L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Rain in Los Angeles is apparently bimodal — there are dry years followed by a few wet ones — which means the average precipitation is reached by factoring the wet and dry years together. We must be in a wetter year now, because there have been multiple rainy days just this week. Dasha Shishkin, who is not from Los Angeles (she hails from Moscow and lives in New York), makes rainy day drawings, drawings that feel like they are insular, cozy and social by necessity. The figures are thrown together in tight quarters and going “outside” of the picture plane seems undesirable to them. They are thus prime subjects for staring at.
Shishkin has said she does not paint, per se, because she is not a participant. “I am thinking of Picasso’s quote about painting as an act of active participation and drawing as an act of voyeurism,” she told Modern Painters in 2010. “I like being a voyeur for now.” The world she gazes into, or creates for us to gaze into, in her new show at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects is an eccentric fantasy inhabited exclusively by women, who occasionally appear in the nude for no apparent reason and have eyes in strange places, like on their abdomens or their behinds. Some have long Pinocchio noses.
Two of her drawings at Vielmetter Projects strike me most, and both of these turn vulnerability into a kind of strength. One is called “What does it matter to her ever creating womb if today matter is flesh and tomorrow worms.” (“Titles are like a cherry on a cake,” said Shishkin in that same Modern Painters interview. “The cherry does not make a cake a cherry cake, but it is still there to attract or distract an eye.”) It shows ladies in black dresses at a party in a restaurant with a checkered floor. Two sit in chairs in the foreground, gazing in at the rest. They seem perfectly content in their lonesomeness and, as you follow their gaze, you see a lot of the other women aren’t actually interacting with anyone else either. It’s a party full of self-sufficient, non-participant partiers.
The second drawing I like is more relaxed. It’s called “I don’t care if I can’t understand you, but you can’t sit in the gutter all day,” and shows three women on crimson bedding, two of them bald, with eyes on their breasts and nipples that look like noses. The middle woman has a goofy infectious grin, and you wonder if she is on some sort of drug. She reminds me of an essay by Eve Babitz, the writer who knew L.A. inside out and often longed for rain.
The essay, called “Rain,” comes from the book Slow Days, Fast Company, and has a passage on Quaaludes, which seems to describe Shiskin’s grinning woman perfectly: “When you get very languid and sexual and smile like Cleopatra being fanned as she floats down the Nile, other people catch the mood and find themselves straying from the straight and narrow too.” Rain has a similar effect as the drug, according to Babitz; rain in L.A. gives you an excuse to “catch a mood” and get comfortable. “[Rain is] freedom from smog and unbroken dreary hateful sameness,” writes Babitz. “It’s freedom to be cozy. Cozy! You can be cozy and not even have to go to San Francisco.”