Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, California: January 15 - March 7, 2009
Sex is the pretext at the Michael Kohn Gallery’s SHE: Images of Women by Wallace Berman & Richard Prince. Conceived by Kristine McKenna, who co-curated Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery in 2007, it takes as its departure point the “fantasies and archetypes” of the eroticized woman through a selection of works by Prince, primarily from his Girlfriend and Nurse series, and by the late Berman, best remembered for his mail art publication Semina (1955-1964).
The exhibition is divided into two sections, with Prince’s work occupying the gallery’s first room and Berman’s in a smaller, more intimate second room. The layout deters any active dialogue between the two artists, but their proximity invokes a binary tension between exterior and interior.
Prince’s images are resolutely of the exterior. For the Nurse pieces, he collages Harlequin “nurse” romances with magazine clippings of mostly nude women either alone or with men (or, in one, with a banana). The sex fantasy is here laid bare as a public image, depleted of its private thrill; what survives is no longer symbolic of “sex,” but rather a demonstration of the semiotic processes through which the image of sex signifies. In his book on sadism and masochism, Coldness and Cruelty, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze links the sadism of the Marquis de Sade with negation, in the sense of emptying the object of all “life.” In the collages the sex object is a cipher. Cut up and reconfigured, the figures erase all traces of eroticism in favor of the fact of a breast or a mouth or genitalia. The woman is thus fetishized, but systematically, bereft of all desire. As Freud might have it, she becomes a substitute, in an infinite chain of substitutes that verges on the pure negation of the individual.
The discrepancy between the original book covers and the magazine clippings underscores the flatness of the pieces by rendering eroticism through the language of the cliché. In one collage, with the book title White Cap of Courage, a prim nurse sucks her own painted big toe, with a string of fake pearls dangling just above an exposed vagina; in another, a nurse performs oral sex on an unseen man while a doctor watches. In the end, though, the differences are no more than surface effects, and Prince clearly knows it. It may be cynical, but this is one of Prince’s strengths. As the content begs a reaction (i.e., shock, disgust, pleasure), it strips away the viewer’s claims to individuality and exposes our own recourse to personality types.
Beyond the collages, Prince’s showpiece in SHE is “Car” (2008), a 1986 El Camino printed with images from his Girlfriend series and installed in the center of the gallery. The black-and-white photographs, stretched across the surface of the car like a movie reel, synthesize the sexuality of the woman with the cold metallic phallus of the El Camino, rendering one an appendage of the other, a prosthetic fuck. Prince’s only other sculpture in the show is a similar collage of images from porno magazines printed on a post office mailbox. Like “Car,” it outs the secret, in this case, of mail-order porn in brown paper bags. But here, the impact dissipates in the “wink-wink” cleverness of the mailbox/porno juxtaposition, and in the excess of little pictures, undercutting the “presentness” of the other images.
Berman’s pieces, on the other hand, are rife with desire. The works are intimate not only because they reveal individuals, but because they allow the viewer into a private realm without relinquishing its secrets. Anticipation, which thrives under the laws of deferral, is the source of sensuality in Berman’s photographs. He knew his models–including his wife, Shirley, painter Jay DeFeo, and a young Teri Garr–but their narratives remain shrouded in the ambiguity of a single, distant moment. One small piece (“Untitled,” c. 1965) comprises three photographs of a flirtatious Garr dancing beneath the handwritten text “See you soon. W.” Another one (“Untitled (Shirley Berman),” c. 1964) portrays Berman’s wife seated on a flowery rug in a sunlit room, gazing down at a game of cards.
Many of the women in Berman’s photographs are clothed, and, as opposed to Prince’s brazen Girlfriends, most are looking away from the camera. What comes into focus in these images is the unspoken contract between the artist and model that allowed Berman’s gaze into so many personal spaces, and which suffuses the picture with the heady air of consent.
Accompanying Berman’s photographs are a handful of negative verifax collages. Along with Semina, Berman, who died in 1976 at age fifty, is primarily associated with the Beat circle in California, but he was also a pioneer of assemblage at a time when Pop art was just taking root. All of the collages in SHE feature women. Yet they figure less as subjects than as zones of sensuality in an ornate tapestry of references. In “Untitled (TV)” (1964), a nude woman, cut off at the neck and thighs, is pictured on a small Sony television with text superimposed on her chest. The lush sepia grain of the image seems to crackle with the low hum of potential pasts. In another work, “Untitled (Al Marilyn Monroe)” (1970), four small images of a hand holding a radio, with a Hebrew letter nearby, form a square. On each radio is a different image–a cross, a hand holding a lit match, a burst of light, and finally, Monroe in dark glasses. Today, the miniature AM/FM radio looks like a technological artifact, but it appears repeatedly in Berman’s work, a sort of mystical transmitter of foreign tongues.
Berman’s women exist a world away from Prince’s negations, near the opiated realm of Deleuze’s other subject, Venus in Furs author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In both cases, though, the artist is aware, the fascination of the subject lies beyond the picture plane. As Sacher-Masoch writes, “I both hated and loved the creature who seemed destined, by virtue of her own strength and diabolical beauty, to place her foot insolently on the neck of humanity.”