Review: Genevieve Gaignard turns the self-portrait into a mirror of culture yet again


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.

Genevieve Gaignard’s “Altar,” 2017, mixed media (Genevieve Gaignard / Shulamit Nazarian)
(Michael Underwood /)

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.

Genevieve Gaignard’s “W.W.J.D.,” 2017, vintage wallpaper, found framed images, pins, doilies, original drinking fountain sign, found mirrors, rosary and porcelain figurine, 52.5 inches by 36 inches (Genevieve Gaignard / Shulamit Nazarian)
(Michael Underwood /)

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"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,

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