Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Installed in a disused lot in Culver City, California, artist Shannon Ebner's eight-foot-tall new plywood sculpture, and, per se and, which depicts an ampersand, is a perfect addition to the Hollywood sign—a larger-than-life symbol for communion and greed alike. This, the artist's first public work in Los Angeles, coincides with an exhibition at the Hammer Museum and inclusion in the 54th Annual Venice Biennale (which includes another and, per se and, overlooking the Grand Canal), and expands Ebner's ongoing interest in alternative forms of dialogue.
Ebner's show at the Hammer includes ASTER/SK R/SK R/SK (2011), a work consisting of four lightboxes, each depicting a photograph Ebner made of two letters. Together, the boxes flash at varying intervals and spell out the word "ASTERISK." "The lighting sequence draws our attention to the syllables of the word and their various meanings-at one point, the word ‘RISK' alone flashes," Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer, told A.i.A. "Like Saussure, Ebner is interested in the formal qualities of language and recognizes that it is a formal system, just like the visual arts are inherently formal."
Ebner's investigation of meaning and form in language corresponds to inquiries made by the avant-garde LANGUAGE poets of the '60s and '70s, who broke apart words and phrases to find new approaches to the sound, meaning, oration and aesthetics of language. The work Ebner created for the Hammer is part of an ongoing series, "The Electric Comma," which began as a poem that the artist herself calls a "photographic sentence."
Ebner's practice frequently involves her own poetic writings, which she renders as sculpture or traditional black-and-white photographs. "Ebner loves both language and photography, but she is also concerned with how both forms can easily become static," says Ellegood. "Her work is an attempt to create a sense of movement in both language and photography by embracing ambiguity and uncertainty and by allowing one form to inform the other." Ebner's unique process of making sculpture, particularly public art, forces her poetry into the realm of the object, and defies the same prosaic, sculptural and image formalism that Smithson's work contested.
"Ebner is always disrupting legibility," says Ellegood. "She is also interested in the structure of language and how it can operate as both an object and a signifier. The photographs that she takes out in the world and the language that she uses in the works remain open and unspecific; they resist being ‘understood' simply by an act of attempting to locate."
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
A cultural icon is defined by steadfast allegiance to an unchanging image—throw a brunette wig on Marilyn Monroe, and the illusion is destroyed. So how does the iconography of one of America’s most familiar contemporary artists, Cindy Sherman, defy this convention? Sherman’s portrait work first gained fame in 1977, via Untitled Film Stills, wherein the artist cast herself in images that seemed plucked from a lost Hitchcock thriller. Since that breakthrough series, her work has continued to be defined by its shape-shifting characteristics. In one image, she is the hopeful ingenue, in the next, a withered crone. Doll, saint, moll, cowgirl, boardroom exec: in Sherman’s frame, each identity is given its day, and held up for closer examination.
Time and again, we are inspired to find the woman within these portraits, but each inspection yields the same result. What Sherman captures with her physicality, costuming, and performance posing is a rendering of what it means to be a woman. And that means being everything a woman can be—with the constant fear of collapsing into nothing. Sherman’s work recalls Berlin’s 1982 song “Sex (I’m A…),” in which singer Terri Nunn’s refrain is an increasingly frantic plea declaring her überwomanhood: “I’m a slut, I’m a geisha, I’m your babe, I’m a dream divine.” The list goes on.
Though perfectly attuned to the cultural neoplasmic condition of modern femininity, Sherman transcends contemporaneity and pop—she is not on-trend. She is the Eucharist, eternally representing the fleshly form, the blood and body, of sacrifice. There is no person called Cindy Sherman in her works: her identity is surrendered in the creation of the characters she depicts. Those characters live on in their unresolved, two-dimensional forms, forever in search of a movie to star in, a party to crash—or, as in recent portraits recalling society’s grande dames, a charity luncheon to host. Here, we speak to the queen of transformation about her life’s work, and her life beyond work.
V What effect has the exploration of outer transformation had on your own inner transformation?
CINDY SHERMAN Initially, it was more of an escape to try on other personas, though I wasn’t trying to fulfill any fantasies. If I was working anything out, it was the conflict between my love of artifice, including the transformative power of makeup, and the feminist ideology of the 1970s, which was antithetical to this fascination. Ultimately, it’s taught me that the way we look at any given moment is a construct of how we want to be perceived. And how easy it is for anyone to go from looking like an Upper East Side matron to a party girl to a bag lady.
V Did the more aggressive imagery you produced in the early ’90s—the cut-up body parts, for example—come from a dark personal place? Does your work ever serve as a form of visual release?
CS The only time that really happened was with the cut-up dolls series I did right after my divorce. The earlier grotesque series was more a response to dealing with my early success: not wanting to make pretty pictures for collectors to color coordinate with their decor.
V The recent pieces you created exploring the visages of aging socialites recall the portraiture of royal families—and for Americans, wealthy socialites almost take the place of royals. What was your inspiration?
CS One of the inspirations for this series was Brenda Dickson, a soap-opera star from the ’80s, who made a very low-tech video of “how to be as fabulous as me,” which is just not to be believed. In the opening shot, she’s in her over-the-top living room and there’s a gigantic photo of her on the wall. It just made me think of how people want others to see them, what they want to show off or don’t, and what it means to make that kind of statement in your own home, as though it’s art.
V What is something people routinely misinterpret about your work?
CS That they’re self-portraits. I once almost got into an argument with someone interviewing me who was insisting that they are indeed self-portraits, however you look at them. And then I asked him if he thought that an actor on stage or in film is doing some sort of self-portraiture. No, they’re inhabiting a character through acting. Remembering this conversation freed me up while doing my most recent work—murals and a Chanel series that isn’t finished yet. In those two series, I have no makeup on at all. Though, thanks to digitization, I slightly tweaked the faces to distinguish each one, giving them similarities and differences that one finds in the facial features of members of the same family.
V Are there elements of your characters that are real aspects of yourself or people you know?
CS I’ve found that usually after I make a character, I see who they resemble or remind me of. I do use photos of strangers, copying the mouth or the shadows of the face, but then the final character never looks anything like that person.
V Have any fashion designers influenced your work?
CS No, but fashion photography has, or perhaps it’s the way fashion is styled that has been inspiring. If only they just got rid of the beautiful skinny model stereotypes—but then that’s exactly how it inspires someone like me.
V Whose personal style do you admire?
CS Anyone brave and clever enough to be daring and allow themselves to be defined as ugly by the mediocre standards of mass culture.
V How has your work affected you?
CS I’ve learned to look deeper, beyond the surface.
V How is transformation part of your daily life?
CS I do see a distinction between my day and evening selves. I’m boyish, with no makeup, during the day, and more dressed at night. I like wearing nice things, and never liked the “casualization” of New York City. I remember when no one but tourists would wear shorts and sneakers. In the country, it’s one thing, but we live in a sophisticated city.
V What is your idea of beauty?
CS It’s endless and there is no moment when you can define it, because it’s constantly evolving to incorporate every side, even the ugly, boring sides of the same beautiful face. We are all both beautiful and ugly at once; they are the same. We have to get beyond thinking that one is better than the other.
V Your MoMA retrospective opens early next year. What does it mean to an artist to be honored in such a way? How does it feel?
CS It’s one of the highest honors. I worry that after it opens I’ll feel completely dried up and spent. Like, what more is there to do?