San Francisco

Lynn Hershman

M.H. de Young Memorial Museum

Lynn Hershman has established herself as a West Coast based entrepreneur/surrealist. A furnished tableau with in-the-bed mannequins at the Dante Hotel and window displays for Bon-wit Teller captured viewers’ imaginations with a combination of theatre and public relations. When a nighttime visitor to the Dante Hotel thought the tableau was vivant he called the police. They terminated the work, immediately imbuing it with eternal recognition. In New York Hershman won notoriety for being the first artist to do Bonwit’s windows since Salvador Dali broke the plate glass in the midst of a 1930s tantrum.

Three years ago Hershman constructed an alter ego, Roberta Breitmore. Provided with checking account, driver’s license, psychiatric profile and wardrobe, the artist as Roberta interacted with society. Roberta answered classified ads for roommates and attended art openings. According to the artifacts, she was chronically neurotic, worrying about weight problems, not finding a job, and growing poorer and more desperate each day. As the artist’s alter ego she was neither Hershman’s opposite nor clone, but an amalgamation of qualities fabricated to summon up an every-person response. In the museum Roberta’s persona is disclosed through several forms. There are the Roberta comics, where she is the archetypal single woman at the mercy of the urban environment. Hershman also exposes her character in diary entries, handwriting analysis, and self-portrait photographs manipulated with paint and words.

Because Roberta is multifaceted, existing as performance character, comic-book heroine and autobiographical relic, the continuity of her persona and the method of presentation is crucial if the illusion is to be maintained. In “Lynn Hershman is not Roberta Breitmore,” however, the elements of real time event and constructed evidence often contradict one another, and Roberta is unconvincing within the museum context. Rather than developing a single viewpoint or style, Hershman utilizes both the first person and observer form. Cultural residue and off-handed documentation do not create the sense of reality or personification that were necessary to Roberta’s performances. Instead, there exists a disparity of materials and an absence of framework. The manipulated photographs seem out of character and the collected artifacts, including Roberta’s coat and skirt, hold no emotional significance for the viewer. As observers we want to believe the Roberta myth, to be the victim of her activities, co-opted like the man who unknowingly interviewed her as a potential roommate. At the same time we hope to be voyeurs, the artist’s furtive confidants. But Hershman’s eclectic and unrhythmic presentation not only destroys the aura, but suppresses believability or interest in the character. In place of persona we witness the artist’s ego transmitted via art object.

Roberta might have been encapsulated in the same manner that a novel develops a character, had Hershman followed a more consistent documentary approach. Since Roberta is the product of a mechanized society, it would seem logical that a clean, informational presentation would have made an appropriate framework. For example, the catalogue, in which several writers philosophize about Roberta and recount her activities, is more involving than the exhibition because the reader can expand the character more easily in his imagination.

“Lynn Hershman is not Roberta Breitmore” lacks the sense of theatre and illusion that were central to both the Dante Hotel and Bonwit Teller works. In visual terms, Roberta’s public debut borders on a kind of careless expressionism, destroying the fragile fictional mode and minimizing the self-revelation the character is supposed to hold for us. Perhaps Roberta should have remained known only through print or performance. A fleeting character interviewing for a roommate, a sad comic-book heroine, or the narcissistic alter ego myth of an artist. Invariably, Roberta and her activities are more interesting in concept or legend than visual fact.

Hal Fischer