New York

Daniela Rossell

Daniela Rossell’s repugnant yet alluring photographs of nouveaux riches theatrically posed in the tacky opulence of their homes expose a lack that gnaws at the heart of wealth. In “All the best names are taken,” her first solo show in New York, the young Mexican artist combined large color prints (all untitled, all 1999) from two series. The “Ricas y famosas” images feature Mexico City’s super-rich looking seductive, uncomfortable, or simply bored amid their garish chandeliers, Jacuzzis, “glorious” views, and bad art. Most of these subjects are light-skinned women, members of the country’s elite “European” minority. In one photograph, Rossell poses a world-weary redhead under three generic portraits of Mexican peasants and, in another, places a rich family’s Filipina maid amid the splendor it is her duty to clean. Elsewhere, a young blonde, Rossell’s favorite model, poses in a tennis outfit, one sneaker-clad foot on the head of a stuffed lion and an arm draped over a gaudy armoire. On the wall above her hang saccharine airbrushed portraits of herself and other women in the family. The daughter of a former president of Mexico, this model, Paulina Dias Ordaz, is also the stepniece of Carlos Salinas, the disgraced, exiled leader accused of plundering the country’s coffers for personal gain.

The photographs in the “Olympic Tower” series were shot in a luxury building on Fifth Avenue in New York, Rossell’s current hometown. One image shows a wealthy woman in a sea of Christmas presents, another a scantily clad blonde gazing vacantly through a telescope at the Manhattan skyline. Amid the panoply of debutantes and Ivana Trump types, Rossell included a photograph of Anne DuBong, a black psychic who lives in the building and works for many of its residents. Again, the tenuousness of wealth is evident: DuBong’s Rasputin-like presence reveals the female residents’ boredom and, perhaps, a crack in their confidence about the future.

Many of the rich and famous in these “lifestyle” images are Rossell’s friends and family, and there is an apparent affection and even a tinge of pity evident in the pictures. By refusing to exoticize the weird pseudo-glamour of the Mexican aristocratic and comprador classes, instead relating it to “our own” ’80s-style excess and bad taste, Rossell deftly reverses the presumptions of ethnography. And yet, despite its many accomplishments, her work, like much current artistic production, suffers from a certain complacency. Is it really enough to demonstrate that class (like gender or ethnic or national identity) is an unstable, performative construct rather than an essence? Has the notion of rigorous, formal critique—which is to say, opposing rather than just posing—become as unfashionable as art about fashion is currently fashionable?

Nico Israel