"Will you still love me when I'm 88?"
Face to face with Rachel Lachowicz's three mask-like versions of herself--at 28 (her current age), 58 and 88--a viewer muses on the changing way the world views a woman as she ages, and on the mythology of makeup in our culture.
Somewhat unnervingly, these plaster faces--metamorphosing from taut-skinned expressionlessness to a lined and pouchy scowl--all are covered with the same tint, from the Chanel "poudre douce" line.
By using the same color on all three faces, Lachowicz exaggerates both the artificiality and the conventionality of makeup. It doesn't really change us all that much, but thanks to social pressure and the power of advertising, it has become a uniform for the female face, a sign that male attention is expected and desired.
The faces themselves are projections of fear as well as inevitability: The physical signs of aging have an impact on women that no compensations (wisdom, serenity) can mitigate.
Lachowicz, whose recent work is at the Newport Harbor Art Museum through Nov. 29, is as different from '60s-style feminist artists as Camille Paglia, the author of "Sexual Personae," is from Susan Brownmiller ("Against Our Will").
Although the Cal Arts graduate sustains an edgy dialogue with a male-dominated world, her fascination with role-playing gives her work a sassy, flirtatious appeal. No cerebral heavyweight, she is an artist for the Age of Madonna, an era when female empowerment can mean artful use of man-trapping devices, when sheer outrageousness becomes a shrewd marketing tool.
In photographs of her recent "Red Not Blue" performance at Shoshona Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica (included in the current exhibit), the artist wears a modishly short black cocktail dress, black hose and heels to apply red lipstick to the upper arms, torso, thighs and penis of a nude man.
The resulting painting, "Full-Body Print (Dark)," is Lachowicz's tart answer to the French artist Yves Klein's "Anthropometries." In these famous studio happenings of the late 1950s, nude women covered with blue paint served as human brushes painting blank canvases with their bodies, to the erotic amusement of the audience.
(Except for the sex of the model, however, Lachowicz' technique resembles Robert Rauschenberg's early '50s photographic "body prints" made with artist Susan Weil lying nude on blueprint paper.)
Lachowicz frequently uses makeup as a paint-substitute in her reinterpretations of famous gestures by male artists. Responding--nearly 80 years after the fact--to Marcel Duchamp's revolutionary act of inverting an ordinary urinal and dubbing the piece a work of art ("Fountain"), Lachowicz presents three plaster casts of urinals, "enameled" in melted red lipstick and shown right-side-up.
Applying red lipstick to a urinal is Lachowicz's show-off tactic for canceling out its reference to the male organ and--by extension--its association with a famous male artist. Presented in eye-pleasing triplicate, the urinals might be stand-ins for the female nudes in the "Three Graces." Equally significant is the sexual connotation of lipstick: It calls attention to the mouth, which in turn suggests a similar orifice hidden from public view.
In a vamping remake of Gerhard Richter's color chart paintings of the late 1960s and early '70s, Lachowicz makes three "paintings" assembled with eye makeup colors. The familiar rectangular compartments of matte or opalescent powder are grouped into single "stripes" or pairs or triplets of a familiar range of colors: pink, rose, purple, clay, ocher, blue, gray, black, green, white. These are the arbitrary hues marketed to transform women's eyelids into instruments of seduction or high style--a language of color that has meaning only to women tuned in to the wavelength of fashion.
Lachowicz's backhanded tributes don't really question the validity of famous male artists' work. Rather, they teasingly suggest a world of possibilities inherent in substituting a specifically feminine view of the world. Unlike old-style feminist art, in which fingers are pointed and accusations made, Lachowicz's work has a playful, show-off side and a streak of petulant humor. One exception, however, is "Black and Blue," which makes its point about sexual politics without recourse to makeup.
The piece relates to Max Ernst's witty but hardly egalitarian chess-themed sculpture "The King Playing With the Queen," seen last summer at Newport Harbor in the Ernst sculpture exhibit. In the Ernst piece, the King protectively encircles the pint-sized Queen with one arm and hides a breast-shaped pawn behind his back.
In Lachowicz's version, a length of metal chain hitches the tall black King to an enlarged blue poker chip imprinted with the relief image of a fallen Queen piece. The bruise image evoked by the title is reinforced by the subservient posture of the Queen, her comparative size, her "imprisonment" within the poker chip and the chain itself, which looks like a dog leash. But why a poker chip? Because men consider their women as their "stakes" in the "game of life"?
The role playing in this piece has a coldly stereotypical quality that detracts from its impact. Lachowicz's stuff seems to works best when it's all dolled up in a pretty wrapper that hides the bitterness from casual view.
A two-part Skip Arnold video exhibit is being billed as an unprecedented collaboration between Newport Harbor and the Laguna Art Museum--a different short tape by Arnold plays continuously in each museum lobby through Oct. 18--but it seems to have involved a minimum of effort from the two institutions.
Actually, the major demands made by the tapes must be on the sanity of employees staffing the front desks at both museums, who are obliged to listen to the numbingly repetitious continuous soundtracks every day. That drawback probably never occurred to Arnold when he envisioned the tapes as "store-front" videos, however. (At the Laguna museum, the monitors are turned out toward the street at night, so passersby can watch the screens through the glass museum walls.)
"Dizzy," at Newport Harbor, is the more visually complex tape. It consists of the bare-chested, barefoot artist spinning in a tight circle as he sings the chorus of the vintage pop song by Tommy Roe and Freddy Weller ("You're making me dizzy. My head is spinning. Like a whirlpool, it never ends. And it's you, girl, making it spin"). For 16 minutes, Sweeney drones the song over and over in his flat voice as he spins.
Meanwhile, the camera action adds another visual rhythm. At the outset of the piece, one camera was focused on Arnold's head, another on his chest and the third, on his feet. As Arnold spun, each camera moved up and down. In the installation, three monitors are stacked on top of each other, corresponding to the different camera positions.
Seen together, the three videos appear to give Arnold's body a torque or twisting effect. His head also seems to be moving up and down through the monitors, temporarily displacing his other body parts and moving them to different positions.
"Punch," the four-monitor installation at the Laguna, consists of a much briefer action, endlessly repeated on the tape. On the upper monitors, we see Arnold's face; the lower monitors show his bare belly. Suddenly, an arm reaches out and punches his stomach. He falls, disappearing from the screens. We see the scene and hear the punch, his falling body and his sharp intake of breath--over and over and over.
In both these tapes, Arnold employs repeated movements to tweak the sensibilities of viewers numbed by years of watching TV (in "Dizzy," Arnold's flat voice and rote movements also absurdly deflate the romantic elation expressed in the bubble gum lyric). The camera work is the real hero of "Dizzy," transforming Arnold's frankly boring-to-watch movements into a dizzying effect viewers can feel almost as viscerally as the spinning artist himself.
For "Punch," Arnold simply asked his "attacker" to hit him full force at a moment of his own choosing. As in broadcast TV, the initial shock of watching the body blow dissipates with constant repetition. In any case, we've become so used to simulations and re-enactments and dramatizations of actual events that it's increasingly hard to tell the difference between them and the real thing.
Exaggerating the TV tactic of creating a feeling of realism by focusing in a highly artificial way on actions and reactions, Arnold also manipulates viewers by selectively showing only his head (establishing himself as an open-mouthed innocent) and belly (site of the attack).
* "New California Art: Rachel Lachowicz" (through Nov. 29) and Skip Arnold's "Dizzy" video (through Oct. 18) are at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Admission: $4 general, $2 for students and seniors, free for children under 12, free to everyone on Tuesdays. Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. (714) 759-1122.
Arnold's "Punch" video is on view through Oct. 18 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Admission: $3 for adults, $1.50 for students and seniors, free for children under 12. Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. (714) 494-6531.
The video exhibits are part of L.A. Freewaves, the third annual Los Angeles-area independent video festival, being presented in numerous venues (and on cable) in September and October. For more information on the festival, call (213) 243-7968.