L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Human Nature is the remarkably, almost assaultingly, immense title of Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s current exhibition of art from its contemporary collection. But a walk through the galleries will quickly show you that immensity is actually far from the point. Unlike past exhibitions with similar sounding names—The Family of Man, MoMA’s 1955 paean to unity, comes to mind–the point of this show is categories. The images and objects in it, all made since ’68, are almost too tightly grouped. There’s body-centered, identity-searching work by Hannah Wilke, Carlee Fernandez and Ana Mendieta all in a row; a nostalgic assemblage by Betye Saar right across from an equally history-heavy sculpture by Saar’s daughter, Alison; pithy, politically charged text pieces by Mel Bochner, Glenn Ligon and John Baldessari hang together in the same room as Bruce Nauman’s neon pinwheel of weighty adjectives, also called Human Nature and the loosely the inspiration for this show.
When I visited the exhibition a week ago, I spent a particularly long time with a series of vintage portraits by agile, conscientious Brooklyn-based artist Lorna Simpson. The portraits dealt with categories in a way that seemed more compelling, and more human, then the show on the whole. They captured the amazing ability people have to become what they see in the world—to tailor themselves to categories—without making this proclivity for fitting in seem any less mystifying then it really is.
A few years ago, Simpson discovered some photographs from 1957, most of a woman, and some of a man. The couple posed in ways that recalled Hollywood pin-ups despite their modest domicile. Simpson restaged the images, playing the roles and adopting the poses of both man and woman herself. The resulting photos, on view at LACMA and efficiently titled 1957–2009 Interiors #3, show the artist beside a chess board or wielding a guitar, wearing a plaid suit, an Elvis-worthy white shirt and rolled up slacks, or a cleavage-stressing blouse with tight black shorts and black heels to match. The “couple” looks like the mingling of sleek gorgeousness that could have resulted had Nat King Cole and Lena Horne become a thing. Hung interspersed with the originals, Simpson’s restaged photos don’t “reveal” anything about their subjects. Instead, they drive home just how posed and idiosyncrasy-free home-made images can be.
I thought of Simpson when, last Saturday, I saw Berlin-based artist Daniela Comani’s Happy Marriage project, a series of staged photographs on view at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown. Like Simpson, Comani plays both male and female roles in digitally altered portraits of a marriage that, though cliché to extreme, feels wholly believable. If Simpson’s series channels 50s pin-ups, Comani’s channels present-day Bohemia. The couple reads classics in bed, wears plaid, buys wine and cheese and, I suspect, recycles religiously. That they are both women who have uncannily similar features is a surprisingly easy detail to overlook. Comani plays husband and wife so comfortably that what should be subversive—this happy marriage isn’t just queer, but practically incestuous in its self-involvement—instead feels perfectly predictable.
The fabulously mannish writer Gertrude Stein and her more-or-less wife Alice B. Toklas, delicate and domestic despite her thin black mustache, had a marriage that, by most apparent measures, should have been deviant or at least unconventional. But they didn’t see it that way.
When a young journalist named Robert Duncan asked Toklas whether she and Stein ever felt “set apart” (he was referring to their Jewishness, but Toklas’ response can safely be extrapolated), she replied, “Never. We never had any feeling of any minority. We weren’t the minority. We represented America.” And so they did, Alice with her French cooking tips (The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook preceded Julia Child’s first by seven years), Stein with her by-the-bootstraps wealth and both with their pioneering sense of intellectual entitlement.
Neither Comani’s nor Simpson’s projects feature “the minority” either. They portray people who, at least in the way the pose themselves, live at the center of cultural convention.