Los Angeles

“Autobiographical Fantasies”

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

The subject is ancient. St. Augustine, it is said, invented a literary container for it. More than 200 years have passed since Rousseau proclaimed, “Myself alone! . . . If I am not better, at least I am different.” The “self”—perennially fascinating to its owner, occasionally interesting to an “other,” conspicuous problem of the Romantics and frequent obsession of the Moderns—is recently being widely broadcast as an appropriate subject for mid-70s art. LAICA responds to the call with “Autobiographical Fantasies,” a spirited group exhibition, but one uncomfortably saddled with definitional complications. The show unites in uneasy collaboration the often intriguing, not always autobiographical, and most certainly disparate work of seven California-based artists: Eleanor Antin, Carole Caroomas, Jennifer Griffiths, Ilene Segalove, Allan Sekula, Alexis Smith and John White.

At first blush, LAICA’s title has a psychologistic ring to it, a hint of the surreal, an indication of fanciful excursions in which the maker explores his imaginary world of daydreams, lubricious or otherwise. Such is neither the appearance of the show, however, nor the intention of guest curator, Marcia Traylor, who had in mind, it seems, an anthology of works blending self-portraiture and Conceptual art. But even reinterpreted as, more or less, “Conceptual self-portraits,” LAICA’s category still fits this show like a shrunken t-shirt. For although most of the seven artists do accompany or incorporate into some of their exhibited pieces photographic self-images or verbal references to themselves (or to personae with whom they identify), they rarely are limited thereby to the “self”; instead, they explore such a variety of themes with this contemporary allusive device that to label their work “self-portraiture”—albeit Conceptual—seems beside the point. Furthermore, there are some pieces in the show, e.g. those of Jennifer Griffiths, that simply contain no self-images, no overt allusions to the maker, and are autobiographical only if the term is applied in that indiscriminate fashion some psychologists have of taking any work as its maker’s “fantasy.”

Yet the show itself—in spite of organizational incoherence—is full of individual pleasures. A cool exhibition with a Conceptual bias, it is occasionally witty and emphatically multipartite; it gleams with crisply photographed information, is promiscuous with collage, superabundant in verbal structures, and (perhaps its saving grace) is sly with enigmas. Autobiographical content, when it does actually appear, is decidedly nonscandalous, primly sanitized. (By comparison, the “confessional” mode in the poetry of our time has had a septic intensity about it—a passionate inclination to deal in madness and self-loathing, a dangerous tendency to dabble in suicide both as esthetic subject and final solution.) LAICA artists are lured neither by Eros nor Thanatos, and, unlike, say, Samaras or Nauman, those who present photographic self-images appear more pensive than pained.

Of the seven artists represented, Ilene Segalove and Eleanor Antin are the two most likely to spell “art” (as Wilde said of Whistler) with a capital “I,” and are consequently the most explicable inclusions of the show. An ironist of the quotidian, Segalove exploits photographic collage and an ambiguous deadpan to create works that can be called—accurately in this instance—conceptual self-portraits. The strongest of her contributions, Close, But No Cigar, is a four-couplet work using doctored photographs and photo-enlargements of prints; this piece reveals the artist miming straight-faced the pose and costume (or no costume) of, respectively, Louis Daguerre, Isaac Newton, Joan of Arc, and a Barbie-doll. Under the guise of exhibiting her own inadequacies, Segalove joins fact, fiction, and farce to make amusing observations on the unreal expectations imposed by self and society. She is also one of the few LAICA artists with a bona fide fantasy to share. Into the pallid black and white photographs of 11 Los Angeles galleries, she inserts her own work—tiny Kodacolor landscape shots of the view from her home window; it is typical of Segalove that this piece should hover ambiguously between self-exposure and satire, somewhere in that never-never land midway between an artist’s ambition and an artist’s disdain.

Eleanor Antin has herself labeled her ongoing four-faced saga “autobiographical art”; it is partially represented at LAICA by a large group of unremarkable photographs of Antin-as-King, here making the social rounds in his/her Solano place of exile. These “documents” are accompanied by “The King’s Meditations,” frayed excerpts from the pseudo-journal of Charles I written in mock-Early Modern English script and sweetly illustrated by Tiepolo-like drawings in ink and wash. The “meditations” present the broken King’s melancholy interior, the wearisome (hut poetic) side of his existence as disconsolate chimera. Antin’s act hinges on an anachronistic mingling of self-revelation and historical put-on. Although the pose might permit a certain amount of acerb observation on contemporary social realities and could be used to make an implicit commentary on societally imposed roles, Antin’s emphasis is more solipsistic than reformist.

If the autobiographical context provides a showcase for what Antin and Segalove do, it is less helpful for most of the others in the exhibition. Perhaps because autobiography is by nature seductive, offering the promise of a peephole on another’s psyche, the viewer who is urged (by LAICA’s emphasis) to ferret out the personal allusions of a work may ignore too easily the larger thematic implication. Alexis Smith’s narrative-collage, The Red Shoes, is a case in point. An ascetic, 13-part descant on such romantic themes as the conflicting demands of love and art, the pitfalls of overweening ambition, and the artist as tragic hero, this work includes as one of its panels a Time cover photograph of the actress whose name Smith has taken as her own nom de narratrice. In a non-coercive atmosphere, the autobiographical reference would be seen as but one elegant grace note of the piece, not its overriding concern. At LAICA, viewers were inclined to expect all of Smith’s vital statistics, a case history.

Carole Caroompas sees the world from an ironic, feminist vantage point. Her weakness is a Californian willingness to accept primitive technique as if it were sophisticated insouciance; nevertheless, she does use her collages to reveal the socio-cultural forces that shape a woman’s life. The photographs of herself included as part of her rag-bag melange of materials are as depersonalized as the materials themselves. In This Is Your Life, for example, the six photographs of the artist constitute a fictive character in a modern allegory on American lower education. The results are Caroompas as Jane Doe, not Carole in a confessional.

One of the most ambitious works of the group and the least well served by an autobiographical approach is Allan Sekula’s This Ain’t China, a “photonovel” consisting of 10 blocks of wall-mounted photographs and five pendant folders containing fictional texts. Sekula’s “photonovel” does raise some important critical issues (too complicated to dis- cuss here) about the ways in which photographs and fiction may be allied, as well as about the difficulty of confronting extensive verbal material in a gallery situation (LAICA at least provided chairs for Sekula’s piece), but its autobiograph- ical content seems insignificant. Although the artist apparently did work in the pizza cookery he depicts (it is the curator who exposes this vocational in- formation and not the artist), and al- though he does make a brief (unidentified) appearance among his restaurant cast of characters, Sekula himself is not the subject of his work. He investigates, rather, the type of “plexus” that interested Christopher Caudwell —that is, the points at which private perceptual worlds (those of Sekula’s workers, that of his boss) come together with the “objective realities” of class struggle. Using the literary device of a roving narrator, Sekula avoids doctrinaire reductions, creating a complex verbal-visual structure in which he is able to comment on photographs as ideological weapons and tools of deception, the necessity to conceive of antagonists as two-dimensional, and the function of lies in class warfare. Yet, in the end, Sekula’s workers enigmatically escape the frame of Labor-Management to join an irrational ballet of the mind. Either Sekula is in fact more doctrinaire than Mao, or else he secretly endorses the bourgeois wisdom of Fitzgerald, who once said: “. . . we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves. . . . There are no types, no plurals.”

––Nancy Marmer