Nicodim Gallery + Household Gallery
The real scandal of Thérèse Dreaming is not the alleged pedophilia of Balthus but the fact that all of us, like Therese, are split subjects rather than the coherent autonomous moral beings we fantasize ourselves to be. We don’t always like to recognize our own curiosity let alone our aggressive desire for knowledge/control. As viewers we want to know what lies under the underwear and, even more invasively, we want to know WHAT she is dreaming about. Balthus' painting captures and eludes in the same way as its ostensive subject Thérèse. Mia Merrill's complaint to the Metropolitan Museum about "blatant objectification and sexualization of a child" in the work demonstrates a moralizing conception of power, sexuality and art that seems to be on the rise at the moment. In his defense Balthus might say with Baudrillard "They do not understand that seduction represents mastery over the symbolic universe, while power represents only mastery of the real universe." Seduction plays on the reversibility of signs, on appearance and on ambiguity, foiling systems of power and meaning including a phallic economy based on anatomy. We would do well to appreciate it, particularly in the realm of aesthetics where it rules us anyway.
These debates about representation seem quaint in the context of an obscenely (or deliriously, depending on mood) tech and media-saturated anthropocene world that can only pretend to be clear about matters of identity, privacy, agency, and authentic desire.
Two witty, visually rich concurrent shows in Los Angeles, The Cruelty of Others at Household, and Homeward Bound at Nicodim share a sophisticated interest in sexuality and domesticity. Nicodim gallery becomes a set, painted deep liverish fuschia, furnished with an array of Windsor, brut, nouveau, ad-hoc, kink, African, and designer pieces that has equal importance with the visual art on display and contributes to the foregrounding of a body that sleeps, sits, writes, eats, gets cold, and gets off while looking at images of itself. The cavernous industrial space of the gallery gives more of a bunker or club rather than a domestic feel, adding an additional layer of decadence so that the entire show becomes a work of installation art playing macabre and sensual qualities against cerebral, grit against luxury, decoration against endlessly receding notion of function.
Visitors to Nicodim are greeted by a Kris Lemsalu sculpture with two pairs of tawdry leather pants suspended on a pelvis formed by apparent jawbones, tapering into delicate rococo ceramic loafers performing a danse macabre around an eternal electric flame, expressing desperate, defiant energy in a tattered Beckettian situation. Are we, like twin lizard tails twitching on headlessly, drawn to a vulnerable phony flame without warmth?
Bondage in the Buff on the Couch, and Ties that Bind in the Breakfast Nook are photos by Lisa Anne Auerbach depicting herself nearly nude in clean comfy middle class domestic environments, blase, perusing porn magazines. These pieces are structurally, iconographically very similar to the Balthus painting but they feel hygienic and bored, mildly funny in that female artist Auerbach has flattened so many layers of sexual representation into a “who’s thinking who” game. There is no real tension or play of seduction here, instead a disenchanted backwards look from the perspective of our cloned, decoded, blended trans days. It’s as if Auerbach is beginning to wonder with Zizek: “What if sexual difference is not simply a biological fact, but the Real of an antagonism that defines humanity, so that once sexual difference is abolished, a human being effectively becomes indistinguishable from a machine.” And further, might the end of sexuality via self-cloning also suggest the end of spiritual transcendence?
A woman tied up with a profusion of domestic bric-a-brac (dish racks, ironing boards, lamps...) picks up the cell phone and carries on a chat, ranging from very banal reportage to comments about her being shot in two different places on her body, uncertain of whether she is alive or dead, and declaring that she just killed a girl. The crescendo of Bonajo's video work comes when two similarly burdened women encounter each other in the white walled space: one says she feels like Aphrodite; the other says she feels like dancing and they begin an awkward clangy spin. Bonajo gives us an analogue cartoon image of our self-amputated and aggregated selves seeking relief in gadget love a la McLuhan. Reference to Aphrodite is amusing because this figure is, despite the bondage, not erotic, but rather neutral like a DIY proto-cyborg. If she is sexual, it is in having become "the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms." (McLuhan) Bonajo suggests that her human body is otherwise obsolete and nonsensical, encountering resistance in the very attempt to protect and empower. In Bonajo's work as in the Homebound show in general, there is a productive confusion about subject and object, living and dead, utility and desire.
At Household, Krysten Cunningham’s scaled up dishrack, children’s loom and bookend sculptures interpose themselves between the viewer and paintings by Vanessa Conte. The muted line-heavy paintings depict women being slapped, stepped on, punched and kicked. In one of the four works, the perpetrator is shown full-figure with long blond hair, blouse, shorts and heels. Conte keeps a cool painter’s head with this hot subject, demonstrating much painterly invention in the response of flesh to force. Her figures are very carefully related to the frame or edge of the canvas support. They appear to lean against it, step on it as if balancing, and push off against it. Conte also dramatizes the question of what/who is just beyond the frame. In one work a nipple is held a hair’s breadth away from a heater. Conte shows us that the orchestration of tensions, disclosures and secrets in painting itself makes the true sado-masochistic pleasure game. The style and subject of the work evokes the 40’s, evincing nostalgia for lost taboos when there were structures to subvert.
This interest in sadomasochism on the part of Auerbach, Conte and Bonajo seems to be a search for resistance in defiance of endlessly malleable cyberspace bodies. As always, the traumatic encounter compels us to symbolize in life and art.