Little Left to Lose

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

Vija Celmins, "Time Magazine Cover," 1965, oil on canvas, 22x16 in., private collection c/o Ms. Laura Bechter.

Sunday night, before we knew for certain Osama bin Laden had died, I was listening to the radio and reading an essay by Kamin Mohammadi. Called Lust, Devotion & the Binary Code (titles that rely on the power of threes—consider “Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire” or “Sex, Art, and Americn Culture”— make me worry an author can’t commit), the essay was published in VQR and nominated for an National Magazine Award. It begins with Mohammadi in her native Iran, with what’s supposed to be a foreboding line: “S and I arrived late to the hotel in the remote town” (S is a man, of course). It ends with her no longer in Iran, having had her love affair, and returned to the UK she’d adopted in childhood; she says, “I have lost my love and my country, and so have little left to lose.”

What comes between is a long-suffering realization on the part of the writer that restriction does not necessarily lead to naiveté. She worries that her soon-to-be lover has never been alone with a woman. (She’s wrong; he’s snuck up to girls’ windows before.) Later, she worries that their loose talk over phone lines could be picked up and lead to jail time, or worse. He laughs at her. Does she think she invented phone sex? (She does think so, actually, at least within the borders of Iran.) The essay’s ending, which I reached around the time Obama finally began his address, seemed stretched too easily to a point of lyrical closure. “I have lost my country.” It’s just hard to believe that she ever had it.

Vija Celmins, "Burning Man," 1966 Oil on canvas 20 x 22.5 inches. Private Collection, New York.

The most resonate part of Obama’s speech for me—it felt right on the whole, enough so that I began googling West Wing character Toby Ziegler, the main reference point I have for speech writing done too well—was when he asked all of us to remember that feeling of unity that blanketed us right after 9/11. He was asking us to recall just a feeling, something that had been emotional, in-the-moment and thus necessarily fleeting, not to lay claim to something bigger and broader that many of us would have never had.

Vija Celmins’ television paintings, made between 1964 and 1966 and currently on view at LACMA, may be far more underwhelming than Obama’s “bin Laden’s gone” speech. Still, they have a similar cautiousness about claiming too much. Many show disasters Celmins never experienced any place other than on the TV screen—red glow of explosions, cool gray of war planes, scenes from Vietnam and scenes from Watts, belabored but not rendered with the exquisite tightness she’d become known for later; instead, they have the looseness of a blurring screen. It’s all the opposite of an op-ed. This work doesn’t have a slant, just a sort of circumstantial being-there-ness that manages to hover between passivity and intention.

Judith Bernstein, "Cockman #1 and #2," Acrylic on canvas, 1966.

But, then, there may be another way to acknowledge how little you own beyond yourself. Intention emanates aggressively from Judith Bernstein’s current exhibition at The Box in Chinatown. Her paintings, so phallically gross and the oldest ones (made in the mid-60s) aged so unkindly that their bodily pinks and browns seem putrid, have titles like Vietnam Salute and Cockman. Their faux-edginess recalls the kind a middle schooler takes on when she realizes profanity can get a rise and lets out four-letter words like nobody’s business. This naive brashness has a kitschy humor to it, though—the “Cockmen” look like Babar, if he’d given up his ears and had a penis nose instead of a trunk. The whole show is Valerie Solanis meets Sarah Silverman: absurd, solipsistic anger that knows how to play a crowd.

I can’t even imagine Celmins and Bernstein’s work in a room together, but what it shares is a painful awareness of its own smallness, even if Bernstein finds that smallness enraging, and kicks at it with all her sass-filled might. Neither would be caught trying to pull the world together with a simple line like, “I have lost my love and my country, and so have little left to lose.”

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