Los Angeles

Peggy Ahwesh, The Star Eaters, 2003, video, color, sound, 24 minutes.

Peggy Ahwesh, The Star Eaters, 2003, video, color, sound, 24 minutes.

Peggy Ahwesh

The underscore in the title of Peggy Ahwesh’s exhibition “Heart_Land” subtly but unequivocally highlighted the ever-expanding rift between middle America and the rest of the United States, exacerbated by Donald Trump’s malignant leadership. Each of the four video installations in this concise and generative show at Joan examined the vagaries and possibilities of place via remarkable, if often unfairly overlooked, parts of the country: Atlantic City, New Jersey; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Topeka, Kansas. Ahwesh and Linda Norden, the show’s curator, reframed this group of older pieces by placing them together and creating a form of trenchant political theater, which they amplified by inviting Yunhee Min to make “curtain accompaniments”: multicolor floor-to-ceiling fabric panels inspired by the broad palette of Ahwesh’s videos. The gallery was transformed into a stage that choreographed the movements of visitors around the various screens while underscoring the more alienating, playful, and voyeuristic aspects of Ahwesh’s work by manipulating the space and sight lines within the presentation.

Bethlehem, 2009, which sutures the geographies of the former steel town in Pennsylvania and its Palestinian namesake, opened the show. To make it, Ahwesh treated her own archive as though it were a trove of found footage, joining shots in a process the artist likened to assembling a “string of pearls.” Bethlehem’s loose narrative and melodramatic soundtrack are an avowed homage to Bruce Conner, whose films Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, 1976, and Valse Triste, 1977, were touchstones for the artist. Here, the piece was synchronized across three monitors installed on pedestals arranged like the outward petals of a flower.

Lies & Excess and The Star Eaters, both 2003, were installed near Bethlehem as a recto/verso projection, each side framed with a brilliant-blue border. Together they embodied the most succinct concatenation of Ahwesh’s experimental film language and conceptual processes to date. Lies & Excess is made from the abandoned 16-mm film fragments of what eventually became The Star Eaters—and even though each work was conceived separately, they share much of the same artistic DNA. Atlantic City, which is rendered by the artist as a failed capitalist utopia where gamblers, sex workers, vacationers, and locals live together (on occasion happily, but most of the time not), is the setting and subject for both pieces. The Star Eaters, for example, begins with two women, Alex Auder and Jackie Smith, dressed to the nines and trying to make themselves comfortable in a narrow bed. While the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear, they are, at the very least, girlfriends on an alcohol-fueled adventure. In a voice-over Smith tells us “the present keeps bending” and laughs caustically before Ahwesh cuts to a shot of her retching into a toilet bowl. The film continues in this vein, with Freudian jokes, soulless casino interiors, and abject social relationships.

The most recent—and spectacular—piece in the show was Kansas Atlas, 2019, which depicts various locales across the state. After using drones to capture aerial footage of Kansas’s vast agricultural landscapes, Ahwesh projected these near abstractions onto two large adjoining screens, sometimes mirroring shots to create kaleidoscopic geometries—terrestrial stained-glass windows. Images of industrial architecture as well as of artist Samuel P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden, 1907–28, a sculptural folk-art environment in Lucas, Kansas, provided a necessary counterpoint to the work’s more lyrical abstractions. In front of the screens were two additional short videos, looped on iPads. The first homed in on the headquarters of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church—home of a Christian cult famous for its vile anti-queer rhetoric and public demonstrations at LGBTQIA+ events, military funerals, abortion clinics, and anything else it sees as a threat to its worldview—while the other depicted the Equality House, right across the street from the WBC. The nonprofit Planting Peace purchased it in 2012 and painted it rainbow colors as an ongoing form of protest against its bigoted neighbor. Each iPad, hermetically sealed under a glass dome, forced a blunt comparison to the extreme stratification of American political life today and to our asymmetrically shared reality.