Los Angeles

Heather Cantrell

Kinkead Contemporary

For eight weeks last summer, Heather Cantrell’s “A Study in Portraiture: Act I” transformed part of Kinkead Contemporary into a functioning portrait studio equipped with a stockpile of costumes and props: painted backdrops, animal skins, cardboard cutouts of wolves and snakes, silk flowers, hats, masks, and household objects. And during the exhibition’s run, Cantrell held a series of public photo shoots, to which she invited a subsection of the Los Angeles art community. With her input, participants could choose accoutrements and a backdrop. (For some special individuals, the artist made her own nude body available for placement in the scene.) After arranging the sitter in a bizarre pose, Cantrell took two black-and-white images in quick succession with a 4 x 5 camera: One, a negative, went to the artist’s archives; the other, a Polaroid, was added to an accumulating display on the gallery’s wall. Also on view was a formal presentation of unique prints from sessions held at Cantrell’s studio in the summer of 2008, marking the origin of the project. One of the most successful images in that group, A Study in Portraiture (Ben Lord), 2008, where a young, determined-looking artist readily holds a balloon sword, was also the simplest.

Cantrell’s playful engagement with portraiture encourages reflection on what the genre is becoming for most of us today—the ubiquitous arm’s-length digital self-portrait created for social networking websites. (Indeed, many of the Polaroids taken here ended up on Facebook pages.) The collective display of vanity at Kinkead would have been tiresome if not for a charming awkwardness, arising as serious expressions are undermined by silly attributes and poses. Cantrell’s setups exaggerate a condition of the photographic subject described by Roland Barthes, who complains in Camera Lucida (1980) that he does not know “how to work upon my skin from within.” No one looks truly comfortable.

Many photographers today, such as Justine Kurland and Ryan McGinley, are placing their subjects, emphatically uncostumed, against the backdrop of nature, in a move both nostalgic and utopian. Cantrell, on the other hand, aims her camera at the crossroads where culture and subjectivity meet. To the extent that she does turn to obsolete forms and formats of the past, the move is highly cynical and ironic. Her use of ornate costumes and handpainted backdrops, and her investment in the singular take recall both the practices of late-nineteenth-century commercial portraitists and the recently celebrated work of African photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé. Yet if such predecessors worked to ennoble their subjects and affirm identities, Cantrell’s professed interest has been in documenting the lack of souls her sitters seem to possess, a symptom of the depleted notion of “spirit” in the aftermath of postmodernism. (A more appropriate reference in African photography would seem to be the camp images of Samuel Fosso.) In A Study in Portraiture (Christina Mack), 2009, a masked woman dressed like a court jester sits atop a column with art books scattered at her feet, most visibly Art at the Turn of the Millennium. Her stance is tired, resigned, with the chilly reserve of a high-fashion model. The photograph may appear symbolically loaded, but in the context of Cantrell’s “Act,” in which the same set of props appears in a multitude of configurations, an individual portrait cannot hope to achieve even the dysfunctional semiotic status of allegory. The portraits together signal, for this critic, the artist’s embrace of the works’ failure to present any critical position at all, since the images are immediately called into play by the gallery’s analog Facebook wall.

“Act I” is, of course, only the first of a projected series of Cantrell’s pop-up portrait studios, with future venues planned for London and New York. (A carefully edited and sequenced catalogue will be published next year.) Pretensions and anxieties about self-representation are as old as portraiture, and Cantrell’s project to lay them bare should gain strength as the images mount.

Natilee Harren