New York

Simone Gad

Monique Knowlton Gallery, Fun Gallery

Simone Gad casts a bright light on one of the more pervasive yet hard-to-pin-down trends in contemporary American culture. Since the mid-’70s, this Los Angeles artist has focused on Hollywood nostalgia, turning a wry and appreciative eye on its iconic ways and glamorous means. Gad, born in Belgium, grew up in Hollywood, and worked there as an actress in the ’50s; she is well qualified to tackle the complex sensibility of Tinseltown, and to go behind both its gloss and its dross. Her recent work gets to the heart of what Hollywood represents for the baby-boom generation weaned on its TV programs and the movies of the ’50s and ’60s.

With vintage found objects from Hollywood-memorabilia and ’50s shops in and around Los Angeles, Gad assembles three-dimensional pictures and sculptural tableaux notable for their evocative appeal and emotional accessibility. Self-Portrait with Annette, 1984, brings out sentiments of lost innocence, particularly in a generation that collectively spent happy childhood moments watching Annette Funicello and the other Mouseketeers on television. With its Mouseketeer ears, wing-tipped glasses, and toy-sized ’50s-style TV, the collage relies on a dynamic interplay of colors and textures to bring out thematic meanings. J’aime Richard Widmark et Brigitte Bardot and Zorro and Self Portrait, both 1984, other recent reliefs, and a box collage based on the popular TV series “77 Sunset Strip” use a similar associative technique to recall adolescent fantasies of sex.

Gad’s careful research into her subjects enables her to present them freshly and to avoid clichés. Instead of relying on well-known production stills in a 1984 collage about “I Love Lucy,” for example, Gad makes her main motifs the cover of an “I Love Lucy” comic book and a portion of one of the strips. The unfamiliar material Gad uses also provides interesting information about old Hollywood mass-marketing techniques, but the symbolic side of the Hollywood star remains her primary concern.

Gad explores this aspect of her subject most fully in life-sized sculptural tableaux such as Catwoman, Julie Newmar, 1980, Esther Williams Water Ballet, 1980–81, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, 1981–82, Jayne Mansfield, Makeup and Death, 1982–83, and Lone Ranger & Tonto, 1981–82. These works inventively evoke the stars’ screen personas, the stuff and substance of their glamour. Preferring to suggest her characters rather than recreate their images exactly, Gad approximates the stars’ general look with painted and made-up mannequins. Period objects stand for props: in the Esther Williams tableau, for example, the mannequin sits demurely on an ironing board and holds a stuffed toy poodle by a leash; behind her a pink panel supports Christmas lights, plastic flowers, and a photo of Williams holding a child. One leg of the ironing board stands in a blue rubber kiddy pool equipped with beach balls, rubber ducks, and other aquatic appurtenances. The mannequin’s skin is painted a bright red, perhaps to simulate sunburn, and she wears a swimsuit, a bathing cap, dark glasses, and black ballerina slippers. Thematically, the tableau humorously juxtaposes the lifestyles of movie star and homemaker, a conflict that actually hastened Williams’ retirement from the screen. But you don’t have to know the specifics of the star’s story to appreciate the piece.

In this and the other tableaux, Gad plays deftly with the esthetics of Hollywood glamour. A generation that prides itself on its fascination with media strategies should note that these works play their scenes to the dramatic and visual hilt like a good Hollywood star should. And like a good movie or TV series, they leave enough room for the viewer’s imagination to wander and bring the characters and situations alive. Formally, with their strong, bright colors and contrasts in textures and surfaces, these direct, dynamic compositions exude the energetic visuals characteristic of Hollywood product. But what finally gives Gad’s vision its punch is its believability. “It’s so outrageous it’s real,” the saying goes; combine that idea with a one-part-innocent, two-parts-knowing sophistication and you get the formula for successful fantasy, Hollywood style or not.

Ronny Cohen