The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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NOV 2018 Issue

Suzanne Bocanegra: Poorly Watched Girls

Suzanne Bocanegra, Valley, installation view (detail) at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Performers from left to right: Joan Jonas, Tanya Selvaratnam, Wendy Whelan, and Carrie Mae Weems. Photo: Carlos Avendaño.

On View
The Fabric Workshop and Museum
October 5, 2018 – February 17, 2019
Philadelphia, PA

Active since the late 1980s, Suzanne Bocanegra is possibly best known for her “artist lectures,” where the well-worn, sober ritual of the professional artist is set on its ear by conscripting a professional actor (for example, Frances McDormand and Lili Taylor) to stand in for Bocanegra in front of a live audience while the ‘real’ Bocanegra feeds them lines in real time from the side. Spread across three floors of Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop, Suzanne Bocanegra: Poorly Watched Girls, the artist’s largest exhibition to date, unfurls roughly three acts of installations, videos, paintings, sculptures, and collages. If the lectures interrogate ‘the artist’ as a role to be cast and played, Poorly Watched Girls appropriates various avatars to be found in a dress-up box of femininity’s performance—from the ingénue to the nun, the ballerina to the Hollywood starlet—to study and also celebrate them. Affiliated both aesthetically and socially with New York’s postmodern, experimental cliques (from Spalding Gray, McDormand, and The Wooster Group, to her husband David Lang’s Bang on a Can) Bocanegra clearly knows that the feminine may be just a bundle of clichés, or limiting, social constructions. And yet, rather than eschew and ignore its temptations wholesale, she boldly recovers and indulges in its seductive codes and cues, maybe to recast their role in our current farce.

Suzanne Bocanegra, Lemonade, Roses, Satchel (video still), 2017. 3:38 mins. Music by Shara Nova. Courtesy of the artist. 

The show begins with the soothing, hypnotic Lemonade, Roses, Satchel (2017), a video projection of the singer Shara Nova (formerly Worden, who performs under the band name My Brightest Diamond) enchanting the space with a song composed of one-liners first delivered by Bocanegra’s grandmother, who suffered from dementia, and now strung together into a convincing song. Nova’s echoing, ghostly voice delivers the sound of contemporary aesthetic bohemia—indie folk music in the spirit of Bjork or Nova’s one-time collaborator Sufjan Stevens—while her body delivers a fantasy of the Old World, a time when Bohemia was an actual (if embellished) place, the origin of rovers and an inspiration for unorthodox creatives. A bundle of roses and straw balance atop her head, and fake blonde braids descend from her auburn hair into a lap covered in a red gingham apron. It’s a fanciful peasant costume, dreamed up by Bocanegra and fetishized throughout her work. Lemonade, Roses, Satchel begins by resurrecting a memory of Bocanegra’s grandmother, but ends quite far away from historical, or even autobiographical, reality, evoking the timeless, authorless quality of a familiar folk song or the satisfying masquerade of a stage persona.

From here, one enters the Dialogue of the Carmelites (2018), a room ringed by paper pages pulled from a 1950s pictorial encyclopedia of Catholic nuns in the United States, and embellished by collaged fabric costumes and embroidered details. The installation’s title comes from Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera about an entire convent of nuns murdered in the last days of the French Revolution; though don’t expect any melodramatic thrill or violence in Bocanegra’s adaptation. The cloth and thread embellishments can be clumsy, or are simply too straightforward in their tacked-on execution. They need more winning idiosyncrasies, more charming handiwork to warrant one’s extended attention and avoid the possible boredom of surveying them page, by page, by page. Again, music created specifically for the exhibition (composed by Lang, and performed by Caroline Shaw) fills out this space. As evidenced again here, Bocanegra’s practice is insistently collaborative, at times making it hard to determine how her aesthetic might operate were it to go it alone. What distinguishes it from those with which it chooses to engage? Here, the addition of Shaw and Lang risks becoming compensatory supplement rather than autonomous compliment, underscoring the need for something more in Bocanegra’s collages.

Bocanegra’s collaborators are nowhere more present than in Valley (2018), an eight-channel suite of projections running simultaneously face-to-face down the length of the gallery. The piece features various women of note, such as photographer Carrie Mae Weems, author Anne Carson, performance artist Joan Jonas, dancer Deborah Hay, and ballerina Wendy Whelan reenacting Judy Garland’s wardrobe test for the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls. (Garland was cast, but then ultimately replaced, and never appeared in the final film.) Exciting, campy, and fun, Valley basks in the thrill of celebrity, underscoring how the charge of the proverbial star has spread by this century (or at least in the spaces of contemporary art) to similarly imbue figures likes Jonas, Carson, and Weems with the same ecstatic godliness classically associated with historic Hollywood icons like Garland. Valley meditates on Garland as a series of absent-minded or semi-automatic gestures, but projects that deconstruction too onto those that stand in for her. Valley does not belittle or objectify her or them, but rather celebrates the charms of each woman’s unique embodiment of Garland’s signature twist of the wrist or sidelong glance. Assembling these women into a monumental “Greek chorus” of personae gives Bocanegra and Poorly Watched Girls the Baby Boomer equivalent of the millennial “girl squad” (a la Taylor Swift), and its cache of the well-connected, as well as the culturally enlightened. As director of this commanding and charming ensemble cast, Bocanegra cannot help but look very much like a star—very smart, very cool—in their company. 

Suzanne Bocanegra, La Fille, installation view (detail) at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Photo: Carlos Avendaño. 

La Fille (2018), a series of costumed mannequins and theatrical flats (large wooden panels held upright by braces at their back) variously decorated, painted, collaged, and dramatically lit in the building’s highest gallery, furnishes the show with a soft-spoken conclusion rather than a grand, ecstatic finale. This body of works (and the exhibition as a whole) takes its name from another bit of stagecraft, La Fille mal Gardée (The Poorly Guarded Girl), the oldest classical ballet, first performed in 1789. This floor returns to the bric-a-brac collage and drawing installations typical of Bocanegra’s earlier work, before she began to explore theater and performance a little over a decade ago. The costumes are bold, if not always stylish, and look somewhat impractical for actual dancing. The loveliest of the flats dangles fabric flowers hand painted with a spirit of cherishing tenderness across its façade, while another frames and displays faux peasant aprons (an oblique nod to French painter Jean-François-Millet) like relics in an archeological gallery. These works channel a nostalgic aesthetic, reminiscent of the interior décor trends with which this century began, including an unironic enthusiasm for the “French countryside” and so-called shabby chic.

Here, besides used straw hats and potholders reimagined as operatic costumes worthy of Verdi, one feels at the heart of Bocanegra’s style. Collage and heterogeneous assembly clearly drive her practice and its definition of authorship, from the directorial organization of human performers and collaborators to the organization of thrift store and flea market finds into static compositions, to the conceptual appropriation of performative roles and cultural clichés. As evidenced by the difference between Carmelites and La Fille, the work depends, like a film organized by a strong director, on a texture of vision and command manifest in the final cut. By invoking the Poorly Watched Girls, Bocanegra makes us take a better look, at women and their various roles, as culture’s recursive objects but more importantly its agentic subjects. Enacting Virginia Woolf’s advice, to “arrange whatever pieces come your way,” Bocanegra repeatedly casts herself as the 19th-century Parisian rag picker, Walter Benjamin’s ironic hero: she is a scion of the future, knee-deep in the tattered scraps of the past.


Grant Klarich Johnson

Grant Klarich Johnson is a critic and curator based in New York, and a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Southern California.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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