Perversity

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Dorit Cypis, "The Nervous System: Mother and Child," 1987. Courtesy Jancar Gallery.

When Workspace, a Lincoln Heights storefront with a gallery the size of a living room, hosted a reading last Sunday, only one of the four featured artists actually read, and he read the work of someone else. It was Tyler Coburn, who sat at the front of the room in bow-tie and jacket, looking very readerly and comfortable in the way a teacher does when sharing something he believes in with students who believe in him.

The someone else he chose to read, Sam D’Allesandro (who changed his name from run-of-the-mill Richard Anderson in order to pose as son to fringe superstar Joe D’Allesandro), had a neutrally inquisitive voice, somehow self-involved without being solipsistic; in a review, Joanna Petrone called it “calm and heatless.” In reading D’Allesandro’s Electrical Type of Thing and Jimmy, Colburn had some of that heatless calm. The first, a story about wanting what doesn’t want you—at least not in the same way—and being wanted by what you don’t necessarily want, wonders whether people could really want wrongly. The story’s explicit sexiness, while tangled up in what the protagonist does and doesn’t desire, seems so subsumed by that question of the rightness or wrongness of wanting that the it loosens itself from its own perversity.

Angela Ellsworth, "Untitled," 2011.

It’s difficult for perversity to hold its own when the parameters that define what’s expected or proscribed are undercut (could “proscribed” and “perverse” be antonyms?)—“Perversions are often phantasms spun by jurisprudence,” wrote Wayne Koestenbaum, in the same essay in which he posited perversities as “a continuum of harmless grays.” There are a good number of grays in D’Allesandro’s stories and even more in Jancar Gallery’s current exhibition, Narratives of the Perverse – II (I occurred in 2008), a show that’s intergenerational and amorphous. Despite its title, Narratives functions more as a list than as a story, an enumeration of perversions, some political, pornographic, decorative, exploitative, explicit, and all somehow tied to how you assert or lose yourself while trying to connect with others. With thirty-eight artists and work hung upstairs, downstairs, in the alcove between desk and wall and in the stairwell, it’s a promiscuous exhibition. But it doesn’t feel overfull.

In Dorit Cypis’ 1987 photograph The Nervous System: Mother and Child, a pink, frilly, sinister image, a toddler holds her dress over her mother’s face in a way that connotes either precocious murder, or a forced pedophilia. In Angela Ellsworth’s Untitled, two girls with heavy braids, who could’ve come from Yearning for Zion Ranch, are about to gently kiss, putting the conservative, repressed wholesomeness of their appearance into intimate contact with the liberation tied up in girl-on-girl loving. There’s no shame in Ellsworth’s image, but there is in Elana Mann’s 2009 video Ass on the Street, where the artist wears an ass’s head and feels her way down a South L.A. street. Her body’s timidity and the simplicity of her black outfit makes the expression of perversity (she’s openly being an ass) seem wrong, like a Scarlett letter, and, as moving through the world with an ass head makes it difficult to see where you’re going but easy for everyone else to tell, Mann places herself at the mercy of others even though she can’t really engage them at all.

Elana Mann, "Ass on the Street," video still, 2009.

Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens can and do engage one another in their collaborative Ecosexual, a kitschy, defiant image of Sprinkle with legs spread and Stephens standing above. The couple has now been married six times and hosted six different weddings in the past six years, ever since their planned legal one was denied. This print corresponds with the most recent. It’s a performance of promiscuous commitment–wanting the right kind of togetherness but wanting it wrongly.

“I did not want comfort,” wrote Sam D’Allesandro, not in the story Coburn read but in another, titled Nothing Ever Just Disappears. “I did not want to be comfortable with not seeking comfort or predictability . . . I wanted to be challenged, but not in pain.” The most heartening trait of Narratives of the Perverse II‘s is its ability, as an unweildy collective, to be comfortable with the discomfort of wanting and not wanting in ways that aren’t sanctioned, destabilizing perversity as taboo while still allowing for the confusion of a series of “harmless grays.”

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