Jennifer Sullivan: “Revenge Body”
Five Car Garage
June 18 – Aug 15, 2016F
By SHANA NYS DAMBROT, AUG.2016
Jennifer Sullivan rocks the cradle of love in Revenge Body, an exhibition of virile and voracious mixed media works for wall, floor, and video screen. The several crosscurrents operating in this conceptually dead-serious, exuberantly executed series touch on issues of post-modern formalism and unconventional materialism, binary gender frameworks, and systemic power imbalances manifesting in the art world and society generally. The work is incisive and hilarious, with a lot to say and a florid patois in which to say it.
The visually dramatic centerpieces of the show are the so-called “sail paintings” — which is to say, the brightly colored triangular works which directly reference Julian Schnabel’s Sail Paintings. While not exactly Sullivan’s muse, Schnabel’s shadow stretches long and dark over her creative topography, as he becomes the patron saint of patronage, the anti-hero of her visionquest, and something of a cautionary tale. When it comes to the paintings, Sullivan reiterates them through a deliberately feminist perspective, but also through a robust art historical one. She’s written “Jane Fonda” on them, referencing both the fitness-tape and bodysuit fad of the big silly ‘80s and the oppressions of the beauty industrial complex generally — but of course this was also the infamously overblown era which first nurtured Schnabel’s hideous majesty. In the spirit of Schnabel’s impulse to “break the painted surface” Sullivan embellishes by affixing sculptural mixed media elements (casts of her hands, artificial flowers, medallions and talismans, etc.) In the spirit of subverting that directive to her own modern ends, she engineers direct interactions with her own actual body by using it to stamp pigment onto the composition.
In related works closer to the heart of the show’s wry wittiness, Sullivan creates a series of small-scale assemblages executed on ordinary bathroom scales, thereby transforming those squarish boxes from judgmental weight-warden machinery to abstract painting-based dimensional compositions. The best one is, of course, covered in shards of broken plates. They are gaudy and glittery and self-consciously ugly, but also charming in their small-scale intimacy, thus both channeling and diminishing the best-known features of Schnabel’s arrogant, greedy gesturalism, while simultaneously allowing the bathroom scales to carry within them their metonymical meaning, in a gender-coded narrative of anxiety and self-denial. A related selection of kitsch-tinged emotionalism is found in the “menu paintings” which glibly reference food, and its entourage of control, body image, and appetite issues.
The profoundly effective fulcrum of the exhibition is the video work "Letter to Julian," a startling, laissez-faire short-form masterpiece of deadpan satire and earnest soul-searching. In production quality a convincing throwback to the same big silly ‘80s in question, the video is a voice-over of Sullivan reading a letter to Schnabel, while she is also seen awkwardly bumping, grinding, and twerking in a succession of trashy stripper garb and stylings. Her dancing is superimposed over footage of Schnabel working in his studio and details of some of his better known works. The letter’s content centers around the sociological study of self-assurance as it pertains to gender, specifically the concept of “The Confidence Gap,” which found that men overestimate their skills and self-worth, and women tend to do the opposite.
“You remind me of my father,” she says. “You’ve taught me a lot.” There’s a great deal of meaning in context alone; it matters very much not only what, but when and by whom a thing is made. Given the current zeitgeist of corrective gender-equality in the art world and reexamination of male-dominated genres like Abstract Expressionism specifically, this topic is easily transposed onto an art-world framework, while it smoothly stays salient in a look at society generally — and at how far we have (and have not) come since the 1980’s in terms of both. WM
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Huffington Post, The Creators Project, Vs. Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Montage, Desert Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, sometimes exhibits her photography and publishes short fiction, and speaks in public at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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