PRINT January 2001

Katy Siegel

BACK IN MY WISCONSIN HIGH SCHOOL, I HATED THE girls who figure skated; the double axels of Tricia et al. contrasted too starkly with my double bass. But I’m a big girl now, and I can recognize the poignancy of Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Bowers’s images of amateur skaters, from an exquisite colored-pencil drawing of a fat and fabulous teenager to the funny little videos of young girls performing their routines dressed as superheroes and vamps. Awkward and touching, this is art for those who sided with Tonya Harding, not Nancy Kerrigan.

Still, the ice-skating pieces weren’t what first attracted me to Bowers’s art. In the summer of 1999, I saw a drawing in a group show at Sara Meltzer Gallery in New York (where Bowers currently has a solo show). A lone fan at a David Bowie concert, holding a giant Union Jack aloft, shouts or sings, eyes closed, floating on a sea of white paper, presumably torn from the fabric of similarly enraptured hordes. The drawing’s appeal lay partly in recalling the sensation of losing yourself in live music, in its collective experience. Bowers’s sharp observation of the oblivious fan renders his expression, stance, and clothing acutely real, exposing his ardor.

While many of her subjects are taken from concert photos, some are plucked from sporting events, others from raves, where the audience-performer line is fluid. Mining a similar vein, Bowers filmed people singing at karaoke bars for a video installation called I Love You Fuckin’ People, 2000 (first shown at Goldman Tevis, her LA gallery). Here, the fan becomes the amateur, an unskilled (and perhaps untalented) performer. She at once imitates and deviates from a model, the “real” star; in this, the amateur resembles a work of art.

Modern artists have long looked to audiences (even before Guy Debord broke the news about our spectacular society)—Manet and Weegee, Andreas Gursky and Sharon Lockhart. Bowers hits the topic’s established hot spots: mass identity, media culture, the exchange between observer and performer. But the awkward specificity of the subjects complicates her take, pushing individual expression against group identity.

Most recently, Bowers has been using reflective silver and gold grounds, a perhaps too-easy nod to Byzantine icons redeemed by the fact that the shiny stuff is T-shirt decal material. The drawings depict female music stars like Salt ’n’ Pepa (Hot, Cool and Vicious, 2000); the best piece, Pretty on the Inside, 2000, pairs Chrissie Hynde and Courtney Love flipping each other off across a wide expanse of silver. These celebrity musicians (celebrated as much for their images as their voices), cult figures for women under a certain age, complete Bowers’s circuit of fan-amateur-master (or, artistically, that of copy-interpretation-original).

Bowers herself learned to ice-skate last year. Highly accomplished as an artist, she nonetheless understands the passion of the less-than-professional, the confusion of emulation and expression, fan and star, on the ice—and in the gallery.

With essays for first major museum shows (Lisa Yuskavage and Rineke Dijkstra) to her credit—not to mention monthly contributions to these pages—Hunter College-based art historian KATY SIEGEL has lately joined the ranks of today’s most visible critics. Last year she penned pieces on underappreciated figures (Paul Etienne Lincoln, Jennifer Bolande) as well as new talents (Paul Pfeiffer, Yuskavage). An essay in Art for the Twenty-First Century (Abrams), a companion to the PBS series, is forthcoming.