Goddesses crowd the "Altar" at the entrance to Genevieve Gaignard's smartly cheeky show at the Shulamit Nazarian gallery — goddesses seen and unseen. The dressing-table installation is a shrine for worship and desire, a place to refashion the self with wigs and potions, a site to honor a pantheon of heroines: Nina Simone, whose record serves as a clock-face high on the wall; Betye Saar, whose assemblages using racist relics underlie Gaignard's black princess figurines; and the lineage of female artists who have made the dressing table a studio for the sculpting of fictitious personas — Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman Leeson and Sherman.
Gaignard assumes a revolving door of identities in her photographic self-portraits. Sometimes the artifice is blatant — an outrageous, theatrical dash of role play. Other times, Gaignard occupies a character so seamlessly that the masquerade might not raise suspicion if considered outside the context of her work. A biracial L.A. artist, Gaignard makes serious playthings of the building blocks of culture, race, religion and gender. The costumes, and often the settings of these pseudo-film stills, hark back a few generations, adding an element of temporal displacement that carries its own charge.
In "White Rain," she twists a common brand of hair and skin products to suggest the wish-fulfillment of a black person wanting to "pass." She poses in an ornately tiled, bubble-frothed bathtub with head tilted back and arms extended as if to receive the blessing of a skin-lightening shower.
Not every piece here provokes a spine-straightening sting, but plenty do, like "W.W.J.D.," a wall-mounted assemblage bearing pictures of a light-skinned and a dark-skinned Jesus, separated by a small plaque from Montgomery, Ala., dated 1931, with arrows pointing toward racially segregated drinking fountains.
"Selfie Stick," a diamond-shaped wall installation of antique hand-held mirrors, seems merely clever, but again, context thickens the plot. The mirrors face out and implicate us in the questions and challenges Gaignard raises: What do we worship? Who sets the standards of beauty? What are our sacred, foundational texts? What is our make-up?
Shulamit Nazarian, 616 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. Ends Saturday. (310) 281-0961, www.shulamitnazarian.com
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