Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Made in Hollywood, 1990, 35 mm, 16 mm, and video transferred to digital video, color, sound, 56 minutes 12 seconds.

Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, Made in Hollywood, 1990, 35 mm, 16 mm, and video transferred to digital video, color, sound, 56 minutes 12 seconds.

Bruce and Norman Yonemoto

At the end of Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s film Made in Hollywood, 1990, Patricia Arquette, who plays a Dorothy-like aspiring actress looking for Oz in Los Angeles, earnestly addresses the camera: “We’ve been lost, Matt, we’ve been trying to find our way home down the wrong path. I don’t want to be in movies. There’s only one place where I can find the world I’m looking for. . . . It’s the commercials!” This concluding punch line—suggesting that TV advertising is the place of “real families and real love”—is emblematic of the Yonemoto brothers’ campy and deadpan subversion of narrative structures, such as Hollywood’s prescriptive bent toward a happy ending. More than simple spoofs, their highly stylized short and feature-length films take on soap- opera melodrama, psychoanalytic theory, and the Japanese-American experience against the backdrop of the palm trees, pools, beaches, and highways of Southern California cliché. Curated by Milan Ther to inaugurate his tenure at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, “Mirror of Desire” displayed eight of the brothers’ projects made between 1976 and 1991, homing in on their interest in how mass-media tales of desire shape expectations for love and success. (They continued to work together until Norman’s death in 2014.) Life imitates art—or imitates advertising. In deploying such mimicry, they mess with its manipulative cycle by depicting characters who—while nearly always over- or underacting—are themselves captive to fantasies proffered by the entertainment industry.

Products of LA’s 1970s art scene, with its interest in psychoanalytic narratives and abiding concern with the visual language of consumerism, the Yonemotos winkingly mashed up the tropes of twentieth-century American art. Take the vacuous, AbEx painter-cum-cowboy who is consumed by the conflation of his lust and vaguely traumatic childhood memories in Vault, 1984. Or the screenwriter—played by painter and Warhol film star Mary Woronov—who defends “the copy” as art while standing between the jam and diapers shelves of a grocery store in Made in Hollywood. “We’re surrounded by copies! We all eat, sleep, and breathe copies. It’s the real world,” she declares. While poking fun at postmodernism’s disavowal of originality, the brothers also slyly articulated their own artistic approach: Their films masquerade in tried-and-true (and tired) narratives ranging from the girl next door to Oedipus to the Hollywood hustle, exaggerating—and leveraging—the artifice of their reproductions to reveal the story line’s formula as their principal subject matter.

The Yonemotos emphasized their films’ constructedness in numerous ways. For instance, they draw attention to the production process by occasionally zooming out to show the set or by weaving in interviews with actors about the characters they play. Interrupting the fiction’s flow is a key strategy. The hunky protagonist of their first film, Garage Sale, 1976, is named Hero. His vaguely Jungian journey to win back his wife, drag queen Goldie Glitters, is interspersed with such interludes as an infomercial-style monologue pitching California pottery as an embodiment of the state’s “youthful, casual, indoor-outdoor lifestyle” and a scene of four people in fetish gear acting out voice-over instructions for how to bind someone. Made in Hollywood opens with a commercial for local supermarket chain Stater Bros.; their “In the heartland of California” jingle opens and returns throughout like a refrain. Crucially, there is no moral to any of these stories. Rather, the Yonemotos’ impetus is to try on for size the syntax that structures popular culture, to prop it up, prod it, and pull it down—to queer it, even. They sit in that sticky space between critiquing something and reveling in it.