Los Angeles

Haena Yoo, The Birth of Venus (detail), 2019, mixed media, 33 1⁄2 × 80 × 14 1⁄4".

Haena Yoo, The Birth of Venus (detail), 2019, mixed media, 33 1⁄2 × 80 × 14 1⁄4".

Erin Calla Watson and Haena Yoo

A tiny sculpture, resembling both an amulet and a mini crucifix, contained an image of a dog’s mutilated body, laser-etched into a heart-shaped hunk of dark crystal—the kind you might find at a Mexican five-and-dime around Valentine’s Day. The stone was attached to a rough-hewn pewter cast of a tongue depressor. Similarly crafted objects nearby depicted a nude woman holding her hand out to a dog and a row of bikini-clad models waiting to jump off a diving board.

These and other enigmatic works by Erin Calla Watson were on view in her two-person exhibition with Haena Yoo at As It Stands. Watson’s earlier pieces drew on the artist’s archive of her Playboy modeling days: Her photos were printed on ties and beach towels and other made-to-order goods in wry send-ups of consumerism and desire. Here, she turned from herself and complicated the critique. Watson tried to explain to me how the images in these sculptures—including one titled A Dogpill, 2019, depicting a woman in a bridal veil being mounted from behind by a pit bull—were pulled by algorithms used to cover up child-pornography searches with other pictures, many equally fucked up. I’m still not sure how it works. The term dogpill is shorthand for a tenet of incel gospel: that women who don’t want to have sex with incels must simply be more interested in having sex with dogs.

The works’ chilling effects were heightened by Yoo’s contributions, notably two Plexiglas shelves that supported neat rows of clear-plastic bags vacuum-sealing what looked like plops of vomit, or some similarly variegated collection of effluvia. The contents were, in fact, mixtures of lady-centric herbs and cosmetics—mugwort and mascara wax, ginseng and Marc Jacobs perfume, arrowroot and lipstick. The clean, clear lines of the display contrasted starkly with its gooey contents. Just what the hell results from all the promise-heavy powders and pills and salves and creams I’ve put in and on my body? I once dated someone who teased me about my smorgasbord of beauty products by referring to them collectively as “perfect creams.” Every time I came home with a new one, he’d smile and say, “Is this the one that’s going to do it?”

Yoo’s other, central work, The Birth of Venus, 2019, consisted of a rectangular wooden dais on the floor populated with more liquids and makeup products, all either trapped in little acrylic boxes or contained in slumped plastic bags connected by clear medical tubing. Clippings of newspapers, photographs, and other printed materials hinted at wider contexts. A page torn from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978) was plastered down next to a hunk of modified glycerin soap resembling a diseased heart; liquids, vitamins, and various perfect creams spilled out of a clear tube. Sontag: CANCER PATIENTS ARE LIED TO, NOT JUST BECAUSE THE DISEASE IS (OR IS THOUGHT TO BE) A DEATH SENTENCE, BUT BECAUSE IT IS FELT TO BE OBSCENE—IN THE ORIGINAL MEANING OF THAT WORD: ILL-OMENED, ABOMINABLE, REPUGNANT TO THE SENSES. A little Venus of Willendorf replica stood just beyond the platform, watching over it all.

According to the press release, the piece obliquely charts Yoo’s mother’s fight with cancer, though the chaotic arrangement could have been the game board for a homemade, alien iteration of Operation. By pairing this narrative with an opaque, gamelike layout, The Birth of Venus riffs on the imperative to craft one’s own cancer “story” while also “beating” the disease. Incorporating Sontag’s commentary, Yoo suggests this can only be achieved through cover-up, both cosmetic and delusional.

The alchemy between these two, ahem, bodies of work conjured an exponentially more caliginous theme than what concerns the artists individually. As someone who, in response to her own cancer diagnosis, grew out her hair, put on gobs of lipstick, and stuffed kale and vitamin C pills in her mouth (as if sexiness could cheat death!), I sensed here—more than the scent of Estée Lauder solutions or the dark data surrounding Watson’s talismans—the discord between understanding one’s body as an exploitable image and experiencing it as a vulnerable sack of fluids. We often juggle both feelings at once.