Liberated Women

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Helio Oiticica & Neville D'Almeida, "Cosmococa 5: Hendrix - War CC5-11," 1973 / 2003 C-print mounted on aluminum. Courtesy Michael Benevento, Galerie Lelong, NY and Joshua White Photography.

A friend of mine, a sculptor with immense brown eyes and a long figure that that always looks both cautious and comfortable with itself, was standing next to her brother’s Ford Explorer outside an Illinois gas station. They’d just been to see their grandfather in a rest home and it was the morning of Louise Bourgeois’s death, so my friend felt reasonably subdued. A man in a black sedan with windows down drove by and slowed to a crawl. “Do you have any idea how sexy you are?” he said to her, sort of jauntily. She dropped her eyes, turned and rammed her head up against the Explorer’s doorframe, keeping it there until the sedan drove off. She has no idea why she did this, and I’ve made her describe it to me, blow-by-blow, three times at least. Her behavior feels vulnerable, resistant, violent and yet weirdly liberated. It’s a reaction against sexy—or at least the breed of sexy the man in the sedan felt he could access. But it’s also sexy itself, the spontaneous assertion of an inexplicable instinct.

Spartacus Chetwynd, "Hermito’s Children," Video (color, sound), 2008. Courtesy Michael Benevento and Joshua White Photography.

Everlasting Gobstopper at Michael Benevento, an exhibition that’s more reflective than its title suggests, is sexy expressly because of the sexinesses it rejects. The show has a grittily commemorative mood, like the setting for a party that’s bound to be oddly romantic, Disco-indebted, yet still somber. The entry way walls are painted black—it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust—and a dark purple poster of a howling wolf, painstakingly drawn by Eva Rothschild before she moved on to Cold Corners and other wonky minimalist projects, hangs opposite the door. Next comes a posse of paintings from Spartacus Chetwynd’s Bat Opera series; Rothschild’s triangular black Perspex tower; counterculture queen Lil Picard’s terrifyingly delicate burnt polka-dot bow-tie; Michael E. Smith’s dry black paintings and crusty floor pieces; and Cindy Sherman’s piquantly pink autumnal death scene. But all these mostly serve as the supporting cast for Chetwynd’s Hermito’s Children, a three part video installation that plays out on 14 stacked monitors at the back of the main gallery space.

Like a filmic novella spawned by a Truman CapoteJack Smith marriage, Hermito’s Children presents characters who are obsessive, articulate, eccentricity prone, and vested in one another’s sexuality, though only vaguely interested in sex. Watery graphics dance across the screen to the sound of portentous woodwinds as act one, The Case of the Poisonous Dildo, commences. Less mystery than cameo, The Case features a matronly protagonist who wears a zig-zagged muumuu and sounds like Edgar Oliver with a lisp. She tells viewers not to be frightened as she introduces her unconventional, androgynous family: an ex-husband who runs a raucously happy Jewish restaurant, an absent daughter, and a deep-voiced assistant with a hog’s nose. In act two, an innocent girl in a body suit listens to a worldly “puppet master” who tells her “a dancer who relies on the doubtful prospect of human love will never be great.”

Halfway through act three,called Helmut Newton Ladies Night, the muumuu-wearing matron reappears and refers to a tomboyishly debonair troupe of women. “You are seduced by these women,” she says. “[But] what they’re doing is not that dangerous. Your imagination exaggerates it.” Then “these women” ritualistically dance to experimental metal, spoofing on Helmut Newton’s iconic 1981 image, “They’re Coming,” in which four svelte figures advanced toward the camera.

"Everlasting Gobstopper," Installation View, 2010. Courtesy Michael Benevento and Joshua White Photography.

Newton once said he couldn’t work pornographically because he didn’t do rough: “Rough stuff is real; it’s not posed. The trouble with my pornography, it’s too chic.” The bodies in Hermito’s Children aren’t posed or chic, but they’re not rough either. They’re somewhere in between. One of my favorite moments comes near the end. A group of nude women form a  sculptural rectangle. It’s stoic, formal and literally objectifying. But then a face breaks from the group and erupts in an inaudible, punkish yell. I like the idea that incongruous, fiercely independent bursts of emotion could be a way to claim sexiness as your own.