Yesterday: Charlie White
In the darkened but incongruously white room showing White’s video American Minor (2008), I began to suspect a “white” subtext in Nine Lives. In one scene, semen-white drops of milk glisten on the girl’s puerile lips. Later on, the Caucasian protagonist seems to transform into a glossy white fiberglass sculpture.Video Still from White's American Minor
Doubling back through the exhibition, I realized that the only prominent depiction of a person of color by the nine white artists was a photograph of the King of Tonga posing with Jeffrey Vallance. For Vallance, a visit to Polynesia grew from nostalgia for the tiki décor in his parent’s home.
“In a sense, I’d gone full circle: My ancestors came to Southern California from northern Norway and decorated their home with Polynesian pop, which aroused my curiosity and inspired me to travel to Polynesia, which in turn inspired me to return to my ancestral Nordic Homeland*.”Ironically, the appearance of the King of Tonga is just a detour on a nostalgic journey that ultimately ends in snow-white Scandinavia.
The white subtext I was sensing was not an overtly racist one, but white in the many senses of the word. In Hollywood, the white Stetson was a cipher for good. Subotnick portrays Foulkes as the hero or the Hollywood good guy. White can also be seen as the absence of color or the absence of meaning. Like the white screen in a darkened theater, Upson’s grotto offers up a void where the artist can project her imagined space of the Playboy mansion. Vallance’s work reverses the path of white colonialists from far-flung exotic locales back to Europe, conjuring up the white of old-fashioned imperialism. And there is also a virginal white, as represented by White’s teenage girls.Vallance's King of Tonga
But in the multicultural (minority-majority) present, a white Los Angeles can only exist in the movies, as a historic (and nostalgic) memory, or in an group exhibition of exclusively white artists. One wonders how many visionary artists Subotnick would have to include before she found art made by a person of color to her liking. For both Subotnick and Faulkner, Los Angeles’s civic boosterism and filmic depictions preceded the employment opportunities that drew them west. In both Golden Land and Nine Lives, there's a longing for, and an attempt to represent a mediated Los Angeles that doesn't exist.
An intriguing clue can be found in the reprint of William Faulkner’s short story “Golden Land” (1935) that appears in the exhibition catalog. Faulkner’s protagonist Ira longs for his whiter home, in all connotations of the word—clean, homogeneous, and pure—in contrast to his sexually precocious daughter and effeminate son, who do not share their father’s history or connections outside Los Angeles. For transplants to the city, Los Angeles can be disorienting, with its heterogeneous population and a civic life that connects less with a (white) European history than does the East Coast, but instead orients towards Latin America and the Pacific Rim.Video Still from Playboy After Dark
In the vestibule that leads to the Hammer’s vault gallery, an iPod offers up a selection of Llyn Foulkes’s jazzy laments on Los Angeles. “What did they do to ol’ L.A.?” he asks on one track. Like Ira in Faulkner’s short story (which provides a similar coda to the catalog) Subotnick sees a dystopic city, which must compete with nostalgia for a better time or place.
One need only compare a real hospital's staff to a televised hospital drama, or go to Grauman’s Chinese theater to catch glimpses of disappointment on the tourists’ faces as they step off the bus and confront the reality of Hollywood, discovering that they’ve spent too much time staring at flickering images in a darkened room.
Chinese Theater, Hollywood, CA
Monday: A Coda