Thursday, May 19, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Lives and Portraits" (on Eleanor Antin and Catherine Opie)


lives and portraits
by Douglas Messerli

Eleanor Antin “Eleanor Antin: What time is it?”  / Los Angeles, Diane Rosenstein / Howard Fox and I attended the May 14, 2016 opening

Catherine Opie Portraits / Los Angeles, Hammer Museum / Howard Fox and I visited this show on May 18, 2016

In 1969, having recently moved from New York to Southern California, Eleanor Antin began a series of California Lives, assemblages of new consumer goods and household objects that were meant, in some vague way, to define the lives of iconic characters, some real and others fictional, that she had begun to encounter and imagined in California. Although Antin also included “texts” that briefly described the figures, elliptical narratives that describe the activities and lives of this figures, as Howard Fox has suggested, these commentaries do not so much “explain” the visual assemblages as they serve as the kind of dramatic character sketches appearing before some plays.
     Indeed, some of these figures such as “Molly Barnes”-- a real individual with whom I am acquainted--are characterized through a rather puzzling gathering of materials that I might never have imagined for them, in this case a pinkish bath mat, electric razor, pills, powder, and powder puff—although I might certainly have imagined she once owned each of these objects. 
     A figure out of a newspaper article is described accordingly:

            KNX reported that Robert Olmstead of Del Mar, California, was shot by the
            highway patrol while hitching near Sacramento. According to the news report
            when the officers stopped to question him he opened fire on them at point
            blank range with a sub-machine gun and they were forced to kill him.

 

The accompanying assemblage, titled “Merrit” is represented only by a gasoline can, a hat with a fabric-piece patch, and a comb. Presumably this represents a wanderer who at any moment might explode. 

     A single mother, “Jeannie” is described as working nights and worrying about her daughter, having sex occasionally with a mustached lifeguard. Jeannie eventually becomes a masseuse, while her daughter, given  a red Camaro by grandmother, a car which she crashes on the freeway,  remains, after the crash, "unhurt." “Jeannie” is represented by a TV tray, Melmac coffee cup and saucer, curlers, matchbook, and cigarette. 
     In short, the 1970 show at Gain Ground Gallery surely puzzled many of its attendees. Who were these people? And why were they being represented in this manner?

     In one sense, of course, Antin was attempting to get to know her new environment through these clearly pop-cultural tableaux; and today we can also easily see that these are apiece with her numerous fictional representations of herself and others; and we can recognize a strong feminist approach to her abstraction, wherein conceptual reality is not represented in grids or metal plates (as in the work of Carl Andre or Donald Judd) but is generated by the personal encounter with the American dollar, through everyday objects readily available in nearby stores and catalogues.
     To New Yorkers, perhaps, her following show, representing similar assemblages of 8 New York women (Portraits of Eight New York Women)—very real friends of the artist, gallery owner Naomi Dash; painter and critic Amy Goldin; anthropologist Margaret Mead; dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer; painter and performance artist Carolee Schneemann; museum publicist Lynn Traiger; poet Hannah Weiner; and poet and playwright Rochelle Owens—might have been a bit more comprehensible. 
     Yet, even here, the four women I personally know in this 1970 gathering, originally shown in a rented space at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, seem somewhat oddly represented. I might well imagine the easel, mirror, red velvet, and jar of honey for the luxurious bodily whorls and rolls of Schneemann’s art, and even the umbrella, chair, binoculars with case, and thermos of the ever-alert, always observing anthropologist Mead, but the decorative table, heart-framed chairs, plates, plastic utensils, napkins, tumblers, hammer, teapot for Hannah Weiner, who spent most of her later years seeing words on people’s foreheads and traveling across the bands of her television set, came as a surprise. Although, as Antin suggested: "I knew her when she was much younger."
      Antin herself describes Lyn Traiger’s reaction to her own “depiction”:

              Only one woman wanted her portrait which I gave her gladly. A year later,
              she called to say the piece was making her nervous and her therapist 
              suggested she give it back. The portrait consisted of a standard black 
              city apartment door with several locks, an eye hole through which 
              she could spy on who was outside the door, a welcome mat, a bottle of 
              skimmed milk and fat free cottage cheese with an envelope (morning
              delivery) and the apartment keys left "accidentally" in the lock, probably 
              the night before. Surely, a portrait of vulnerability and distress. It was 
              courting danger in then crime-riddled NY. So the model finally got it but 
              didn’t want to look at it anymore

      

     In short, perhaps Antin’s second of body of work, also displayed in the Rosenstein show, was not so better received. Which is perhaps, given these works were later replicated for a renowned show at Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, and have become legendary as early feminist visions, why Antin has chosen to ask “What time is it?” It suggests that she is questioning the perception of her work over time, almost pleading with her audience to rethink what at first they couldn’t quite comprehend:

 
               It’s now almost a half century later. These are the original sculptures. 
               Have people changed so much? Has the art world? "What time is it?"
               Is it still 1969 and 1970 or is it 2016? Does it matter?




      Yes, I would argue, it does very much matter. Although we can now better assimilate and accept these marvelous somewhat Dadaist-linked “portraits” or sculptured “lives,” they came out of a period where they seemed so original that their audiences were literally stymied by their conceptual originality, and were forced to rethink—as Antin made us do also in her later Carving, a Traditional Sculpture—what precisely is sculpture, what even is art?



Some of the same tensions exist in Catherine Opie’s new show, Portraits. Once again, Opie has taken photographs of contemporary friends, such as the Los Angeles artists John Baldessari and Mary Kelly, New York-based artists Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, novelist Jonathan Franzen (reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace) and performance artist Ron Athey, representing them—through nuanced lighting, careful posing, and positioning them against totally black backgrounds, while framing these images within rectangular and oval frames—almost as 18th and 19th century figures who might be at home in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

     As curator Connie Butler states:

 
"Fundamental to understand Opie’s portraits is the
element of time. …There is a slowness to these pictures
that extracts from the viewer and extended pause.
Emerging from the rich, velvety blackness of the back-
grounds, these individuals have a stillness and composure
that, in some cases, is contrary to how each person
actually is in life. Opie’s light draws them out but
enshrines them in something mute and other-worldly."

      Somewhat like Antin’s “portraits,” Opie’s more literal photographic portraits create a kind of gap in time within the art itself—not so very different perhaps from Antin’s more recent photographic Roman landscapes. And the question in Opie’s small but lovely show at the Hammer might also be “What time is it?”

 

Los Angeles, May 19, 2016

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