New York

Anonymous, Untitled, ca. 1930s–1950s, graphite and colored pencil on brown wrapping paper, 11 × 8". From “EPHEMERAMA: Hollywood”.

Anonymous, Untitled, ca. 1930s–1950s, graphite and colored pencil on brown wrapping paper, 11 × 8". From “EPHEMERAMA: Hollywood”.

“EPHEMERAMA: Hollywood”

Shelter

“EPHEMERAMA: Hollywood” presents a collection of anonymous amateur drawings of women from the first half of the twentieth century—an archive of unsolved mysteries from an estate-liquidation sale in Southern California. They are unsigned and undated (although the names of legendary actresses, such as Lucille Ball, Yvonne De Carlo, and Vivien Leigh, are written on some). Forty-seven of these headshot-like portraits, from a set of more than one hundred, are exhibited by Shelter online. Researchers at the gallery have begun the process of trying to identify each face. They have located some source materials for these pictures, such as old magazine covers and advertisements. The presentation also functions as a critique of the racist industry that contrived the edicts of white female stardom. The project is commendable, but Shelter’s investigation may never fully unlock the enigma of these drawings. The words untitled and unidentified repeat hypnotically as one scrolls through images that collectively start to resemble a cartoonish menagerie of mug shots or missing-person sketches.

The exhibition text declares these disquieting works to be “an absolute joy to look at”—or are they an absolute horror, the kind that you can’t look away from? They are garishly rendered with a limited palette in pencil and chalk (some have watercolor backgrounds) on irregularly cut pieces of what the gallery calls “brown wrapping paper,” perhaps reused grocery bags. Each work is roughly eleven inches high and eight inches wide and marred by glue and creases. Whoever made these drawings was very frugal and/or had paltry resources. Nonetheless, he or she was determined and prolific. The penciling is heavy, distorted facial contours deepened in lurid shadows of red and purple. Coiffures are attentively fixed into sculptural coils or stiff waves. Teeth are individually rendered with dark lines; eyes look frantic in several instances. These were the faces of peak Golden Era Hollywood: women who had found fame or were just trying to make it, though many were likely lost to the lacuna of anonymity.

Nearly every subject is depicted from the shoulders up, and all are posing for the camera, as this was the era of movie magazines such as Photoplay and Modern Screen, with starlets on the covers and celebrity endorsements in ads. Life and Esquire were popular fare—the latter published Peruvian illustrator Alberto Vargas’s cheesecake paintings of pinup girls, which later found a home in Playboy. The work in “EPHEMERAMA: Hollywood” has a pathological and surreptitious air about it, as if the drawings were culled from an obsessed stalker’s scrapbook. But they could just as easily have been the product of a film buff’s innocent hobby, or made by an idle Californian suburbanite who inadvertently mixed many a cocktail of creepy and lonesome.

As far as the movies go, creating pretty pictures can be an ugly business, and the reality of “the industry” has never been perfectly pleasant, unlike the weather in Tinseltown. Countless dazzled newcomers to Los Angeles have been sucked into its vacuum and spit out—or worse. Take aspiring actor Elizabeth Short, a young woman who was murdered and mutilated in 1947, then posthumously nicknamed the Black Dahlia (the moniker was supposedly a riff on the 1946 noir film The Blue Dahlia, written by Raymond Chandler). Filmmaker and enfant terrible Kenneth Anger’s scandalous, sex-obsessed book Hollywood Babylon II (1984) included a photo of the Black Dahlia’s bisected and bloodless body left in an empty lot in southwest LA. The woman who found the corpse thought it was a mannequin.

The spectral figure behind these artworks created imitations of caricatures of glamour. A quote from Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely (1940) springs to mind: “She looked merely like a woman who would have been dangerous a hundred years ago, and twenty years ago daring, but who today was just Grade B Hollywood.” A brutal line, but them’s the breaks. And now, what’s the difference? Faces are forgotten, and the things that characterized LA during that halcyon era have disappeared: The streetcars were decommissioned, Bunker Hill destroyed, and the movie palaces shut down. Some became porn theaters, and then they just closed, visited only during ghost tours for tourists (and ghosts). “EPHEMERAMA: Hollywood” conjures that amnesia perfectly. No names, no answers, only a portfolio of faded dreams brought to auction. It’s a real whodunit, and maybe it should stay that way.