If this blog was started to dispel the myth of the Angelino artist as a bright, breezy, color-driven painter, then LACMA’s The Sun and Other Stars is the perfect show for me to discuss. The unsettling exhibition brings together the work of Katy Grannan and Charlie White, two California based artists who explore the often conflicting desires for individuality, conformity, and celebrity in American identity.
In Katy Grannan’s photographs, the harsh sun and white stucco walls illuminate drifters lurking in back lots and on city sidewalks. A woman holding a plastic lunchbox snaps a photo on her iphone as her black hoody and skirt (seemingly out of place in this stark light) whip in the wind. A Marilyn Monroe lookalike grimaces with fatigue and regret–a companion image to Richard Avedon’s mesmerizing photograph of the original.
This is the dark side of Hollywood and west coast pioneering, away from the beach, the billboards and the success stories. But the photographs are classically composed and richly detailed, giving weight and reverence to the figures, and allowing the images to avoid being grotesque. The repeated title of Anonymous, drives home the obscurity of these individuals in relationship to the world of glamour and fame that they shadow, but it also draws attention to their refusal to be easily understood or encapsulated.
In contrast to Grinnan’s ragtag group, the adolescent girls in Charlie White’s series of casting call photographs passively fulfill the photographer’s request for white, blonde, and slender blandness. Through these photos, White powerfully critiques America’s tyrannical lust for an empty ideal, and the resulting images are profoundly bleak. I wholeheartedly agree with White’s disgust at “all-American” or “valley girl” culture, but his cold and calculating use of these young women leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
Also included in the exhibition is a television showing White’s animated series A Life in BTween. The series satirizes “tween” culture –texting, malls and gossiping—to such an extent that the combination of the animation and the photos feels cruel and reductive. At what point does this go too far? By creating these images is White participating and further trivializing teen girls?
This vision of adolescence was particularly striking considering my recent encounter with Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs, and one of Dijkstra’s young bathers, Hel, is currently installed at LACMA just around the corner from White’s “tweens.” Unlike the tweens, Hel is photographed with tender respect and treated as an agent in her own right. It is hard to envision a photographer in Los Angeles making similarly earnest images.
In contrast to the world White captures, Grinnan’s harsh reality seems almost liberating–better to flounder towards the unconventional than to accept life as a cardboard cutout.