San Francisco

Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media

As part of our ongoing partnership with Art Practical, Daily Serving is sharing an article on SFMOMA‘s Stage Presence exhibition by Patricia Maloney.

Charles Atlas. Hail the New Puritan, 1985–86 still; single-channel video with sound. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., New York. © Charles Atlas.

The exhibition Stage Presence, curated by Rudolf Frielingfor the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), provides an outstanding exploration of theatrical modes of representation in contemporary visual art. The exhibition posits that visual art possesses the same aim of self-reflective awareness on the part of its audience as epic theater does. The Brechtian concept of epic theater necessitates that an audience is always cognizant of its own being; the illusionary veil of immersion is lifted and the mechanics of watching a performance are revealed. The works included in Stage Presence—which range from film screenings and live performances to multichannel videos, photography, and installations—affect this self-awareness by depicting performances in suspended states of staging and rehearsal rather than fully-realized productions. Moving throughout the exhibition, a viewer becomes acclimated to the disruptions, fragmentations, and repetitions that recur, and one’s attention shifts back to one’s role in these productions and one’s agency in inscribing meaning to them.

It is not accidental that Stage Presence occupies the same floor as the Cindy Sherman retrospective, which functions as a prelude. In appropriating the guises of various female typologies—the ingénue, the aging sexpot, or the society matron—Sherman pushes everything to the surface. A viewer’s translation of these characters relies upon one’s recognition of the mimetic gestures, expressions, and styling that Sherman applies over her inherent traits. Even though garish costuming dominates the photographs, the images become blank slates: we craft histories and psyches for these characters-as-subjects that are untethered from the lived experience of the artist.

Sherman’s engineered blankness finds its counterpart in Geoffrey Farmer’s installation, The Surgeon and the Photographer (2011–12) shown in Stage Presence. Farmer collaged photographic reproductions from books into 365 puppet-like sculptures, each approximately the size of a hand, thirty of which are included in this exhibition. The puppets bristle with multiple identities; each angle presents a new figuration as disproportionate and layered appendages cohere into forms. They are totemic but not possessed of any spirit. Rather, they are waiting for occupation and activation.

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