The Empty Husk Condition

by Fabiola Carranza

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Tamara Henderson, Seasons End: Panting Healer (2016). Exhibition view at REDCAT, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox

Fabiola Carranza (b.1983) is a Costa Rican/Canadian artist living in Southern California. Carranza makes multi-disciplinary artworks that incorporate or adapt readily available materials. She examines the political potential of visual, cultural and personal phenomena through her art and writing.

NORMAL HEIGHTS, CALIFORNIA — I went to bed at 4:30 am. Last night’s debate set the term post-truth in stone. The political views of the moderate and undecided shown in the media, once again have caught up to the stunts of art, where ‘seeming-being’ generates more buzz than ‘being’, if ‘being’ is finding truths. Truth is subsumed by relativism and the wish to remain operative, to stay calm and be integral to the world only within the scope of the self; to make art and keep re-making the same semblance, an image of the world. To be contemporary is to participate in a culture that resists its own dismantling.

There is a fine edge of appeal to having the place of art be an empty and hollowed site. Artists can repeatedly seem-to-be detached there. You could even say the contemporary art scene holds the throne to this probe on emptiness. As art encircles this rubric it sometimes hides truths in the midst of surface lies. Other times, art posits lies or omissions at a moment of evident truth and danger. In the latter instance artistic resistance is simply a willingness to survive the pit of the times, an abstract form of becoming. Art then is the only future the latter artist knows. Work against angst. In this way and perhaps for this reason, artists continue to make more meanings with their work, but are they making their work more spiritual with meaning, with incoherence?

Tamara Henderson’s first solo exhibition in the United States, Seasons End: Panting Healer, is taking place at REDCAT in Los Angeles. ( 1 ) The show’s aesthetic recalls the use of natural-dyed, colour silks in Waldorf pedagogy and the experience of listening to Holst’s 1916 The Planets for the first time. Natural materials and pastel tones act as a registry of the artist’s innocence and her free-associative thinking. The artworks displayed herein were originally exhibited in the Mitchell Library for Glasgow International — a much more scenic site than the lobby gallery at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre. The Scottish biennial’s website describes Henderson’s sculptures as “extensions of past and present totems to seasonal change, pagan gods and goddesses, fairies and scarecrows.” I can imagine how the works, set in an ‘old world’ building, would read as a kind of cabinet of curiosities, inciting wonder and contemplation against a defected history of colonialism and witch hunts. At REDCAT the exhibition expands as a transmutation of color, kitsch and the everyday into playfully composed clerical costumes that have been, literally, trapped in a garage. Sculpture-beings made of velveteen and chiffon, rayon and worn-out cotton, lace, hay and thread.

A video transfer of one of Henderson’s soft-focused films, projected from the hood of a makeshift automotive chassis, Seasons End Vehicle (2016) accompanies this creature-like art. The car conveniently serves up an ode to Edward Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge (1964) and to L.A. art in general. (California as that still-hot engine on the stationed vehicle.) The large, coloured paper photography backdrops against which the figure-like artworks were displayed in Glasgow are not on view at REDCAT. In their place, Henderson has built a black and white darkroom inside a handmade circus tent. What was originally centrifugal about the work’s relationship to photography (artworks posed to be photographed, studio style) is now centripetal (processing, the reveal: the prints). Henderson scrapes residue from a pinhole camera as film chemistry odours spread in the darkened space where wet photographs are left to hang and dry. What these images and the film have in common is their soft shiftiness, a mirror of the need to leave behind a trace as blur, something with which to point toward their lacking aura.

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Tamara Henderson, Garden Photographer Scarecrow (dehydrated), 2016. Exhibition view at REDCAT, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox

In both instalments, Seasons End acts as a diary, or a travel journal. The exhibition uses cultural and religious symbols already so overdetermined that Henderson’s use of them might seem generous in contrast. It isn’t. The pineapple motifs, the psychologists’ divan (not seen in this show, but a form common to her visual lexicon), a yin-yang-like shape, an effigy of a burning man, Garden Photographer Scarecrow (2016), sea shells, brass trinkets and some 80s t-shirts do not provoke us to dig under the skin of their subconscious presence. The emphasis here is on the ability of art to focus on the subconscious, not on bringing it to light. The objects are not metonymic stand-ins for anything except maybe the restoration of an intuitive approach to art making. One that mimics the medium of painting (alluded to by the exhibition’s title) and shallow figuration and promises to heal it. (Has painting ever needed to heal?) Yet like good painting the works’ arresting beauty diffracts analysis. Nonetheless, the absence of purpose in Seasons End: Panting Healer as the beginning and end drawn from worn out (and wearing out) Surrealist commodities, is a metaphor for the decay and loss we each face! A black square reshaping our heart.

The exhibition revisits the empty husk of the psyche and it provides a view into the secrecy that shapes personal narratives but not the narratives themselves. The title of each artwork implies a deeper relationship had to the materials used to make it but this remains obscured to the viewer. ( 2 ) Henderson’s reluctance to disclose or exploit her connectedness to the materials is a strength in the work, a universalizing distance between the personal and the impersonal, a deathbed farewell to narrative. The danger of this blanked-out approach, comes when dealing with culturally sensitive objects, because in it orientalism is left undisturbed. A statement from the gallery says “the artist suggests that the character of the dehydrated scarecrow on her deathbed is a totem for reading seasonal change at the time of climate change.” Orientalism marks a trajectory of modernism (Surrealism) the exhibition and the artist inherit as an aid or passage into opacity. It allows the occult content held by the materials to be harnessed. The didactic information prefacing both iterations of the exhibition claims that, “Henderson’s recent research focuses on past and present totems, seasonal change, pagan gods and goddesses, fairies and scarecrows.” If the materials that make up this show bear some strong cultural associations, then neither the curators, nor the artist do anything to critically reflect on this. If an artistic expression crafted in fabric and entangled with hay resembles a totem, that is not a coincidence, but something all too often permitted to western traveler-types, when they make art and adopt shamanistic values. I am not whom to say who can appropriate what, from whom, nor to what end, but I am intrigued by the ease with which these sort of mythic entanglements occur and fraction on to art, never needing to be framed.

I wish more had been said about how the work draws from photography, from hauntings and spirit writing as its chosen psychic technologies for jotting down intuitive memory and tracing feminine history and relations, but perhaps such things are best left to the art historians. ( 3 ) This aside, the exhibition offers an honest view into the itinerant life of a meticulously hardworking artist, who appreciates textiles and other century old technologies (B&W photography, celluloid film, witchcraft, etc.) as much as it celebrates every second the artist spends in the gallery where she carefully makes its space her studio. (Artists need studios, they should have studios. The exhibition could serve as commentary on the transition that more and more often we see artists having to make do with gallery space for two weeks, or brief residency periods as their sole spatial means of material production). The question is: is the heroic survival of the artist’s role enough to make this art relevant today or only to make art that is beautiful? The work does envelop you in loose beauty like the long mane of a wild horse. I imagine the artist galloping from one exhibition to the next on Trojan legs. I guess I mean rolling from place to place. Halfway across town transracial subjects, a panoply of mannequins, make up the majority of Docudrama, K8 Hardy’s solo exhibition at Gaga Reena Gallery. This is the shared California outpost of New York’s Reena Spaulings Fine Art and Mexico City’s House of Gaga located in MacArthur Park. Any news of a white woman claiming to be black in this broad gallery is old. Contrary to Seasons End, the beauty within which to lose oneself here is self-strangled and strange. One mannequin displays half a head of straight, blond hair and half in a blue-to-purple corn row fade. Blackness is represented by this blue to purple turn. The idea at the core of Docudrama is that the average exhibition attendee might make certain assumptions about race, class, wealth or gender when they look at the work, and if they do, it will be they who are racist or classist not the queer, feminist, Caucasian artist who produced the exhibition in the first place. The formula reads a bit like an abject trap we are all doomed to fall into. A reminder. Second guess assumption! Allow complexity to surface. The idea that mannequins are not imbued with gestures is old news here too. These mannequins are nothing if not self-conscious attempts at gestural composure. Each of them is presented in a recognizable couture pose, either leaning over Tupperware containers or laying on all fours. They all seem to glare about the gallery in defiance.

A lot of the outfits here were first worn during a runway show as part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial. At Gaga Reena some of the figures wear Marie Antoinette-style wigs that could hide the pigeons of the homeless underneath Kool-Aid strands of teased, faux hair. (I fell for the trap and I see a representation of poverty there!) The wigs warn of future decapitations under posh hats. Neon enamel paint also makes an appearance: flat and quickly applied like a gel on some of the ‘stand-in’ heads. The excessive patterning on the hand-pieced clothes brings to mind the inventiveness of a social class for whom self-stylization still dignifies the American Dream. (Trap, trap!) At the opening the only beer served was Budweiser. Stripes and stars amassed as seconds shrank before the gruesome election.

Paint had also been applied on the mannequins fingertips. With each stroke came a Franken-steinian effort to bring the stand-in’s to life. Even the whites of their eyes had been coated pink-eye red. I deviate off track to imagine the hallucinations, putrid nightmares and fun memories of past parties had, in a world made exclusively of magazine spreads. I only interrupt this vision at the thought that maybe this exhibition is what a life on strike looks like — that it would be something exhausted, something female, something like pink-eye. Something so human, something protuberant that threatens to kill joy if joy is consuming this image. A girl’s image. Strikes cause discomfort but they have a goal in sight. Change.

I sense the agonistic effort made by K8 Hardy to try and situate self care in fast fashion and still have a love affair in the gallery with its thrift material. One mannequin above all stands out. She’s the superhero of the bunch hanging over the gallery in a flying pose. Wonder Woman? More like Dara Birnbaum. But it’s true, the world needs to re-imagine its heroes. It needs girls to spin out and into the fire.

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K8 Hardy, “Docudrama,” installation view at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Los Angeles (2016). Courtesy Reena Spaulings Fine Art, Los Angeles.

The façade of Gaga Reena’s building is striking with its Spanish revival ornamentation. A wide set of stairs to the side of the building welcomes attendees into the gallery, where two back windows frame palm trees. The trees match the stance of the mannequins. With their sway, they too seem fake. This is privilege dressed in the shabby neighbourhood’s rags, building identifiers of coolness; that hidden potential beyond a façade, a curling thing that rises from the bottom up. Coolness always rises from the bottom up. Here all bottoms are up, always. The sparse touch ups on the architecture try to pass the place as an un-working of the system. In part, it is. After all this is not Gagosian in Beverly Hills nor the also relatively new Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel, with its urban garden and chicken coop, where Isa Genzken is showing similar “schauspieler” or “mannequins as actors” type work. ( 4 ) Unlike Genzken, K8 Hardy’s cast of stand-in actors are of age. If they were real people they could consent to this fantasy play. Some of the garments on the mannequins are turned inside out and sewn shut. A mesh sack with a severed head in it is partly painted with drips of red. Another figure holds it like a lumpy bag of groceries. As one circles about a handful of potential references to famous works of art and iconic moments in fashion history come to mind. Drip paintings turn into smocks. A palette is now a dress. Docudrama’s innards are of angst as it turns into blooming force. More just of gruesome forces tensed. The breasts and musculature of one of the mannequins is more shapely than that of the rest, but all shapes considered, it is the garments, not the mannequins that document the re-appropriative system of defacement and erasure the female form undergoes.

The exhibition’s other accompanying work, an 82-minute video titled, Outfitumentary (2016) shows 10+ years of outfits worn by the artist. K8 Hardy strikes classic, video art poses for the camera. The casual domestic setting recalls Martha Rosler’s 1975 iconic video Semiotics of the Kitchen. A small note on stationery from a nearby luxury hotel (the crossed out name still somewhat legible) asks viewers not to post images of the video on their media feeds. The mark seems purposeful and jocular. It romanticizes the memory of Martin Kippenberger’s 1985–1996 series, Drawings on Hotel Stationery but it also recalls every artist’s fascination with other artists, other art and luxury. The handwritten note toils with the belief, that there is a moral and immoral way to look at art and approach practice, that the internet, wealth and nomadic (homeless) life have determined. It asks: How do artists continue to live and work once their art has garnered some attention, if they do not wish to fall into complete and desperate holes, into opulence, excess and entitlement? That is, assuming they didn’t live this way already. For K8 Hardy, identity ought to be confused, fucked with, brutalized and most of all, instrumentalized. Docudrama denotes the seductive elements of fame and flare and how they manage art today as much as it embodies and despises them with atomizing horror. ( 5 ) In 1927, Elinor Glyn wrote “It is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force.” K8 Hardy’s modeled “It” stance is negative and self-reflective, it is an unhappy and conscious reflection on the present condition of life in the United States. A simultaneously dominant and submissive account of the pleasure begot from subverting torture, crisis, ends. The artist seems committed to making this seduction hers, regardless of whether the feedback the exhibition produces, out-generates the sound its critical force makes.

Outfitumentary champions an important archival cause. As it documents K8 Hardy’s looks, her life, and her coming into power, it leaves behind an image of what feminist and queer life looked like in the 00’s. But does the lucid contraction of thought and time embedded in this practice make the act of making art any less self-involved? Does the emergence of something like an acknowledgement of a truth that is always already there (the world is worn out, cruel and abusive) really help make like-minded folks come together? Or does it only allow an educated elite to stay filial to themselves and set class (tout-monde chic), and not race, sexuality, or gender, as the structures of privilege? Fashion has always done that. The position K8 Hardy seems to take says “Welcome be the money, it draws no end.” Art doesn’t want an end. It never has. I guess saying “Look here! I’ve seen something in the world that is still ours: intelligence, color, texture, craftsmanship!” is too direct to be sensual. We’d rather take a self-conjured, impersonal, smart mock of an It girl — the stand-in — than acknowledge a girl’s stance (K8 Hardy’s). At least the expenditure in Docudrama is not long lasting, because somewhere along the line drawn by the fake bodies in the gallery, K8 Hardy’s characterization of post-capitalist misogyny finds its poetic, communitarian non-place. The works temporarily appear less empty through their networked relation, they oscillate between holding meaning and acting as voids. But one cannot re-appropriate misogyny without having first been subject to it. Outfitumentary is testament to that. K8 Hardy is not thinned out by the circulation of her work: she wears it. She moves through the smart rings of the art world between acts of pleasure and swerves of pain. Her queerness, growth and shared vulnerability are the sources of her empowerment and inimitable style.

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Tamara Henderson, Seasons End: Panting Healer (2016). Exhibition view at REDCAT, Los Angeles. Photo: Brica Wilcox

Meanwhile, back at REDCAT, Henderson’s navel gaze seems more Ulyssean. Yet her stream-of-consciousness comes two generations too late for me to boast with comrade happiness. I am glad of it, of course, but I still want to see work that is about more than D.I.Y. techniques, the visionary observation of colour (because it is visionary) and the continuation of art as we have come to know it. I don’t need a female Kienholz nor a girl Kippenberger. I want to jump right past them to a time when I can see art made by women entirely on their own terms. I suppose these works are the wonderful mess that is kept as we walk toward this more sacred end, to that immortal promise in the coming… It is always in the coming. Oh, I must sleep to dream then.

(1) The exhibition ran October 15 2016 through December 23 2016.

(2) Some of the titles are, “Brenda”, “Road to Recovery” and “My Mother in Ashes”.

(3) My take is that intuitive knowledge has been historically undermined and bracketed as feminine thought process. But the ties to the unconscious— to surrealism, photography and overdetermined commodities in Henderson’s work— fog the capacity of the work to speak to this male/female or macho and feminine binary and instead make psychic technologies themselves, these spirit writing technologies, take centre stage. The work then becomes about the adoption of pagan ritual, or othered ritual, into art. It both obscures and becomes complicit with/in its colonial legacies. Art advances in this way and a female artist can focus on the handmade without her work coming across as neither exploitative nor commonplace.

(4) It was recently announced that Paul Schimmel is no longer the director, partner nor vice president at Hauser & Wirth.

(5) Susan Sontag used the term “atomizing horror” to describe the work of Diane Arbus.

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