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.
All images courtesy of Central Park Gallery.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!
Georgia is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net
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 Discommercials here, 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.
The featured image at the top of this post is a still from Discommercial 2.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!
While DeLoreans may abound in modern-day Los Angeles, they are not, in fact, time machines; they may show us an image of the past along with that past’s hopes and idealizations, but the person behind the wheel is under no such delusions about breaking through the space-time continuum.
No, it is not the DeLorean that can take us backward in time, but the museum—with its double-consciousness of past and present, its old things, its signs and pamphlets, its landscape, its facade, its people—all of which contain, as Joan Didion wrote on another California-y subject “the unconscious instruments of values.” But a museum with nothing in it? It is lovely, it is sad—like a beautiful empty house, it’s a space that retains a certain sort of melancholy—the arrogance of preservation against the reality of dust, and dirt, and time, and money. That said, the empty museum offers up one unique and profound question that typically only the most elite of our society get the chance to ponder with any authenticity—what would we fill it with? “Of this body; of this earth” offers an answer to that question, at least for one artist, at one museum, in one long, dank, subterranean hallway; a place where no art goes, or at least, can ever stay.
There are two ways to enter “Of this body; of this earth”; I mean that literally. You can drive or walk up the surprisingly lush hillside on a steep one-lane road, entering the museum by walking down a series of steps, past colorful tree-height carved totem poles, across a wide courtyard with ornate, high-backed, thick wooden benches, toward the museum’s historical marker that reads “The first museum in Los Angeles, Dedicated to the Native Peoples of the Southwest, Declared Historic-Cultural Monument No. 283,” through a set of simple double doors, where you will stop at the upper landing of a staircase, to the right of which is one of three functioning exhibitions at the museum; Four Centuries of Pueblo Pottery, on view since 2013. Alternately, you can start at the bottom, and enter a tunnel.
I’m sure you can picture a water-damaged tunnel in a hillside. I bet you can even picture the niches in the tunnel, and the kind of dioramas they used to display (museum signage tells us they depicted the lives of various Native cultures). You may even be able to imagine the eerie shadows cast by the clunky 1920s fixtures that once illuminated this otherworldly place—part cave, part stage, part archaeological dig; you can imagine that it would have reminded museum founder Charles Lummis, with some delight, of his own adventures—in which he took, as was the fashion of the times, other people’s belongings (see the nearby and newly installed “Making a Big Noise: The Explorations of Charles Lummis”). This tunnel, of all art spaces I have ever seen, is one thousand percent metaphor, and the irony that it now sits mostly empty may not be an irony at all, but a kind of justice.
The metaphor, of course, is progress—that we might enter the cave and bear witness to an older, wilder, simpler way of being as we leave the bright heat of the day—we need this tunnel, lest we mis-recognized, say, the Pueblo Pottery as the kind of artwork which needn’t be contextualized by something dim, earthly, and utterly in the past. For what it’s worth, I would argue the most interesting iteration of this tunnel space as an artwork would be the tunnel as its empty self; a gesture against the narrative of progress in art, authored more or less anonymously by time itself—maybe that could break through the space-time continuum.
Of all the artworks and all the positions artworks and their artists can take, Miller’s sits squarely within the metaphorical labor that I imagine Lummis imagined his tunnel would perform. I mean that Miller’s show, with its chalkboard drawings of apes and rocks, its soft, grey beds of ash, and its blood and hair, which of course stand in for her body, mimic what may be considered the same pseudo-anthropology that Lummis himself participated in. At first I was sure that Miller fell into Lummis’s trap; but the more I think about it, she may have beaten him at his own game.
Let me backtrack a little. “Of this body; of this earth” is a huge show, with twenty-four discreet artworks on the checklist. My perception was that each niche in the tunnel served as a mini-gallery for what I thought of as mini-installations; these mini-installations then resided in the context of the larger installation, which I considered titled “Of this body; of this earth”; I then presumed that “Of this body; of this earth” was a site-specific installation within the context of the museum as a whole, which therefore transformed “Of this body; of this earth” from a huge show into an incomprehensibly huge show, taking up big, blobby swaths of conceptual space ranging from museum politics to the politics of indigenous belongings, to the politics of the perception and display of indigenous culture, and on and on and on.
A few weeks after I saw “Of this body; of this earth” I asked Miller to meet me at the museum. I don’t know Miller, or her work, and after a long while of pacing up and down in the tunnel, looking hard at something and then spinning around and looking hard at something else, all in relative silence, I asked Miller to give me her “shpiel”; to tell me what she tells everyone else. I don’t know how many ways I can emphasize that I am not asking artists to tell me about their work because I can’t figure it out for myself—I am just really, really interested in how artists see their own work, or what kind of relationship they have to it. In this case I would say the press release description, “Robinson aims to understand and connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence” pretty much covered it. While I appreciate the ambition of this thought, I also find it quite silly—not because all art seeks to connect those dots (though all science may!)—but because as a statement, it does that funny thing that art almost always does—which is to set a task so impossible that its inevitable failure is so painless as to be imperceptible.
Faced with the self-imposed task of writing on such a show, I asked Miller something that is both banal and insane: Was there a question that she had about her own work that perhaps, I, Georgia, could answer? Not really, she said, but there was one thing. Miller told me that during one of the many walkthroughs/meetings/visits of the show, she received the following comment: the work seemed “private.” The word “private” was tinged with a mix of resigned heartbreak and disdain; it was a horrible word—gendered and counterintuitive, especially in the context of a show in a very public space, with no guard, no barrier, no camera, nothing to stop hands from shattering fragile things, or imprinting their palms like a tracing, or simply picking up and walking away with, say, a delicate brass paint brush tipped with the artist’s own hair—hell, private did not come anywhere close to what I imagine this work is for Miller—she probably bared her fucking soul to make it—if we believe in such things.
What I mean to say is the question of privacy led to the question of legibility. We assumed, Miller and I, that “private” meant “illegible” (though we’ll never exactly know). If that visitor meant that it was hard to read, or not clear enough to read, just exactly what it was that Miller wanted us to read, then I will have to politely agree. But this agreement would have to be predicated on the idea that Miller herself knew exactly what we were to read in the work, which would itself be predicated on the idea that artists are either responsible for and/or able to understand what is to be read within their work—and I simply do not believe such things—so I refuse to engage further with the question. Of course this is my rhetorical position, but I have a practical position, too. Instead of saying “it is legible,” “it is not legible,” let me try to read it, in specific.
Back to the sheer number of works in the show—I assumed that each niche contained a singular artwork with its own title made up of many objects (you know, like an installation); in fact, the many objects within each niche are all separate artworks with separate titles, many of which are multiples. I am perplexed by making multiples, but only displaying one, in the context of a work that is made for a specific site, as is emphasized in the press. While I’m unfamiliar with considering what displaying just one of a multiple might mean (though Sarah said duh, Joseph Beuys!), I am familiar with editions—and while Miller mostly calls her work “multiples,” not “editions,” either seems to insinuate that the work would be happy to inhabit nearly any site—or in the case of Paint Brush (2018), 22 other sites. This oddity of terms aside, I’m guessing the works are multiples as a nod to the fact that in this surveiless-space, they may well need to be replaced. But more importantly, calling them multiples tells us that these are not precious objects despite some of them literally containing matter from Miller’s body (another Beuysian nod). I find something fun and lively about this idea—like, of course there are many hair paint brushes—they practically grow themselves.
As for the artworks individually—yes, they’re tools; it’s pretty evident based on what they look like—a brush, a level, a paint roller—made further evident by the drawings of apes and hands and other cliched “early man” imagery. The Charles Lummis quote on the chalkboard at the opening of the show (the show’s namesake artwork, Of this body; of this earth (2018)) takes us there, too: “[man] cracked two stones together—a spark—and [he] was armed against the weather.” Within this quote, Miller substituted “she” for “he” and added the word “casual” before man—an intervention that for me, placed at the entrance to the show, teases with the possibility of an overt or embedded feminist gesture (I’ll take either!) that never materializes.
It’s clear that materials are of the utmost importance to Miller—she told me about different combinations of metals that make each other, and how she used them in the same sculpture, as a kind of unifying alchemical factor. Blood, hair, soot, lead, egg yolks, and the more grisly “bone glue” all sound mysterious and weird, and yes, they all seem rather at home buried in the hillside beneath this beautiful but dilapidated museum. Egg (sphere, cube, pyramid) (2018) is most interesting to me when it remains unbroken—I like using my imagination to picture the shapes’ pigmented interior—but even more so, I like the thought of the child or onlooker who has read nothing about the works at all, but strokes, ever so gently, one of their surfaces, only to be shocked and impressed when the shattered object reveals that it was more than just a delicate white shape, but actually contained something. If I’d had the gall to touch that object, with even just the tip of my unsteady finger, and felt the thrill of its collapse—well, that would have been the kind of messy, surprising experience antithetical to most museums—I think it would have been something special.
I also found some humor in Miller’s “trinkets,” for a variety of subjective reasons; Lizard Trinket (2018) reminds me of a silver alligator pin of my grandmother’s, which I coveted intensely, and both House Trinket (2018) and Studio Trinket (2018) recall Monopoly pieces, reminding me that the context and shape of a thing defines its status. Orichalcum Balance (2018), made of brass, copper, and zinc, is a delicate scale inscribed with “unless you tell me my name”; this piece again is reminiscent of jewelry, since it’s pretty, and has an inscription—the kind of inscription I would call cheesy, and romantic, and even…private. If I try really, really hard, I can imagine the inscription means something about the materials—like the metals themselves don’t understand that they’re separate from each other, unless we “name” them as separate entities; but this doesn’t make it less romantic, and also, I’m really not sure.
Though I am not squeamish per se, (I won’t faint or throw up at the sight of blood, though I did recently accidentally unearth an entire bowl of papery dead bees and ladybugs and ran screaming from the garage, unable to return until my wife came home and swept them up), I did find Spirit Level No. 1 (2018) to be quite disturbing and provocative—the blood as a kind of spirit, and the idea of leveling as something otherworldly or ghostly—for what “levelness” do we require blood as tool for measuring? Along with Orichalcum Balance, it reminds me of the ancient Egyptian ritual where our hearts may be weighed against a feather—either way, it represents an object that performs a kind of judgement, therefore becoming animate, or spirited, as the title suggests.
I could go into a close read of many more artworks in the show—but legibility was the question, any my answer is that legibility is subjective, and I can only succeed in describing what is legible to me; and while it would be nice to assume that all others share my perspective, it’s likely that the opposite is true. Also, remember that something that obscures the show is its sheer size, making it difficult to evenly and rigorously apply the nuance that this show in particular demands and deserves. “Of this body; of this earth” contains so many materials and shapes, so much specific language, so many subtleties—and as a rather unsubtle person, much of it goes over my head, though I can certainly appreciate the care embedded in the meticulousness of Miller’s labor, which I will argue she uses as the bigger, broader tool of her thought. And while for me, Miller’s chalk-boards do not bring clarity to her work, as I believe they were intended to, I wouldn’t have it any other way—the more idiosyncratic, the better. Chalk-board for Paint Roller (2018) is completely lovely—I have literally no idea what it means, but in the upper left-hand corner, under the word “paintings” is a plain little outline of a figure within a frame, a thin squiggle crossing the figure’s just-legible head. The quote underneath it reads “I swallowed water”—and if it means anything at all, it’s because it defies the material complexity of the rest of the tunnel, and does something more authentically akin to a cave painting, communicating a complex thought whose meaning we will never understand, all through a few lines and a squiggle. Wow.
Earlier I said I thought Miller was trying to beat Lummis at his own game—what I mean by this is that Miller uses something sciency to cast meaning, or doubt, or fascination, or however you might feel when looking at a periodic table and a pile of rocks, onto the objects in the collection, or in Miller’s case, onto the empty spaces where objects once were. In a roundabout, or painless, nearly imperceptible way, all of Miller’s niche’s serve to question the notion of progress within the museum; and to my delight, they serve to question the notion of legibility itself.
I called this piece “Back to the future” because of Miller’s desire to connect the dots between matter, time, and human existence. And I do see this show as a kind of DeLorean—it’s impossible, it’s theatrical, it’s nerdy, it’s goofy—but as an artwork, it achieves that tricky thing of palpably weaving the past and the present. What’s great about Miller’s work is that it demands that we develop our own tools for understanding—and while there may be thousands of possible interpretations of “Of this body; of this earth,” when we return to the Southwest Museum weeks or years from now, we’ll see much, much more than empty spaces where art once was; we’ll see possibility; we’ll see the future.
“Of this body; of this earth,” presented by Holiday, is on view at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, CA from May 20 to July 6, 2018. For more information on Miller Robinson, please visit her website: www.millerrobinson.net.
The featured image at the top of this post is an installation view of Egg (cube) (2018); plaster and pigment. Unlimited variable edition. Dimensions vary.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!
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.
The featured image at the top of this post is Seaside (2018).
All images courtesy of Odd Ark LA.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!
I wanted to start by describing the performance, but I’m getting stuck on it. What should be narratable as a single event that took place at an allotted time in a specific location feels much more like a dream: the hazy pinkish air lighting the barren, low-slung industrial street; the patch of stubbly parking lot backgrounded by a high chain-link fence, all turned gray scale and shadowy in the smoggy chemical moonlight; the mute audience, our collective mood as ominous as a cloud; and the artist herself—as distinct and out-of-place as the towering tripod across from her, a flash affixed to its head, the green standby light cycling on and off—a visual metronome reminding us that time had not, in fact, stood still. I want to get across that this artwork had an aura, as much as it had a spectacle—that Lara would eventually set herself on fire, and, after silently writhing inside a bathtub of water, would rise, like a corpse coming back from the dead, take off her wet, murky clothes and redress herself in nude leggings—well, that all happened, but in a way, it wasn’t consequential.
The flowerless version is something like this: you show up somewhat late at night (9:15pm) on an off night (a Tuesday). The crowd is a decent size—Sarah and I arrive close to 9:00pm and already there are probably 20 people milling around, a little chitchat, some nerves (we brought a fire extinguisher at the artist’s request). There is a surprising amount of equipment dedicated to capturing this special moment—flashes, light meters, a photographer in a black hoodie with a second tripod—if this is Los Angeles, which it is—then Lara has created a set. She’s standing in what has transformed into her stage, talking with people, I think—I don’t look closely at her, but I notice her hair is different—I think it’s crimped, looser, and she’s a tall, absurd thing towering in a pair of figure skates and a skating costume—a leotard, and maybe a little skirt—the white, tightly laced skates fitted with blade guards. We are all waiting around in the street, forming a sort of crescent—no one is getting too close; we know the performance is imminent, and we know to expect something scary, or wild, or at least painful, and hopefully naked. I know Lara is frequently naked in her performances, and I was looking forward to that—to see her body, yes, but to see it in public, see it used as a thing, see her inhabit it as a tool; it’s a thought I am profoundly jealous of while I am seduced by it; I don’t know if I want it, or I want to be it; and already the thought of her project has made me feel simultaneously thrilled and ashamed. I hang my head a little.
As we wait, half-scattered into the street, Lara’s assistants, if that’s what they are, hand out two sealed bottles of Havana Club rum. Standing at the front of the audience crest, I get the first, fresh swig—it burns my stomach and makes me feel drunk nearly instantly—almost as instantly, I am transported back in time—to Boston, to boarding school, to dirty roofs and pretty, skinny girls, and waiting, hopelessly, for something to begin—then the sting of the drink wears off, and I feel like grown-up Georgia again.
I don’t remember exactly how it starts, but Lara greets the crowd. Now there are a lot of us, and it’s very, very quiet. It’s kind of dark. We can see her, and we can see the bathtub, and the rest of it is just fence and pink sky. Lara thanks everyone for coming. She tells us this is her most personal performance—she’s suffered from pain in her legs for half of her life. Right away there is something absurd about this introduction—the immediate breaking of the fourth wall, the story of the legs, her legs, made longer and lithe-er vessels for pain through the narrow and impenetrable ice skates. From the moment she opens her mouth, she breaks the spell—but I’ve come to believe that’s a subject of this work after all.
Next, Lara steps back into her stage and re-enters a theatrical position—we seem to disappear to her. I don’t remember if she takes her skates off herself, but I do remember that an assistant undresses her, taking off Lara’s skating clothes and dressing her back up in what looks like two layered pairs of pants and a short, loose t-shirt. This is a long, limp process.
Now re-dressed, Lara uses a spray can of something flammable to spray her clothes, just a little bit at a time—and after each iteration of spray, another assistant ducks onto the stage and lights Lara on fire. Each time, the fire burns, and Lara does a little spin, a little twirl, maybe like something you would do on those bright, clunky skates still on stage, leaning against the bathtub—an unlikely prop leaning on an unlikely prop, in an unlikely performance on an unlikely Tuesday night—definitely night time, not evening.
After a few rounds of this spraying, lighting, and dancing, the spraying jumps to an extreme—Lara sprays the front and back of her pants, up and down the whole length of her legs, covering every painful, beautiful bit—ass, thighs, shins, calves, crotch. She approaches the bathtub, looks around, then backward-straddles her body over it, holding herself up in an awkward and hellish crab walk—then she’s set on fire. Instantly she’s ablaze, the flames are maybe a foot in the air, and she lets it burn for a moment; the moment passes and she dunks herself into the tub—it’s an awkward, stiff, silent dunk—but she’s still on fire, and we watch her pump her arms and hips, her arms waving a little, but she’s quiet, and then finally, fish-like, she flops onto her stomach. The fire goes out, and everything stops; this moment is the end of one pain—and I’m certain—the beginning of a new one.
Now Lara rises, slow and steady, like a swamp thing—she’s wet now, it’s cold out, she was just on fire—she takes her clothes off, soggy and methodical, we can even hear them smack the ground—and sits down on the edge of the tub, facing us. Gradually she puts on fresh clothes—leggings it seems, perhaps a version of the skating outfit. I half-expected her to do it all again, but she stands, looks out at us with a little smile, says something like “that’s it,” and then announces we can all get in line to break her weed piñata, meaning, a piñata filled with weed.
I know what you’re thinking. Is it beautiful, like an epiphany, like a poem, or a pillow, or a soft rain? Is it crass, like a crab walk, or an ass, or thrusting hips, or a weed piñata? Is it profound, like driving by a burning semi, or seeing your neighbor’s house raided by police, or watching someone in pain and being unable to help them? Is it a dark kind of desire, like a beautiful naked woman on a dark empty street? Is it stupidity, a crowd of artists so jaded and ready for a show that they can watch her burn without throwing up all over the sidewalk? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
I thought that maybe by describing the show, I could describe how it made me feel. Not even close. So I’m going to take a break from feeling, and try to think.
My first thought after walking away from the performance was that it was the ultimate anti-climax. She burns, yes, but only briefly; there is no mystery; no back stage or offstage, or really any theatrics to speak of, other than the flame itself. As performances go, the work was totally choreographed—nearly every opportunity for deliberateness seemed missed, and I found myself wondering why Lara should do a costume change and spin and do a dance-y thing with her leg on fire and then employ two seemingly random, replaceable performers to disrobe her and light her on fire. Unless, in a way, they were meant to disappear—the stage hands that run on and off to do something practical and necessary that isn’t doable by machine. If this is so, we’ve got Lara on the stage, which is really a street-side parking lot, and she gets a costume change—certainly we’re meant to see her as a doll or a puppet, without agency, dressed and undressed, quite literally, by other women—who set her on fire. That can’t be right. It’s Lara who chooses to make herself flammable, so to speak, by spraying herself with the flammable material—so as a character, as a Lara-in-pain, she sprays, and she twirls, but she doesn’t dress or undress. And then after the ultimate burn, she puts out her own fire, undresses and dresses her own damn self, and leaves her skates where they lie. They never go back on her feet.
I feel really not good about sussing this performance out as a metaphor for ice-skating and pain and the pain of femininity in relationship to ice-skating. Watching her burn, I was unable to take any metaphorical value from it—instead, I saw a community, myself included, that assumed Lara hurting herself could be a valuable work of art instead of a work of ghastly self-inflicted pain, too abject and raw to transcend physicality and become a metaphor. Real fear and danger is not ubiquitous in art, and in a way, that’s what creates the unspeakability of this performance; I just don’t have the language to talk about it. That being said, I see her burning and I think of punishment, and fear, and how as an expression, lighting oneself on fire seems almost to mock those living in war-torn places, crossing borders, trying to go to school, whatever. You know what I mean.
On the flip side, I am completely engaged in her nakedness, which is brief but profound. Forgive me, I try to be honest but honest thoughts are so scary—seeing a naked woman, even a topless woman, in a context outside of sex, is rare, and it is a meaningful proposition. I dare you to say it isn’t. Even on the car ride home, Sarah and I talked about Lara’s body. Sarah thought that its look might represent the ideal female; I didn’t think so. For me she looks too strong to be a kind of idealized female form—I had never seen a woman so skinny look so strong. I was thinking of a recent screening of Martine Sym’s video titled Incense Sweaters & Ice (2017). There’s a “getting ready” scene where the main character, a woman, gets completely naked to get ready to go out—specifically, she’s putting on lotion. During the post-screening Q&A, Martine shared that at an earlier screening of that film, she was criticized for her character’s nudity. In response to that criticism, Martine basically said her character was nude because she was getting ready to go out—how else would it be? The crazy thing is that after that Q&A, I made it a point to be fully naked when putting lotion on my body. Why am I sharing this? Because I am an adult woman with access to any version of femininity I want to be or be with, and I am STILL learning about what I should or could do with my naked body. It fucking blows my mind.
Anyways, I feel very conscious and self-conscious about writing about Lara’s body—about her knowing how much I thought about it, when I was supposed to be writing about her art. But this is the thing. You took your shirt off, it was a part of your artwork, it was a semi-unnecessary intermediary step in the process of setting yourself on fire. In your performance last night, you were both naked and on fire—I can think of nothing more extreme, and I feel I could think and write endlessly about the gesture of your nakedness—but I am struck dumb by your fire. I am struck by the courageousness of your nakedness in front of your peers, knowing full-well the myriad of ways in which you will be judged, or at least considered— your breasts, your arrogance, your skinniness, your exhibitionism, your performativity, your underwear, your credibility, not just as an artist, but as an object, and on and on and on and on. We are already women—for god’s sake, do we have to be on fire?
I don’t know. This is a hard work to write about. It was scary, and emotional, and I was implicated, and I should never have allowed it to happen, but also I’m not the boss of you. I think all of this is precisely the point. In the same moment that we are exposed to the seductive possibility of her body, we are faced with its self-imposed destruction. I think this is a really strange artwork, with the ice skates, and the weed piñata, and the rum swigging, and the direct address. In a way, if I put some of those oddities aside, it’s a good artwork, but it’s not an artwork I feel good about. Maybe that’s the lesson here. Nothing gets resolved. We don’t get to go home unscathed. We were there, and for that, there will be consequences. We can only assume the extent of her pain—she was quiet as she burned, and so were we.
Ice and Fire was a performance that took place in a parking lot next to 3055 E 12th St in Los Angeles, CA on May 22, 2018. For more information on Lara Salmon, please visit her website: https://www.larasalmon.net/
The featured image at the top of this post is Ice and Fire (2018), performance by Lara Salmon. Photo by Julius Tanag.
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.