Tag Archives: photography

Los Angeles

Tête à Tête: A Visual Conversation About Feminism

Installation shot of Tête à Tête

Installation shot of Tête à Tête, showing Marisa Williamson’s Quilt and Carmen Argote’s Mascara

During September, RAID projects in Los Angeles hosted Tête à Tête, an exhibition that re-examined the 1969 feminist assertion that “the personal is political.” The show of work by all female-identified artists ranged from video to painting, and included two series of performances.

The Critical Feminist Theory seminar I took in college was carefully organized to diffuse power and encourage conversation—we met in a sitting room rather than a classroom, discussion was led by a different individual each week, and we discussed the curriculum collectively at the beginning of the semester to ensure inclusion. Artist Michelle Carla Handel’s curation of Tête à Tête worked in a similarly decentered mode as she invited a broad selection of artists and gave each the leeway to include the work that she found most appropriate to the subject matter. It was thus not so much one woman’s vision of contemporary feminism as a loosely orchestrated conversation—a dinner party with Handel as the host.

The show created a space in which female artists raised a spectrum of concerns related to, but not bounded by, their femaleness. It provided a snapshot of a group of women’s concerns, interests and experiences inviting the viewer to draw connections. Among the many threads of conversation were sex, power, control of the body, communication, motherhood, and re-examining history.

Danielle McCullough, Anthropometries Series, 2013, Cyanotypes on archival watercolor paper

Danielle McCullough, Anthropometries Series, 2013, Cyanotypes on archival watercolor paper

One of the quieter and more enigmatic pieces were Danielle McCullough’s small cyanotypes that depicted average measurements of the human body according to the American government. The government uses these figures to establish safety regulations and provide ergonomic standards, but taken out of context the diagrams remind the viewer of a capitalist’s society’s need to control and police the body, and the high value of conformity.   One of the pieces in the show (not pictured here) depicted the average distance from fist to crotch, slyly suggesting the regulation of not just bodies, but sexual practices.

Gala Porras-Kim, an artist whose elegant conceptual work often involves language, chose to exhibit a drawing executed by the daughter of her partner. By presenting this piece, Porras-Kim generously and bravely revealed not only an element of her personal life, but her own trepidation and learning process in a semi-maternal role—admitting to doubts and ambivalence that it is still culturally inappropriate for women to voice. Also on the theme of motherhood, artist Jay Erker provided free childcare during the show’s opening reception, practically addressing the continued lack of support provided to working mothers.

Rachel Hecker, Marina, Business Card, 2006, Acrylic on canvas

Rachel Hecker, Marina, Business Card, 2006, Acrylic on canvas

Rachel Hecker’s  painting of her enlarged business card tells the story of the interaction between herself and the woman she eventually hired to clean her house. In the biographical information provided in the gallery, Hecker elaborated on how the woman, the wife of a man she had hired to do work in her attic, came to solicit employment:

We spoke for a while and I explained that I did not need help, but that we should keep in touch. I handed her my business card, and asked her for her contact info. She took a pen out of her purse, began writing her info on my card, then handed it back to me — effectively turning my card into hers.

Hecker’s piece subtly points out the complex social, economic, and political issues that are woven into our domestic space–the reliance of our economy on immigrant and under the table labor; the reliance of many working women on other women to clean their houses;  the personal branding and status manufacturing captured in a business card–and the shifting layers of power within which we operate–it is, after all, Marina who controls this interchange, not her future employer. That this whole story is captured within a small scrap of paper serves to enhance the sense that these complexities are often overlooked.

I regret that I did not see any of the performances, which included Marissa Williamson’s performance as Sally Hemings –Thomas Jefferson’s biracial slave and mistress of thirty years, Kim Ye & Veronique D’entremont ‘s question and answer podcast, and Molly Shea’s bra burning as a cave woman.

Susan Mogul, Novella Excerpts: Confessions of a…, 2013, Color digital print

Susan Mogul, Novella Excerpts: Confessions of a…, 2013, Color digital print

Bridging the gap between the contemporary look at feminism and the seventies feminism that provided Handel’s jumping off point, was Susan Mogul’s  Novella Excerpts: Confessions of a… This piece humorously responds to the increased interest in Mogul’s work thanks to Pacific Standard Time (PST) but cleverly points out the different cultural attitude to nudity and the perceived inappropriateness of a middle aged woman performing nude, as well as the persistent cultural attitude that feminism and feminist art are in the past. The exhibition also included a photograph of Mogul’s guerilla PST poster. This poster pointed to the gender imbalance of the Getty’s advertising campaign that used contemporary male media icons to draw attention to older male art stars. This piece also nudged at what made Tête à Tête unique and important: despite progress, gender disparity persists in the art world.

Walking through Tête à Tête was like witnessing the kind of conversation I might have with a group of my friends—intimate, using self-deprecating humor to mask complex emotions, seeking advice on an uncomfortable situation, admitting our failings and anxieties, sharing hair care advice.  Plenty of work by women would not fit this description and even the work within this show would not function quite the same in another context–but the whole point of this show was to look at that shared space and see if it still felt relevant. Answer: it does. Possibly uncomfortably so.

Los Angeles Short & Sweet

Forms & Flavors of Love

It is time for the obligatory post of thankfulness. So who better to talk about than Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin? These two artists may not be the first who come to mind when you gather around the table and think about your blessings—hopefully some combination of love, good health and family—but if I move deeper, towards the central theme of those blessings, I think that an open eyed appreciation of the physical body, the pleasures and pains it can bring and the connection it affords us, are actually the perfect themes for a thanksgiving. Today, I am thankful for daring artists, for troublemakers, for people who refused shame or false piety and intertwined visual and physical pleasure. This is art that makes me thankful to be alive, in all my flawed and messy glory.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Rose, NYC (Y Portfolio), 1977, Gelatin Silver Print. (c) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Robert Mapplethorpe, Rose, NYC (Y Portfolio), 1977, Gelatin Silver Print. (c) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Currently on display at LACMA are Mapplehorpe’s X,Y and Z Portfolios, hung staggered above one another, like lines of free verse. Augmenting the literary sense of the work, the photographs are displayed with their portfolio cases and the original writings that were published with them: poems by Patti Smith and Paul Schmidt, and an essay by Edmund White. In this installation, beyond marveling at his formal skills, I understood the depth of Mapplethorpe’s classicism and the continuity between his darkly sexual still lives, the fragility of the body engaged in S&M rituals and the well-loved surface and forms of the black male nudes. Each portfolio tells a compelling story of it’s own, but together they are a  revelation.

Jim

Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim, Sausilito. X Portfolio, 1977. Gelatin Silver Print. (c) The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

I am in Seattle for Thanksgiving, and have had the chance to visit the Seattle Art Museum’s survey show Elles:Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris which is accompanied by Elles:SAM, a major reinstallation of the museum’s own collections of modern and contemporary art that highlights the work of women artists. I’m going to save the feminist polemic for another day, but LA take note: your REI wearing sister to the north is ahead of you on this one.

Still from Heartbeat, 2000-2001 by Nan Goldin. Projection of 245 color slides in sequences of 4 plates accompanied by soundtrack of “Prayer of the Heart” by John Tavener, played by Björk and the Brodsky Quartet; duration 15’08″. Image courtesy of Seattle Art Museum and Centre Georges Pompidou.

Still from Heartbeat, 2000-2001 by Nan Goldin. Projection of 245 color slides in sequences of 4 plates accompanied by soundtrack of “Prayer of the Heart” by John Tavener, played by Björk and the Brodsky Quartet; duration 15’08″. Image courtesy of Seattle Art Museum and Centre Georges Pompidou.

Nan Goldin’s Heartbeat installation took me by surprise, not so much because it contains daringly explicit images of sex and nudity, but because I was so enraptured by a subject that, in the hands of a less sensitive photographer, could easily have been sleazy or dull. Bjork’s soundtrack seduced me into sitting down, but the unfolding stories of different couples kept me engaged. Without idealizing, air-brushing or simplifying, she shows the viewer the casual choreography of intimacy and the way people’s bodies and lives interlock. Yes, there is an aspect of voyeurism, but Goldin’s photos are a lesson in the forms and flavors of love–a lesson at least as old as Plato’s Symposium and still a relevant one. Especially at Thanksgiving.

Los Angeles

California Dreamin’

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous Los Angeles, 2009/printed 2011 (c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous Los Angeles, 2009/printed 2011
(c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

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.

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous San Francisco, 2009/printed 2011 (c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

Both images: Katy Grannan, Anonymous San Francisco, 2009/printed 2011
(c) Katy Grinnan, Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco and Salon 94, New York

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.

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print. LACMA, (c) Charlie White

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print.
LACMA, (c) Charlie White

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?

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print. LACMA, (c) Charlie White

Charlie White, Portrait Image from Casting Call, 2010, Pigment Print.
LACMA, (c) Charlie White

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.

Los Angeles On Making

The Imagined Landscape of Success

Discussing success in front of Kelly Poe’s idealized landscapes.

This Saturday, I  went to The Success Question, a panel moderated and organanized by LA Times critic Holly Myers. According to the email announcement, this panel was going to discuss questions such as:

How do we conceive of success in the art world? Who sets the terms? Who should set the terms? What is the role of the market? How does the press figure in? Have art schools shifted expectations of success? Is a coherent notion of success even possible in a world defined by such a pluralistic array of practices? How has the rising profile of the LA art scene changed the way that success is understood here? What is the difference between successful and popular? Is success satisfying? What is it that really matters in the end?

Those are some big questions. And to answer these questions Myers brought in some big players: Mark BradfordEileen CowinAnna Sew HoyPaul Schimmel and Susanne Vielmetter. Yes, Myers was aware of this irony, and the panel did a good job of giving balanced and interesting answers despite the glaring handicap that all the participants are traditionally successful. Next time I would like to see a panel that includes a 28-year-old who holds down three jobs to pay for her studio -which gallerists rarely visit; a 60-year-old who has never had a single solo show but really likes what she makes, and a mid-career artist who went straight to the Whitney Biennial from graduate school and has only shown a handful of times –and only in the Pacific Northwest– ever since. Then we could have the kind of raw and uncomfortable conversation that the topic of success really deserves. But until then, this panel was a good start.

Distilled into easy-to-remember sound bite form, the ideas from this event were:

  • Success is an ever receding point.
  • Staying afloat means staying fluid.
  • Nurture and participate in dialogue.
  • Don’t chase the market; wait until the market comes back to you.
  • LA is a friendlier art scene than NY.
  • LA needs more writing about art. Which means we need publications to pay writers. So we need a market that will fund these publications. But it is our perceived distance from the market that keeps us friendly. Hmm.
  • Financial success, critical success and actually making good work have very little to do with each other.
  • Make the work. Accept when you have no ideas: don’t embarrass yourself by making crap. But do risk making crap because otherwise you won’t do anything new.
  • Make the work.

Eileen Cowen brought up the infamous orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. It ends with a woman in the deli saying “I’ll have what she’s having,” ordering what she believes will give her the same experience as Ryan, though of course the irony of the scene is that Ryan was faking it. Cowen’s point was that many of us are chasing a fake orgasm, and that what we think will make us happy, might not. This is probably true for every profession, but artists –who, let’s face it, are much less likely to have a pragmatic outlook– might have a particularly idealized view of “making it.”

The panel took place at LAX art, surrounded by Kelly Poe’s For the Wild. To create this series of photographs, Poe befriended a group of jailed environmental activists and asked them to describe the image of the wilderness that they turn to for solace. She then traveled to these same spots and attempted to capture each location as it had been described by the prisoner. In the photos, each landscape sings as an untouched paradise, lush and vivid and personal –embodying a pristine fantasy. And, as the title suggests, the activists Poe interviewed have all sacrificed their freedom for this idea of the wild.

As I listened to the speakers, I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between Poe’s images and the discussion of success underway. As anyone who has ventured off the beaten path knows, the wilderness, though exhilarating and beautiful, is usually also messy and uncomfortable, involving some combination of bugs, shitting in holes and sweat soaked clothing. Some people disappear into it forever, but most are happy to return to a solid roof and a hot shower at some point.

The art world, to those who venture in, was probably once a fantasy. My particular fantasy, was that “The Art World” was populated by supremely intelligent, sensitive beings who cared more about ideas and beauty, then money and facts. These mystical beings would respect my desire to be left alone in my studio –a large, light filled attic in a Victorian building in London– but when I wanted, would appear, ready to discuss philosophy, poetry, theatre… And of course, surrounded by that earnest brilliance, I would make paintings that shot straight to the root of the human experience.

Gustave Courbet, The Artist’s Studio; A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, oil on canvas, 1854-55 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Needless to say, that is not the world that I currently inhabit. But, in the right light, from one particular spot, on the right day, if you squint a little bit, some aspect of that absurd fantasy is my life. I do know a circle of people who value aesthetics and ideas, with whom I can meander through literature, art, politics etc. I do have a small drywall box to call my own, and, when I make a painting, there are a couple of people who will happily discuss my technical choices. I set my own hours, I follow my nose, and I can justify spending my Monday reading Guston’s collected writings…or whatever else I want. But I absolutely couldn’t do it alone. It takes people to push you on (or maybe even carry you for a little while) when your strength of will fails. Also luck.

So I would like to add the following to the list of success sound bites:

  • Just keep swimming.
  • Get comfortable with contradictions.
  • Find a good therapist, preferably one who will trade sessions for artwork.
  • Establish good karma and be generous with what you have.
  • Focus on the process and its by-products.
  • Remember that there is no art world, other than the one that you inhabit.