact, I saw the very first cut that Rachel screened in Los Angeles. It was 2014, the first year of our MFA; it had a different title, and was a very different artwork. I’m saying this more as a disclosure of Rachel and I’s relationship than as a value judgement, but I also want to point out that this video has been years in the making. In a world of deadlines and fast-fashion-art-DIY-spaces, Rachel pretty much threw that out the window and doubled down. While I think she has known all along that the video and its premise are flawed, she never let that stop her; I admire that and value it deeply.
So why do I say the video and its premise are flawed? Well, because most things are flawed. There isn’t time to describe the video in detail here, but the gist of it, as you can read in the thoughtful press release produced by Garden, is that Rachel has been following and interviewing Dale, who owns, operates, and reports for duty at a private security company. Rachel’s is a very loose following; her and Dale’s relationship seems surprisingly intimate. Dale smiles often, relays personal stories along with espousing his views on crime and safety, and seems generally to feel both open to vulnerability (risking a kind of exposure, if you will), but also comfortable (there is nothing to expose, anyway). While Garden calls Dale and Rachel’s dialogue Socretian, I don’t know anything about that, so I think I’ll call it…gendered? Chalk it up to my own internalized sexism, but I can’t imagine Dale treats everyone with the tenderness with which he treats Rachel. While Rachel seems well-aware that her “documentary” style flows in and out of the many conflicting approaches to anthropological study, I wonder if she sees her relationship with Dale not as an unfolding one, but something more prescribed. This may be somewhat subverted because of race; Dale is African American, and Rachel is white. In her artist pamphlet, which is something close to liner notes, she touches on Dale’s desire to parallel his experience of living as an African American man in a racist society to what he imagines Rachel’s experience must be like living as a woman in a patriarchal society—a parallel Rachel is uncomfortable with. Where am I going with this? I’m just trying to figure out what their relationship is, and what it means. I don’t want to occupy the naive position that as a pair, they exist in a vacuum that transcends their positions—Rachel as the critical but sympathetic artist woman, and Dale as the good-hearted but oblivious ex-military man. I wonder how Rachel feels about the type of access she’s granted simply by being female bodied, and therefore, a non-threat. It may be obvious to Dale that Rachel is not a physical threat—though I wonder if her sex makes her whole project a non-threat, too.
But to step away from that and come in from another angle, I want to say that as an art viewer and lover, I, like all of us, have seen many artworks on the subject of surveillance. It’s what we call a “hot topic.” One of my recent favorites has to be the CalArts student who covered a few ceiling tiles in her gallery with a reflective, distortive metal material. It was meant to reference a kind of DIY surveillance that I associate with corner stores and their sometimes low-fi forms of preventing theft. What made that artwork stand out for me was that it conflated, perhaps by accident, the mirrored, privacy-invading surveillance apparatus with something that could be mistaken for a party decoration. It was impossible to tell if this material was insidious or fun, and for several weeks after that show closed, no one noticed the altered tiles enough to take them down. They were not seen as art; and therefore, they were not seen as invasive.
That being said, I am not the audience that really has a “thing” for art on surveillance. Part of this is because of my position as a white person who passes as a straight white person—the consequences of the surveillance that I’ve experienced have been nearly invisible, as opposed to physically threatening or violent on a daily basis, as they often are for, say, people of color and trans people. I’m also someone easily obsessed with voyeuring, and for that reason, I make an effort to stay away from aparati that allow me to surveil. (I installed a security camera on my gate and became so obsessed with watching it at all hours I had to take it down.) When I look at Epicurus’ Conundrum, what I see is this weirdly normative but still idiosyncratic relationship between Dale and Rachel. I see a video interspersed with expensive-looking photogrammetry, split-screens, well-timed and composed sound, plus the found footage of tactical training, subsequently falling somewhere between sci-fi, an intro to motion graphics class, and the “ride-along” genre. I suppose my pertinent observation here is that Rachel’s position in the video is never clear—is it a didactic video, warning us of the dangers of photogrammetry and private security? Is it about pathos and uselessness, watching Dale drive up on a suburban lawn to secure the perimeter of a house because of a barking dog? Is it a video about otherness? Is it a subversion of anthropology and documentary?
Not to be funny—and I’ve told Rachel this—but to me, the scene that stands out is when she’s shopping for camouflage pants. She’s in some store, maybe an army-navy or police store, looking through a display of these ridiculous-looking pants. The next scene cuts to Rachel walking around wearing the pants—crisp, clean, black-and-white camouflage, meant to be a kind of “winter” camouflage—but in the context of walking around suburbia in non-winter with a hand-held camera and a guy driving a Hummer, they draw attention to her in an absurd way. She is so not camouflaged in those pants—in fact, she becomes a spectacle. While I can’t really make sense of Epicurus’ Conundrum, and that’s a-okay with me, (there are many fascinating and worthwhile parts—it’s the video as a whole that I speak of), the pants scene is something I can hold onto. She’s a woman; she’s shopping; she’s shopping for pants. I like this moment because it’s human, and moves away from the stylized art vernacular of the rest of the video. I like it because it’s so blatantly about Rachel—but it’s also like that shiny mirrored ceiling tile nobody seemed to notice or care about. Rachel and her camouflage pants occupy an uncomfortable space in which we are unable to tell if they should be taken seriously or not—if she is satirizing Dale’s military-style garb, or if the garb is satirizing her and her position, or if the pants really do represent a form of power or protection. The pants have subtlety, the pants have complexity—they lead us toward humor, fashion, climate, design, capitalism, the military, the state, what it looks like to be female-bodied, some kind of passing or signaling, I could go on—but most importantly, they are the subtle amalgamation of the fallacy of our surveilled, militarized, and privatized world; that safety is another crappy product sold off-the-rack from the aisle of control.
Lest we forget Epicurus’ Conundrum could have just been a video—it’s not. It’s also that mirror-frame-box. What a strange, strange thing is going on there. It’s a big TV hanging down in the middle of a gallery that looks like a closed-in sunroom. In this squared-off room lined with transom windows on three sides, the light is abundant, and so is the view. The view alone could be an artwork—it plays on fantasy, or a sense of instability—surrounded by historic Victorian houses, you don’t exactly feel like you’re in LA, but it’s weird enough to feel exactly like you’re in LA. There is an odd contrast between the big, shiny TV, which draws intense scrutiny to its materiality and machine-ness, and the distinctly not-new, sometimes decrepit, steeply-slanted Victorian world outside. What does this do for me? I get the surveillance aspect (I am told the night time effect of the video reflecting-in and therefore reappearing-in the windows all around you is quite effective; I believe it); and I enjoy seeing the weird LA-ish architecture reflected on the apparatus of the TV, which to me shouts mostly that Rachel was paying attention, or at least trying to, when she considered the look of her installed video in relationship to its content. But when you walk around to the back of the screen—to the wide, shiny, (I refuse to stop saying shiny), TV-sized mirror—you see yourself. All roads lead home. It is the user that surveils themself, indeed—but what are we looking for? And will we know it when we see it? I think this selfie-surveillance is related to the more implicit content of Epicurus’ Conundrum, though it is off to one side. For me, it’s the more interesting side.
And what about Rachel eating a chocolate version of her head? Why is it blue? Why is she eating it? Rachel told a group of us, when we met for a Stone Soup (shout out to Adam Feldmeth), that she felt that the performance was a “flop.” I didn’t see the performance, but I was able to hold, smell, and closely observe that object—the teeth marks, the bits of waxy blue chocolate—the weight of the uncanny, wrong-sized Rachel head—I love this artwork in the context of this show. You see, Rachel is an artist who made a body of work about surveillance—actually spent years on it—taking more shit about it than you can possibly imagine—because for her, it is a mode of self-reflection. It seems that the “personal is political” absolutely does not apply here—instead of taking a personal approach to discussing something broad and consequential, Rachel chooses something a little bit broad, a little bit unclear, a little bit consequential, and uses it as a way to reflect on her own complex position. The chocolate Rachel-head embodies this idea—it’s a nonsensical mashup of her own subjectivity, hell, her own body, and the photogrammetry process, used to create the ultimate selfie. This object subverts the sinister logic of the video by becoming something absurd—it’s an object that represents the impossibility of logic within art; it’s an artwork that transcends logic; that Rachel thinks it “flopped” is hilarious, but also kind of beautiful—she has high expectations of herself and her artwork, and she’s willing to try and fail at nearly anything—even eating her own chocolate face.
And everything else? Where are you now? Are you inside? (2018) is a title searching for a form—I don’t like this print, though I think the images it contains could take up some space in Rachel’s artist pamphlet, or not—it is a poor stand-in for the role that photogrammetry, and the photograph itself, plays in Rachel’s work. The postcard selfies—it’s almost bizarre how every artwork in the show prominently features Rachel’s face, and then in Epicurus’ Conundrum it’s like we’re meant to think only about violence and the state and the privatization of the military. For me, it’s a leap too far. Yes to selfie postcards, absolutely, but I can’t help but feel they are crumbs on the trail to Rachel’s self-actualization through Dale, or something weird like that. And if I took a few home, I would have all these photos of Rachel in my house? A few artists I know do really interesting things with pictures of themselves, (Ann Hirsch, duh,) but I think Rachel needs to go further with the humor and ridiculousness of it. I know Rachel takes herself seriously, but not too seriously, and I would love for that to be reflected in some real way in the show, not just by way of the years we’ve spent together discussing artwork, and life, and our fears and insecurities, and whatever else friends who met in graduate school talk about. I can’t speak to the call-in, because I wasn’t there, so I’ll leave that to someone else, though it does sound elaborate, which is something I’m learning to love (shout out to Matt Town’s scroll series); and I also can’t speak to the projection and surveillance performances of the opening night, It’s Kind of a Scary Feeling (2018) and It’s Kind of a Scary Feeling 2 (2018), which I also didn’t attend. But from the images I’ve seen, and what I understand those two performances to be, they were a moment, really just a moment, when Rachel moved beyond the subject of herself with some purpose and authenticity, and touched on something truly creepy, at least for the people living inside the house onto which those artworks were projected—after all, it was a private space unwillingly and unknowingly posing as a thing for art.
The totality of the show—so many moving parts, perhaps too many, to wrap my head around. A lot of thinking and overthinking, though as my friend Leslie says, “nothing can be overthought. We should think more.” I walk away from this show thinking about the ways we challenge ourselves to construct a greater meaning from the meager parts and experiences we collect, especially when trying to explore a subject position outside of ourselves, or earnestly attempting to understand something greater than ourselves. I see a lot of labor—emotional but also technical, and the labor of machines, and of Garden’s directors, Britte and Zachary, who look past the intensely non-artness of their little green backhouse, with its overstuffed chairs and oriental-style carpets layered all over the brown shag rug—to host something imperfect but full of potential for discourse. Bravo.
The featured image at the top of this post is a screenshot from Rachel Yezbick’s Epicurus’ Conundrum, 2018. HD video, mirrored TV frame. 42 minutes, 44 x 49 x 8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Garden, Los Angeles.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text. Per usual, without her editorial feedback, nothing would make any sense.
Two weeks ago, Sarah and I set out to see “SUN + Light” by Charles Williams at Residency Art Gallery. A commercial gallery located on E. Queen Street in Inglewood, it was on the periphery of our collective radar, but not a space we had ever seen in person. The show was brought to my attention by the artist himself, who contacted us through our “want to get unpublished?” web form, requesting a review. Needless to say, the only other requests ever made for unpublished reviews were blatantly unethical (I won’t go into it), and could not be accommodated. This, however, was rather straightforward; after all, didn’t we have a web form where you could request to get unpublished? I think it’s a kind of poetic justice for my lack of web skills, and my over-delight in the non-specificity (aka possibility) of language.
But this is a quickie, and I’m not being quick. Let’s get to the point. “SUN + Light” is a show for people who like beautiful things, and find meaning in that beauty—for the most part. As Alessia Cara sang, much, much too profoundly for her genre: “Beauty is pain, and there’s beauty in everything.” What am I trying to say? As art, it’s amongst the prettiest works I’ve seen, ever. Charles is the kind of artist where you look at their work and say, yeah, this guy knows what he’s doing. A “master” of the figurative, and faces especially, his paintings capture expression in an almost implausible way. Take, for example, Yellow (Freedom Riders), a series of 17 oil on mylar paintings; the faces here occupy a strange figurative space between rendering and smudge; they look simultaneously effortless and incredibly specific, but also as if they could be wiped away in an instant.
Yellow (Freedom Riders), 2018 (Set of 17) Oil on Mylar 9 x 11in (Residency)
Yellow (Freedom Riders), 2018 (Set of 17) Oil on Mylar 9 x 11in (Residency)
I always find figurative works like this challenging; maybe even frustrating—we know from the title of the series that the paintings depict “freedom riders,” but not their names, or the freedoms they rode for. I would guess, though I have no way of knowing, that these portraits are meant to honor, or play a kind of homage, to those figured; that I am unable to identify them speaks to their obscurity within my field of recognition, and likely points to my lack of knowledge of important political figures (they appear to be all female, and a mix of races, as far as I can tell). Either that, or they represent the freedom fighters in Charles’ own life, and I am lost searching for a point of recognition in something that is fundamentally unrecognizable, aka, “personal.” The yellow mylar, the “SUN” part of “SUN + Light,” is operating as a color with positive connotations, or connotations of positivity, and is therefor acting as a “sunny” stage on which the portraits are presented—a golden hue to what could otherwise be interpreted as a police line-up. Wait a second. Is that what they are? And do I consider that possibility because they’re mostly unsmiling? Or because they’re called Freedom Riders? Or because they’re in a row? Or because they’re all potentially non-white? It’s interesting to see the way Charles reduces his portraits to simply yellow and black; the color of the sun, and conversely, the sunless sky. If I like this series of paintings, it’s because of that intermediate space I mentioned; between being a smudge, and being a painting; between being an abstraction, and having personhood. If I don’t like this series of paintings, it’s because I wish I knew who I was looking at, which would help me understand how to interpret that looking. Alternatively, the inability to recognize the faces serves as a kind of content, challenging me to acknowledge my lack of Freedom Rider historical knowledge. The problem with forming a cohesive interpretation of Yellow (Freedom Riders) is that so much of that interpretation hinges on the knowledge of the onlooker; and knowledge, as we know, can be dependent on one’s position. But the more I think about it, the more I like this turn; I know that Charles wants his work to inspire positivity, and in this regard, I am not only inspired to learn the names of those in the portraits, but to imagine the way in which I would construct such an artwork—my own line-up of Freedom Riders—art as an aspiration, reflecting not ourselves, but the heroes of our better nature.
Power + Love shares some of these qualities in terms of recognition, but none of the smudgyness. The composition of the figures, which is Statue of Liberty-esque, gets very much like a painting—what I mean by this I don’t quite know how to explain. There is a straightforward quality to Charles’s work—the directness of the media and the image; it’s rendered in the style of a trained hand, and more or less thoughtfully blended with that more abstract, painty-scratchy-watercolory thing that paint does when it’s not being refined into a figure, or other identifiable object. Power + Love lands firmly in the plane of Fine Art, as opposed to that ill-liked plane of “illustration,” which Charles certainly does well within all his work; but his nuanced application of color, and his slightly left-justified composition infers an artist who is interested in paint and painting, and combining it with his interests and making it both narrative and personal; in this case, as the press release says: “juxtaposing Williams’ own encounters, past and present, with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” I don’t know about you, but this description alone sounds ghosty, and I think that hangs in the air at “SUN + Light.” Honestly, when I look at this painting, I see something that looks a lot like a Francis Bacon (Study after Veláquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X??!!), which would be a fascinating reference, albeit much freakier than I sense Charles wants to get.
The singular video in the show, UNTITLED (son), is really, really good. As a time-based media, I think it has the kind of immediate impact that Charles is looking for in his graphic work; but the thing about videos is that they speak, literally; and speak can be awfully inspiring. Untitled (son) is technically simple, but not simplistic; at under five minutes, the video follows a young boy as he travels through what appears to be a natural landscape (the video is hued yellow, of course—the overarching and heavy-handed color metaphor that won’t leave us alone); through the headphones comes the booming, impassioned voice of Killer Mike, questioning the notion that his community is really “ready for war.” “How many boys are currently enrolled in a martial arts class?” he asks; “how many people grow their own food? How many people practice shooting, and how many times a week?” What’s powerful about Killer Mike’s address is that he’s reminding his community that there is a realm of the real, and a realm of the imagined; while he appreciates that rhetoric is inspiring, representation is not enough—in fact, it’s naive. While his address is a call to action, it’s also a call to transcend ideas with actions; while this may be ubiquitous when talking politics, Killer Mike is really making a fundamental request: let us transcend abstraction, and do something real, that’s within our power, to nourish and protect ourselves; to survive. I would argue that in the context of this show, Killer Mike is arguing for an action that transcends art—and the irony that his address has become art is the crux of the work; it’s the tension between the importance of representation versus action; what we want to be, versus who we are; how we see ourselves, versus how others see us. See this video.
The last artwork I want to mention is Scramble, an alarming triptych in which Charles photorealistically renders the unfathomable encounter between a teenage girl at a pool party and the police officer who tackled her (while she was in her bathing suit) and drew his weapon against those who sought to come to her aid. This particular example of police brutality, although not unique in function, was certainly a formal nightmare; twelve police officers responded to the scene, which was literally a pool party at a private pool; the black teenage girl tackled by the police officer was wearing a bathing suit as she was forced to the ground; and those that would try to help her were in swimwear, too. That a trained police officer could so misunderstand the human beings in front of him, wearing bathing suits, as potentially armed and dangerous, presents a grotesque abstraction of human life; instead of a party, he saw a mob; instead of bare, vulnerable skin, he saw indestructibility; instead of seeing a body, he saw a color. For anybody that sees contemporary art on a regular basis (and I don’t mean Contemporary Art, I mean art-being-made-right-now), there are too many artworks to count that draw political images directly from their sources; and a passive onlooker could mistake Scramble for one of these well-meaning, political artworks that serves as a platform for activism; but that is not what Scramble is. Because Charles is an artist deeply invested in the tension between representation and abstraction—between a line used to render, and a brush used to stroke—he understood this image to be just that—the sublime image of racism, and, I would argue, the inverse of love. So, why am I so floored by the brilliance of this particular artwork? You see, Charles has taken this image, rendered it in this most photo-realistic, un-Modern way imaginable, and placed it on a plane of concentric squares, brushed almost randomly, but certainly abstractly, with that yellow metaphorical paint. Scramble is the place where worlds collide; where the racist and generally completely problematic and fucked up history of Modernism bears its destructive legacy. Art is an ideology, people, and it can be evil.
Now, I know what Charles wrote about his work—about God, and divine love, and his grandmother telling him: “Stay in the light. Stay positive.” Stay positive is a powerful message, and an important one. But I think there are moments where Charles has gone so far beyond the realm of positivity—far beyond it, and into the realm of complexity. When an artist tells you that they want you to be inspired—let’s just say I brace myself. Not because artwork can’t inspire—on the contrary. An artist that wants to inspire others through their work really cares about others; I value that. It’s a weirdly pure gesture for art, which is a thing I see as usually being so much more corrupt than that. Charles, I don’t know if I’ve been inspired in the right way by your artwork, but I am invested in your expression; what I see as your conflation of Modernism with the very contemporary fallout of its racist and sexist ideology speaks deeply to me. Thank you for drawing me to your work—I hope you find the sunshine that you’re looking for.
As I Say Dying is an art show by Anna Mayer currently on view at AWHRHWAR. Let me disclose that I am a little nervous about this writing, because…Anna. I was the first person to arrive at the opening of her show last Saturday, where I chatted awkwardly with Aline and gulped a glass of white wine that certainly emphasized the pink tones of my cheeks, under the harsh-for-skin but good-for-art light. I live down the street from AWHRHWAR, and when I realized they would be having a one-person show, I was more than delighted to attend and get that show unpublished, if you will. The first time I saw the show, I was into it, but it was a little elusive. I also felt weird being alone; like, performing looking? I was performing looking, but also I was looking looking, and when I’m looking looking, I’m looking for inspiration, or to be inspired—for that little sentence to pop into my head, so that I realize I can go forward with that sentence and turn it into a constructive thought, and this is why art is both mysterious and beautiful and upsetting, and the thing that makes life worth living, besides arguing, sushi, and the beach. But back to the art, and the artist, of course.
The night of the opening, Aline introduced me to Anna (I had told Aline right away that I wanted to review the show; Anna had not arrived yet, because I showed up early, in order to actually be able to see the show). I told Anna I intended to review her work, and that she could walk me through if she wanted, or not; she said we could meet over the weekend. Already the gravity and commitment of the situation is hitting me, and I’m thinking, I hope I can pull this off. I don’t know, this artwork just exudes confidence, steadiness; that was my impression. Not finished-ness, per se, but something deliberate, a feeling of being rooted. Anna’s urns seem to take up the “right amount” of space; they are on these absolutely huge pink pedestals (I am on the Ben Moore website now—is it Salmon Pink? I’m choosing a color “family,” and now scrolling across a color “spectrum”; is it Dusty Mauve? Peaches N’ Cream? Savannah Clay? I get it now, the color is a poem—it’s so linguistic and elusive, it’s absolutely beautiful). The tops of the pedestals, which have a little rim around them, are covered with sand, and the sand color very closely matches the pedestal color, if not exactly. I find stability in this sand/pedestal color-match decision; it seems a choice that requires planning; otherwise, it is arbitrary, which would be impressive, too. I have no cohesive train of thought here; let me try to be focused. When you enter As I Say Dying, there is an immediate consideration of scale; the pedestals denote the importance of the urns, the epic-ness of them, which they do not contain within their own rather modest scale; but their color and preparation resist the white-cube status that makes pedestals and plinths the bane of every artist’s existence. Lest we forget that a pedestal is a symbol, Anna is here to show us in this context, they have a different, and explicit, meaning.
Atop the pedestals (yes I said “atop”), are funerary urns. How do I know this? The title sheet, of course, which reads [smaller pedestal] Matter of Having1, 2018; ceramic, glaze, paint, flint; Not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist in 2017. And for the larger pedestal, the same thing, only, Matter of Having 2. I am not looking at an image of these artworks, and I have not looked at one since Sunday. But I can tell you about them, absolutely. Their surfaces are all about texture, subtlety, and impossibility (as in, ceramic or surface impossibility). The smaller urn has a diamondy court-jester pattern, and I know it’s blue (cerulean blue?) with like, little beads in it that look like round sprinkles—and gold. Blue and gold—campy like a sports team, but soothing, royal, tasty like a sprinkled donut. The larger urn is white, mostly, with a veiny texture—or is it more like the texture of a popcorn ceiling? Painted on the front and back of the large urn is a grid of colors—not a strict grid, but something more abstract looking, more pale; I know, because I know, that this is glaze, meaning it is fired, while many of the other applications on this work are paint, meaning, they are applied after firing—what I call on my resume “experience with cold-surface application.” The two vessels (the word vessel just came out, I meant to use urn) share a few important characteristics, and I don’t know which to point out first, because they both contain what lesser critiques of art call the “reward” of close looking; the lids of both urns have a yellow shadow inside the rim, by shadow I mean, the inner rims are painted in this subtle way, they almost look like they are glowing; and then there are the slits in the urns, which are magical if not a bit disturbing, they are so violent, and practical, and vaginal, and intimate, and strange.
I have written, much much too poetically, about how the artwork looks, and how that look makes me feel. But what about what they mean? At women’s crit crew the other night, I had an exchange with an artist who questioned my interest in the fantasy of art; in the possibility of what it could be, as opposed to what it is. To allow this aspect of my art-view to be questioned or even undermined would be too heartbreaking to abide (and also determining the difference between what an artwork is versus what an art could be is not something I think I believe is possible); but her counterargument was more related to making sure the artist has agency within their work—that it isn’t just sort of a blank canvas waiting for mouthy critics (like myself) to come along and torment it into the subject of our choosing. I don’t know where I’m going with that, other than I want to give a shout out to artist agency, and to acknowledge that Anna’s artworks have a lot of agency; perhaps this is a more politically apt, feminist, artist-friendly version of my initial impression of Anna’s work as confident.
So, titles first, or again, in this case: Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2. And the description: not-to-scale replicas of funerary urns made by the artist in 2017. We know from the press release that the urns were made for family members; and we know that we are looking at replicas, not “the real thing”; so, I go back and forth between being certain that the urns were actually used for burial (the press release refers to the works as being made in a time of extreme grief), or if they represent a death, or the possibility of death, or impending death, or the fear of death. What’s really striking here is what I will call the “precise vagueness” of Anna’s language describing her work; it straddles, in the most emotional and yet object-centric, physical way, the edge of metaphor and reality; in the most sophisticated way I can possibly comprehend, these artworks occupy the space of what is, and what is not. Are they symbols, representing the anxiety of death, pain, and loss? Or did they contain a literal death, actual cremated remains? And in times of grief, just what is the difference? For me, this is the central question of this artwork; the inability, sometimes tragic inability, to separate what something is from what something could be; it is all, it is both.
What else should I say about Matter of Having 1 and Matter of Having 2? I started with titles twice, but never got to them. Well, they’re a bit cryptic, but it’s a play on words; this is an artist who may be more invested in language than I am. All of her work has this metonymic quality, I can’t quite describe it, but the subject and the object are always existing on these planes that are just barely legible, but yes, they are legible. Matter means both subject and substance, which refers to what the vessels may contain; and having means, well, having; both an obligation to, but also in the sense of possessing; and to think of what we have means to think of what we’ve lost.
What else? That there are two urns; that they come in a pair; that one is larger; that they are decorated differently—all of this suggests a coupling, which in death signifies the most tragic of losses—parent and child; brother and sister; husband and wife (for me it would be of course be wife and wife); mother and father. I want to say something beautiful about this, but I don’t really know how. This is a sad story, regardless of how it ends; that it functions as an artwork in such a sensitive and sophisticated way is a testament to how Anna values art; it reflects her willingness to make herself vulnerable to its possibilities; to labor over its material demands; to speak through it what cannot, or who cannot, speak anymore.
I’m feeling sort of emotionally drained by this, but I want to continue just a little bit more, to address the other works in the show, so I’ll try to stay focused. Pale Clay (Sailor) is the back of a hooked rug; the image hooked into the rug is a section of a Paul Klee painting that Anna’s mother transferred into a knitting pattern (Klee was Anna’s mother’s favorite artist). This is an artwork that totally operates on subtlety and deep emotional reverence. I can tell you easily what it is not: an image hooked into a canvas rug and shaped like a painting, whose materials and presentation are intended to represent female labor or women’s work. What this artwork is is harder to describe; the layers of information are so complicated. My mom works in a knitting store, and has been knitting for as long as I can remember. The magic of the yarn store—the puffiness, and the colors, and the grids, and the sharp objects, and the manifestation of line into shape; all of this resonates with me. For Anna’s mother to create knitting patterns from her favorite artworks—it’s so intense, like, the beauty of the thought, the love of art and pattern and color and labor; I don’t know how to articulate it; it sounds just like Anna’s work. And in Pale Clay (Sailor), Anna honors that labor and the spirit of that gesture—not by knitting the pattern, no, not even by hooking it into a rug—but by translating it into an object that can be worshipped as work of art, as it deserves to be. I often wish I could worship my family through a work of art. I’ve certainly tried.
Pale Clay (Unknown Grid) operates in a similar way, emphasizing the grid even more, thus drawing a parallel between the grid of the artist, and the grid of the mother, and conflating them, which I love. This artwork is hung in the “office” of AWHRHWAR, which I also love, as a gesture toward gallery conventionality; the prized artwork in the back office, which lay-visitors to the gallery never see—it’s too special. And of course Pale Clay is a play on words (Klee is pronounced more like clay), so yeah, Anna is flexing her aural muscle here, if you will, but probably more importantly, satirizing the convention of titles; what they tell us about an artwork, and how.
The last work in the show, (I don’t know why, but I see it as last), Utteruent-1, is the most enigmatic. It’s extruded clay tubing, open on the end, with tiny words written on the tubing, so that you have to look really closely to read the writing. Honestly, I thought it was a sort of a sculptural bicycle frame until I saw the words on it; Anna explained to me something about the planes of the sculpture, and the different words representing language on different planes. I recall telling her I understood how she wanted the artwork to operate, though I would never have, in a million years, described it in those terms. By now, I have lost all sense of how I thought Utteruent-1 operated, but if nothing else, it is another iteration of Anna’s commitment to the material and conceptual versatility of ceramic; if it wasn’t already clear, her technical ceramic skill is on full view in this artwork, as well as her transcendence of it as a medium from which one well-known artist sold ashtrays at Gagosian, and another lesser-known artist made an unglazed hotdog in a bun that I use as a paperweight (with much affection).
As I Say Dying is a little show with huge emotional resonance; even for me, this writing has been a kind of catharsis; you don’t need to know this, but through much of this, I wanted to cry. Had I not been in a library, I very well may have done so. I don’t know. We have to let art be emotional. We have to let it be personal—to touch us, both as artists and consumers of art. This is a difficult time to argue in favor of emotions, and yet I must. Artists, if you are out there in your studios, agonizing over ways you can make your artwork both grandiose and intimate, while it simultaneously pivots on and transcends your identity, please cut it out and do what you really feel inside. Take Anna as your inspiration, and remember that you can be skillful, subtle, sophisticated, emotional, confident, vulnerable, and worldly, all without leaving your own head, if that’s what you choose. I’ll be there.
There are a lot of different kinds of artwork in the world. I am a believer in this difference—that it “takes all kinds,” so to speak. It makes no difference to me if art is good or bad; for the most part, I’m happy that it’s there. I’m going to guess that the organizers of Other Places art fair (OPaf) feel the same way—and for that, and their unsung efforts to successfully pull off this event, I say, thanks.
As a person that thinks about art a lot, and then tries to verbalize those thoughts regularly, I think it’s worth saying that most of the art I write about does not inspire me, or excite me, or generally produce any specific, pronounced feelings. It’s a slog; to use an annoying but apt athletic metaphor, art-thinking is a marathon, not a sprint. When I see art, I do not know what it means. I do not know what the fuck it is. But I trust that if the artist cares about their artwork, and is invested in it, I too can care, and become invested in it, and then I can get something special from it, that special art feeling where something you’ve encountered helps you articulate a complicated thought that maybe would not have been articulated if that artwork didn’t exist in that way. I am sure the many delightfully messy booths and intriguing but plainly odd installations (mudslinging?) at OPaf offer these delights, when given time, attention, and compassion (I should know; nearly all the shows I’ve reviewed had some presence at OPaf, either the space or the artist); BUT, there was one special thing at OPaf that really transcended my typical marathon approach and sent me into a full-on sprint; that is, Artemisa Clark’s performance, On Record, as presented by ELEVATOR MONDAYS.
Is it possible to write a full, essay-ish length review of an ephemeral artwork I saw at an art fair for about five minutes of what was a 300 minute duration? If you saw just 15% of a painting, would you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if you were a worthy vessel to appreciate this type of profound expression? If you deemed yourself worthy, would you be able to get your thoughts out in time to watch the Super Bowl? These are the hard-hitting questions.
What’s cool about OPaf is the same thing that is so uncool about Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC); whereas ALAC is just a transposition of art to a warehouse for ease-of-shopping (yes, it’s an airplane hangar, but that’s like a warehouse for an airplane, yes?), OPaf is taking the art wayyy out of the gallery, past the warehouse, all the way to the shipping yard itself. It’s outside, in like, a carved-out paved hilltop I cannot exactly describe. It feels sort of like an alleyway on the top of a mountain, (or “hill,” as we say in LA), and it also feels like an aqueduct, and also like a mote. There is an “entrance,” at the front of the mote, designated by a table and handmade sign suggesting a small donation. That’s fine. But what’s interesting about an arbitrary entrance to an outdoor space is that it gives what should seem to be a hierarchy-less landscape a quite profound hierarchy; there is a front, and a back. In flea-market land, (and I’m sure at ALAC, too), closer booths cost more $$. By the time you get to the “back” of OPaf, which takes about two minutes, you have to walk up a set of built-in stairs, next to a chain-link fence, to reach the top of a concrete retaining wall, to get to the last few galleries. I’m not explaining this well, but imagine that OPaf is a basin, with a rim at the top; when you get to the back of the basin, there are more galleries on the rim, but you have to walk up there.
The few galleries on the OPaf rim are all helplessly outshined by the epic view of the Port of Los Angeles. This is no typical ocean view; while us west-coasters pretty much guffaw at a blue blue ocean panorama on a warm February afternoon, this is not Venice Beach; beach bums and the tourists excited for the opportunity to blend in with them do not ride tandem bicycles and eat burritos from styrofoam Perry’s on the Beach containers; no, what we see on our way to San Pedro, and then from the top of Angel’s Gate Park, is the essence of a globalized world; the great migration of people and things, and the military that serves and protects that vision.
I see Don’s ELEVATOR MONDAY shirts hanging on the chain-link fence surrounding the basin, and we (Sarah and me) walk over. Right away Don is playing the gallery attendant, telling us to read the press for the show (his slim stack of press releases ripples in the wind, held down on the ground with a big old rock). ELEVATOR doesn’t have a table or a booth to indicate its presence, but it does have two site specific artworks: Nina Sarnelle’s Nike X and My Dead Hand, and Artemisa Clark’s On Record. Don tells us that Artemisa Clark is reading “right now,” and he points away from OPaf and toward the water; about 500 feet in front of us, separated from the crowds, stands a person, her back to the ocean, bent forward a little, holding something. No one is within earshot of her, and Sarah and I approach and stand there, listening, and looking, too.
It’s always weird when you approach someone doing a performance, and there’s no one else there. Like, they are performing to no one, sort of. Reading to no one really emphasizes this feeling of an absent audience, because reading out-loud is a labor usually performed for someone else’s benefit. So this is the first thing I feel, when I approach On Record; it is saying something profound about audience, or lack thereof.
Of course I am listening to her reading, and though she isn’t quite projecting her voice, I can understand her words clearly. The words matter, yes, but On Record is an extreme visual spectacle, glued together with the words Artemisa speaks while she shows us her body in front of this ultimate and awe-inspiring landscape. Let me explain this better. When I approached her, I did not know what she was reading. There is a clear description in the press release, but we didn’t read it until after. So I had no information about what I was about to see or hear, other than the artist’s name. It’s easy to tell right away that she is reading some governmental or other kind of institutional document, describing an inspection of a site (I assumed it was the site where we currently were; I was not far off). It’s a report, and it’s not a positive one; a lot of problem areas, and areas that need improvement. I can see with my eyes that there are redactions in the text (I think she also says the word “redacted” when she gets to those parts), but seeing the redaction visually assures me that this is a real government document. I can’t remember specifics of what was read, as in, specific sentences, and I have no transcript from which to quote. Certainly this was due to lack of time spent, aka, my fault, and not a lack of clarity on the text’s part.
Okay, so there is what was read (the content of the text), and then how it was read (everything else). First of all, she’s holding a huge stack of papers, at least a full ream (500 pages). And it’s windy. So her hands, with long, painted nails, have to grip the papers, and the papers are fluttering and flipping and all the while she is gripping, reading, turning a little into the wind, a little out of the wind, squinting a little at times, head bowed over the page, body a little bit forward, hair blowing into her eyes a little bit, a little bit sticking to her lips; my god, she’s like the Marilyn Monroe of alternative art fair performance art, windswept, a little messy looking, but totally determined, anchored to the earth by her beat-up looking combat boots, fitted to her bare, quivering legs. When a woman performs anything, it can become sexual; and I find my profound attraction this artist and this artwork a confusing and perhaps embarrassing mix of the romance of the ocean, my permission to look at her bare flesh, the sound of her voice beating back against the wind, and the power to stand alone, not feigning art but really being it, really doing it, on the periphery of the basin of man-made bullshit.
Yes, this is a site-specific artwork, and the text that Artemisa reads (“news articles and official documents regarding the now-defunct INS/ICE San Pedro Processing Center on Terminal Island”) is meant to be political. I mean, it is political, absolutely, and I do not mean to take importance away from the content of the text—but the thing that makes this artwork so poignant is not that it is a condemnation of the government, or that it calls attention to the tragic and dizzying human rights violations that took place so close to that beautiful site—it’s the fact that we, we artists, are oblivious to even the most basic cruelties, the ones that are taking place right under our feet, or just a short drive away; it is a condemnation of us, the audience, who is barely there; she stands on the periphery of the periphery, not just outside of Other Places, but with the backdrop of the edge of the earth; On Record is the condemnation of our smug outsider status, with our convoluted art-objects and Topo Chico, and our small talk and our car artworks and all of our insider fun and gossip. You see, there is nothing complicated about On Record; it’s just, a reading, outside, on a beautiful day. And when I say nothing complicated, I am talking of course about its execution, not its subject. Yes, yes, the wonders of object-based artwork are marvelous and many, but just think about this, her simple gesture, to read aloud in a performance where she plays herself, using the fucking world as her stage. It’s brilliant.
I think that’s all I’ve got. Don, I want you to know—it isn’t lost on me that a gallery typically the size of an elevator (since it is an elevator) was suddenly transformed into something expansive, massive, agoraphobia-inspiring, as opposed to claustrophobia-inspiring. I like that little touch—it shows playfulness, but also adaptability. You set a high standard, and I hope you always will. As for On Record—thank you to Artemisa for taking the opportunity to model how we as artists can be simultaneously peripheral and dominant; simple in gesture but complicated in thought; exposed, but somehow channeling the power of an entire coast. And as for Other Places art fair? Yeah, cool, I’ll be there again next year.
How the West Was Won is an art show by Regina Mamou currently on view at Adjunct Positions. Have you ever been to an art show at Adjunct Positions? The location alone is worth seeing—the house is not just any house but one of those classic craftsman things with a steep stairway going up the hill through a surprisingly lush (but water wise, of course) garden of mature succulents. And unlike other houses in the neighborhood, it doesn’t look like its been “restored”; it feels old, authentic—meaning, it isn’t playing a version of itself to sell an idea of east LA; rather, it stayed put in the hillside, hidden in plain sight, protected by the flora and maybe even some invisible fauna (there is a catio, aka, cat patio). What I’m saying is, I like this place. The vibe is less “art as party” and more “art as block party.” Some of this vibe is due to the location of the first gallery at Adjunct Positions—a street-level single-car garage built into the hillside and outfitted with french doors. The rest of the artwork is shown up in the house, which causes a stratification of audience across the property—little art people and artworks dotting the hillside. For some reason it makes me think of the SIMS.
Getting a grip on the variety of elevations at Adjunct Positions is only necessary in so far as it seems to have influenced How the West Was Won. Looking for Freedom is the title of the artwork in the garage, and on opening night, it contained a performance. I find it so tricky to write about these spaces in which performances happened, and then, for the duration of the exhibition, just the “traces” of the performance are left. Where did this idea come from? Not strictly for Regina, but for all of us? I am tempted to bow out of Looking for Freedom completely, because I almost can’t wrap my mind around reconciling its two forms: the opening performance, which featured two Reagan-masked men in black behind generic-looking stanchions, pulling pre-”glitched” screen prints of David Hasselhoff from an almost fetishistic-looking, handicraft, customized revolving four-station print cart, and piling them up on an IKEA table; and the gallery without the performance, which is the IKEA table with two floppy Reagan masks, a few beer cans on the floor, a print display rail affixed to the wall, and a tornado of Hasselhoff prints looking as if they were thrown about the room, in a fit of rage, or total indifference. The stanchions, which the night before had served as a pseudo fourth wall for the printing performance, were clumped toward the entrance, so that they stanchioned nothing at all.
In a reductive way, this is a very straightforward artwork to interpret, even with a minimal understanding of its references; the Reagan-masked screen printers stand in for a kind of political propaganda machine; and David Hasselhoff, of all people, is a cheesy celebrity whose heterosexual-but-pretty-boy values are being espoused. The “glitch” in the print signals that all is not right; and the stanchions, while playing to their divisional strength, also serve as a cue of both a corporatization, I guess, but really, a “genericism” (not a word, sorry).
I’ve said I am being reductive, and really, I don’t want to be. What if I take my artwork-goggles off and assume that nothing is standing in for anything? Not all artworks are symbolic. They are not all metaphorical. So, this is where the garageness of the gallery comes in—the kind of production that happens in the marginalized space of a garage, disconnected from the house, segregated from the family, away from “creature comforts” (I hate that term, sorry), but also away from the authoritarian eye of the parent. The garage, people, is the place where we find freedom, even if it is a sort of reductive, adolescent, mask-wearing one; and so Looking for Freedom becomes less about a hoaky Hasselhoff we can all easily recognize as satirical, to a teenage, fuck-the-world, punk-rock DIY printing party where we’re all getting fucked up and plotting the downfall of civilization. Of course, this (wild) interpretation is predicated on the location of the other artworks on view, Looping Swans and Kimilsungia; predicated on the idea that the “domestic” (cringe again) locations of those artworks is indeed significant; I think what’s probably more important is the fact that Looking for Freedom is itself an artwork which performs a production that is likely, or at least plausible, to be taking place in that location (a garage). Therefore, Looking for Freedom doesn’t transcend the space of the garage; rather, it uses it as a subject. Now let’s go up to the house.
First of all, that the gallery space of Adjunct Positions is designated by a four-foot wide installation of white laminate flooring over whatever synthetic oak-looking flooring makes up the rest of the house is architecturally insane but pleasantly mysterious. I won’t dwell on it here, because chances are if you visit this space enough, you get used to it, and you adjust; but Kimilsungia, the artwork installed therein, seems tailor-made for it, which consequently makes it seem like an additional, utterly artificial addition to the artwork. The artwork itself is a series of identical orchids in matching pots displayed on those floating white laminate IKEA shelves. The artificiality of this artwork is overwhelming, despite the “natural” flowers, and I don’t know what to make of that feeling quite yet. Another part of Kimilsungia is the bronze plaque, which you could almost miss if it wasn’t so clearly defined on the gallery map. The plaque reads “In 1964 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea acquired its own flower, a botanical symbol of the nation. Its name is the ‘kimilsungia,’ or ‘flower of Kim Il Sung.’ Later, in 1979, a special greenhouse, the Central Botanical Garden in Pyongyang, was created to specifically grow ‘kimilsungia,’ also known as ‘the flower of loyalty.’”
Actually, the first thing I did when I walked inside the house was go straight for the couch, to watch whatever was on the little TV, an artwork called Looping Swans. The artwork is the television set, VCR, and VHS tape, and a looping video, 1 minute 28 seconds in length. At the opening, which was a perfectly lovely event I could have spent all night at, I sat for at least a half an hour on that couch, watching/looking at Looping Swans over and over until I no longer saw or heard anything in particular, but was instead hypnotized by the incessant stepping, glitching, and musical stylings of that video. But what was I looking at? A ballet, of course; or, a recording of a performance of a ballet. An old recording, made apparent by the filmic blurring and stretching of the image, and the otherworldly blue light emanating from it. I’ll guess that the ballet is Swan Lake, but only because of the title of the artwork, Looping Swans. Oh, and there’s an orchid on the table next to the TV set, and the table is from IKEA.
Have we covered everything, at least what there is to be seen with the eyes? Looping Swans is a sculpture and a video, set up in the weirdly tight living room at the back of the house. According to the title sheet, its media is listed as Television set, VCR, VHS tape. Kimilsungia refers to the orchids and the bronze plaque; its media is listed as orchids, bronze plaque. Looking for Freedom is the opening night performance, and its media is listed as stanchions and screen prints. So, what patterns are emerging? We’ve got celebrities hither and thither; Reagan, Hasselhoff, Kim Il Sung, Swan Lake. We’ve got flowers; orchids, to be exact; the Flower of Loyalty, to be exacter; and, perhaps most profoundly and transcendently, we have IKEA.
My idea of what this show is is a really bumpy roller coaster ride. One minute I’m thinking it’s all about garages and rebellion (especially in contrast to the uniformity of flowers and ballet, sitting docile in front of the TV set, blending into the domestic scenery, yet totally artificial, banal); the next, I’m thinking it’s all about the transcendental, cross-cultural power of IKEA (313 stores across 38 counties!). It’s fucking fascinating (curse word used for emphasis) that IKEA never makes its way into the materials list, since its the clear through-line between all the artworks, bringing How the West Was One closer to a cohesive thought made up of small, distinct artworks. If IKEA is missing from the materials list, then what else must be missing? It could be anything.
Regina walked me through How the West Was Won on the Monday after the show opened. BUT that was nearly a week ago (at the time of this writing), and so I cannot remember the specifics of what she said. This memory lapse allowed me to retain most of the original sensation of encountering the show, and before I discuss our conversation a little bit, I will make a few last observations.
When you sit and watch Looping Swans for a long time, you start to feel exhausted; exhausted empathetically for the performers, but also visually and aurally fatigued by the repetition. In some way there is a cruelty to this kind of endless loop of dance, which outside of being impossible is also painful. So, we are presented with this kind of fantasy world of pain and rigidity, so much so that the orchids, a beautiful and somewhat reputationally temperamental flower, become a little bit human. The rigidity and suffering of the endless performance in Looping Swans is transposed onto the orchidsof Kimilsungia, which appear in your peripheral vision (and to the left of the TV) and it is suddenly very, very clear how a flower could be used as a means of subjugation, especially in a gendered way. And if flowers can be used in this way, so can anything, right? Even Hasselhoff? Exactly.
Earlier in this writing, I was making some crazy argument about garages; I was thinking about the site of the house as being specific to a house and its house-parts. Partially, this is because my disbelief in the site as a house is never suspended, and this complicates my interpretation of the artwork. I don’t really think Regina meant for the garage to “be” a garage, although it did not come up in our conversation. We did talk about the complexities of having a performance, and then showing the gallery/garage with the performance “remnants.” She was undecided about what purpose the stanchions now served; should the audience be prevented from walking around in the previously “performers only” area, scattered with the Hasselhoff prints and beer cans? Actually, there were only two cans, and we dedicated a significant amount of time discussing if the cans should be in there, or not. Like, who wants to see empty beer cans in an art show? It seems sort of pretentious. For me, it always makes me feel like I missed the party, and I hate missing the party, because if I missed it, I probably wasn’t invited. I think I saw Looking for Freedom in a kind of intermediary state; it was still literally “as-is” from the performance, with nothing re-staged, nothing moved. We were both looking at it, trying to make sense of it—me from the perspective of having witnessed the performance, and Regina from the perspective of having conceived and staged it. This is a good place to be in art; something intermediary, where thoughts have an opportunity to form, float, and dissipate, maybe even stick. If I was unable to form a non-reductive cohesive thought about Looking for Freedom, it’s because it’s not an artwork that values cohesive thoughts, or finished products; it’s a series of suspiciously clear moving parts waiting (and willing) to be surprised by what they produce.
That being said, I learned a lot of really interesting stuff from my walk-through with Regina. Apparently Hasselhoff has a much greater political resonance than I knew—especially in Germany, where he is über popular (haha). And I thought Regina said that during the cold war, the Russian government played Swan Lake on repeat, so that no news coverage was accessible; but clearly my brain oversimplified that part of the story, because Regina sent me this to clarify: “When tanks rolled into Moscow on 19 August 1991 during a dramatic anti-Perestroika coup by Soviet hardliners, the USSR’s state-controlled airwaves offered a curious response—a continuous loop of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.” The story of the orchids is practically a hero’s journey, involving a trip to North Korea where Regina purchased these special orchid seeds, and then worked with a greenhouse in Hawaii for the past year to grow them in a special way. The IKEA fixtures are not coincidental, either, but Regina explained that she wanted to limit the information she gave about the work, so that the interpretations could be broad. I can totally appreciate this instinct; artists like Regina, driven to research-based artwork (based might be too strong, perhaps inspired) often have a clear, correct outcome for their work. That Regina is focused on ways to expand the possibilities of content, not restrict them, is certainly something I feel excited about—I just wonder if the instinct to broaden a specific artwork through omitting the specifics of its making really achieves that. After all, isn’t it structure itself that helps us test the boundaries of our thought, our production?
I said that IKEA was the only clear through-line between the artworks, and in a superficial way, it is; but the title of the show as a whole, How the West Was Won, is spinning political; that there is a west, yes, but also, that it was won. Okay, that’s quite obvious, but I am saying that each individual artwork depicts a kind of nationalism, or some kind of propaganda—Swan Lake was used somewhat openly as a means of propaganda, if I understand the story correctly; the Kimilsungia is also thinly veiled, or not (the flower of loyalty!); and then Hasselhoff; of course he’s being sold and disseminated to us, too. How the West Was Won is a complex art show, and has proven good at producing some complicated, albeit slightly confusing, thoughts in response, at least for me. This may sound silly, but my favorite part of How the West Was Won is that IKEA products slip there way into all of Regina’s artworks, hidden in plain sight. It gives them, of course, the same status as the orchid. And while we do not all have rows of exotic plants or a penchant for screen printing 80s-era celebrities, we probably have a Hemnes or a Billy somewhere in our living spaces, secured to the floor or wall, affordable yet stylish in a “neutral” way; keeping us satisfied, if not aspirational—at least for the moment.
How the West Was Won is on view at Adjunct Positions in Los Angeles, CA, from January 13 to February 24, 2018. For more information on Regina Mamou, please visit her website: www.reginamamou.com.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.