"The Best Art In The World"
SURROGATES: Huguette Caland, Kiki Kogelnik, Lynn Hershman Leeson
May 11 - July 6, 2019
By KATELYNN MILLS, June 2019
This last Mother’s Day weekend, we celebrated all the ways mothers make the world go ‘round and all the ways one can be a mother. “Surrogates,” a 3-artist exhibition held at Kayne Griffin Corcoran took the holiday a few steps further to break down, assemble and augment a variety of ways that women often are (essentially broken down and sometimes reassembled) while being used toward an end. This concept isn’t posed in a derogatory, or victimizing, manner but rather something more akin to a continuum of the major ideas explored during the1960s. Because of the unbridled love of technology and it’s effects, “the sixties are endless in peculiar ways: endless in that we are still dealing with its political and temporal agency,” Pamela M. Lee states in her book on the subject, Chronophobia. The artists in the show: Huguette Caland, Kiki Kogelnik, and Lynn Hershman Leeson all have a different ways into this concept; some more biological, some more personal, others more sociopolitical.
The most arguably immediate works in the show are prints by Lynn Hershman Leeson. They feature women conjoined with different pieces of technology and are punchy, quasi commercial representations of the artists’s interest in the way persona can be constructed, multiplied, razed, and reanimated. The immediacy of her collaged imagery almost subterfuges how deeply involved and slow burning much of her process has been. In one of her experiments conducted in the 1970s, the artist made a new persona for herself named Roberta Bretimore and lived her to the fullest extent (wigs included). She additionally hired three other women to be Roberta to an equally committed degree. Nearing the conclusion of the five years designated for this piece, Hershman Leeson withdrew while her hired clones continued on as Roberta. In the end, when all the Robertas were “exorcised,” all that was left were some documents and ephemera from their lives — leaving the audience with a number of questions, one of which recalls an adapted Ship of Theseus thought experiment. If over time, every aspect of the woman’s identity is replaced, is she the same woman? At which point did she (if she) become someone else? Is there really Identity in the first place? What is left of a person in the end? Is the human mind not a machine?
Much like her pioneering in new media, which was essential in legitimizing the field, Hershman Leeson was an original in collage. She used the medium with sleek and attractive affect which is something one doesn’t really see pre-Photoshop. Looking at Plugged (1987, Chromogenic Print,24 x 20”, Edition 5 of 8), we observe an attractive woman striking a pose with her male-plug legs next to the female-plug. The subject doesn’t seem to mind the state she’s in — and the subject in Biological Clock 2 (1995, Gelatin silver print, 23x18 7/8”) is as matter-of-fact as possible as she’s merely a clock with legs. Hershman Leeson is showing us what happens in a one-dimensional society: people become one-dimensional (Marcuse).
Other genius splices of women and technology can be found in Kiki Kogelnik. Her work is as formally and conceptually fresh today as it ever was in its celebration of a paramount discovery in medical technology: birth control. A gear-like circle (a birth control dialpak) is a commonly reoccurring symbol in her paintings that represents the moment women were officially given permission to enjoy sex. The large circular forms in Really George, You Shouldn’t have (1966, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 44x 24 1/8”) echo the symbol while opening up the picture to further interpretation. This painting speaks about transference, accessibility, symmetry, and the communication between animal (human) and machine — a concept coined a decade and a half earlier by Norbert Weiner as “cybernetics.” The arms imply a body - the portrait-pink receptacle of the glowing blue. The neon yellow is the blue’s guiding light; intensity increases as the blue reaches the pink, noted by the decreasing space between each yellow spot.
A Small Bomb for Alfonso (c.1963, Oil on canvas, 36x36”), assuming a nod to the Morral Affair, speaks to another chronophobic-related concept: indeterminacy. the affair was an attempt of regicide made by a Señor Morral with a bomb concealed in a flower bouquet aimed toward Alfonso XIII of Spain. The anarchist missed his target and blew up nearly 30 bystanders instead. How dreadful — and not dissimilar from the nauseating risk artists and scientists alike are extremely familiar with: not knowing the consequences of an asserted idea. The painting is a symbol-soup contained within a square. The pink ground reads as a stomach - the part of the body most strongly associated with intuition. An arm and a beam of yellow feed into the stomach, offsetting a mixture of organic and inorganic matter.
And finally there is the joyful provocateur, Huguette Caland. Her isolations, or snippets, of the female form are an inimitably sweet pleasure to behold. For instance, she moons the audience with a big, red butt, Red I (1974, Acrylic on linen, 30 12x 31 1/2”). Though the gesture is traditionally used as a prank or offense, the viewer is tempted to respond with a pinch or a light spank… or at very least a smirk. The painting’s companion, Red II (1974, Acrylic on linen, 31 3/8x 31 3/8”), is the butt turned around to reveal a soft, motherly belly. Like her whole body of work, it radiates intimacy. It’s impossible to feel alone in this exhibition as the space is occupied with Caland’s painting smocks she wore between the year 1980- 2012 (the year before her husband passed). They attest to the process of living and creating — every mark and stain a souvenir of a past moment in its being toward the future. Like the other two artists in “Surrogates,” her work affirms a preoccupation with time. Bribes de corps (1979, Oil on linen, 39 1/4x 39 1/4”) is composed like a vaginal canal turned color field painting and recalls a similar sense of movement ant tension found in Kogelnik’s Really George, You Shouldn’t have. It sustains an ascending pressure that generates and internal and external energy simultaneously.
This show accomplishes a brilliant combination of eros and technics. Its flux between past and future, woman and machine, being and potential registers as germane and essential. Although, as a concluding thought, I’m thinking of a quote from Bridget Riley: “I have never consciously based any of my work on a scientific principle, nor studied ‘optics’ as such. I personally dislike the term ‘optical painting’ because it implies that optics are the raison d’être of the work.” An so the same is true in Riley’s contemporaries featured in “Surrogates.” The thesis and pieces comprising it aren’t done so for the sake of illustration. What sustains these women, making their output transcend its form into the realm of art and science, is that they submit to the process of doing. WM
Katelynn Mills is a painter and educator based in Southern California. She holds an MFA in Painting from The New York Studio School. Mills has been the recipient of a variety of awards, such as: The Mercedes Matter Award, the Peter Rippon/ Royal Academy Travel Grant, the Irwin Project Grant, and was an honoree for the President's Award for Excellence in Leadership at the LCU Fund for Women's Education.view all articles from this author