Jennifer Bornstein

On first viewing, Jennifer Bornstein’s careful, sober intaglio prints look like slightly bland cartoons. Bornstein is a bit of an anti-artist: Her choice of the apparently backward technique of copperplate etching—a kind of “slow art”—is an intentional deskilling, and her output is fairly small. Perhaps as a result, the exhibition at greengrassi has a crystalline, almost icy precision, while paradoxically projecting an obtuse, diffident air. However, the works contain just enough slyly funny moments to suggest that braving their conceptual rigor may be rewarding after all.

Bornstein’s figurehead for this exhibition was Margaret Mead—the invite card was a cropped image of the cover of the 1968 Dell Laurel edition of Coming of Age in Samoa (1928); portraits of the anthropologist and her circle are scattered throughout the show; and many of the works are ethnographic sketches of a kind. The hilarious Genevieve Doing a Mud Mask on the Futon-Couch with Prudence, 2004, perfectly captures its protagonist’s premature spinsterhood, from her placid mud-daubed face and bra-less breasts, to the Nivea cream on the table next to her and the name of her cat, Prudence. Her mud mask and sagging lotus position give her an aura of middle-aged-lady-adopting-primitive-ritual, which closely resembles that projected in Bornstein’s rendering of the anthropologist Ruth Benedict in Study for 16mm Film (Ruth Benedict, Lover and Mentor of Margaret Mead), 2005, kneeling on the floor in full tribal costume. These prim copperplate etchings, as well as one of a smug-looking Ana Mendieta in bird costume, are by turns utterly mean and utterly devotional—and unerringly astute.

Alongside these clever anthropological conflations, Bornstein also presents the anonymous facade of Bertolt Brecht’s house in Santa Monica, an Elizabeth Peyton-esque boy, Buster Keaton, and a diagram of an AM radio wave, among other things. What links them all seems to be some relation to film, if not directly, then through their titling as studies toward an as yet unrealized 16-mm movie. Bornstein’s depiction of Treva Throneberry—a mentally disturbed woman who kept up the pretense of being a teenager for almost two decades as she traversed the US public school and social services systems—has the convicted fraudster in braids and with tears streaming down her face, but its title, Study for 16mm Film (Treva Throneberry, Discovered), 2005, sounds almost Hollywood-esque, discovered invoking as it does the moment all starlets are waiting for. Throughout her trial Throneberry reportedly remained convinced of her own made-up story. A woman pathologically stuck in her teenage years, a first glimpse of cinematic fame, the strangeness of reality, and the seductiveness of fiction—all good themes for a blockbuster movie treatment. These drawings are rendered in an equally matter-of-fact style, but they offer a bluntly fictional premise, and as a result open up a possibility for Bornstein’s next conceptual leap.

By grouping her images under the McGuffin of the unmade film, Bornstein is able to defer their concrete interpretation. Strangely enough, she thereby creates the scope for a possible (anthropological) narrative, just barely permitting her allusions to be pieced together to form a compelling, if scattershot, film on paper.

Emily Speers Mears