Feminism, Fashion and the Swastika in Los Angeles
Part I: Maya Lujan controversy
Part II: Mary Anna Pomonis interviews Melanie Pullen
Two Los Angeles based female artists Maya Lujan and Melanie Pullen started the fall opening season with a bang. The images of their work containing swastikas have descended on the art scene in a flurry. Lujan has been all over the Los Angeles Times blog, "Culture Monster" and Pullen's image of a Nazi ran as the back cover of Artillery Magazine. This article began as an investigation of the swastika and symbols of violence and their contemporary use. It wound up being a journey that led me to two very different female artists with divergent takes on the subject.
Part I - Maya Lujan
Maya Lujan is 34 and a recent graduate of USC's M.F.A. program. Her massive painted installations focus on space travel, sex and architecture. Her inclusion in the prestigious Wight Biennial exhibition entitled, Group Effort at UCLA was supposed to be her debut as an emerging artist on the Los Angeles scene. Instead of a take-off the show turned into a crash and burn that held up the opening of the exhibition and turned Lujan into a symbol of feminist misapprehension and cultural anxiety.
Lujan's piece, White Magic and Xanadu contained many elements that referred to her theme and wryly included a mandala form on the wall that very closely resembled a swastika. The mandala made of velvet with a square cut out of the center was supposed to transport the viewer into a trance state that mimicked the literal trajectory of a space craft. Additionally the cut out center depicted a white window in space that refocuses the viewer on the context of the gallery space as a kind of cultural window. Lujan states, "I incorporate the notions of windows looking into a vast expanse, with a consideration of the insurgent power dynamics that are present in architecture." Since the UCLA show was held in the "Broad" student gallery the symbol itself took on the benefactor Eli Broad very directly and made a literal reference to his power in the Los Angeles art community. The Broad Contemporary Art Museum funded by Broad contains a collection that is predominately male. Lujan's work took the swastika and changed its position, cut out the center and literally transformed it from a symbol of masculine aggression to a symbol of sacred female power as referenced in the title.
The student curators, Alex Segade, Matthias Merkel Hess, Jennifer Gradecki and Wu Ingrid Tsang didn't get the references. They decided rather to weakly ask if the mandala was necessary and if they might take it down on the 23rd of September. After Lujan said, "No" they went ahead and decided to take the alleged swastika down without her permission. Apparently they missed the feminist missive that, "No means no."
On September 25th, the night of the opening Lujan entered the gallery just before the opening to discover that the curators had de-installed the mandala form from her piece and were ready to discuss the alteration. In an email the curators stated, "…we decided not to include the wall piece because it was not in the spirit of the show we wanted to present…" Apparently days before the exhibit opened some gallery visitors were offended by the mandala which they read as a swastika. Since Lujan's proposal contained a reference to a velvet wall piece that would navigate the installation rather than a swastika they decided they had grounds to remove it under the pretense of artistic ambiguity.
What happened next is truly astonishing, the curators gave Lujan an ultimatum. Either she accept the edit or de-install the piece immediately (thirty minutes after the show was supposed to start). The audience remained locked outside the gallery and Lujan stood in the space accompanied by her two children. Essentially the curators offered Lujan an impossible choice. Sadly Lujan's position mirrors the one so many working mothers are forced by their jobs to take.
That these issues still abound in the art world makes this whole event seem like a throwback to the seventies and the nazi-like institutional regime of the male dominated art academy.
Part II - Melanie Pullen
The fact that we live in a violent time and that a symbol of violence might be contemporary albeit uncomfortable subject matter seems hard to miss. Concurrent with the Wight Biennial is the Melanie Pullen show Violent Times at Ace Gallery. The ad for her show is of a woman dressed as a Nazi soldier on a fashion set. The image struck a chord that seemed to reverberate through out the Los Angeles art scene. I thought perhaps Pullen might be willing to contemplate the subject of depicting controversial subject matter a little more.
Why are so many images of violence and symbols of violence(the swastika) appearing in contemporary art right now?
There are several reasons, I believe. One of them being that artists are much more open now in exploring the roots of issues and there's a lot of symbolism in violence especially through the ages. It's an interesting thing to explore the symbolism of violence and this is something that I've examined in my work. The fact that people hide behind clothing, dress to kill, wear uniforms, gain rank, etc., is something very interesting in humanity. Also violence, terror and fear are so much a part of our culture at this point in time. We're inundated with news on a global scale 24 hours a day. This hasn't ever existed in history on this scale. My work questions not only the guise of violence but the accuracy of the media outlets on which we rely.
How do you as an artist define and defend these images to your audience?
My response is always different depending on exactly what the discussion is. In High Fashion Crime Scenes I was kind of shocked if people didn't walk away and wonder how someone could glamorize violence in that way - I wanted people to question it and the root of where the work came from. I didn't make it for people to just look at pretty shoes. Personally this series came from my own fear and horror from the progression of the nightly news programs and how I felt innocent peoples lives were being exploited to gain ratings. I feel and felt when I began this series that this had really become tasteless and somehow existed for families to watch nightly. That body of work was a commentary on this. The way that this is fueled through television ratings based on shock value is fascinating and even more fascinating is that the ratings only really matter to the companies who fund the programs with their merchandise (Herbal Essence Shampoo, Dove Soap, Milk, Beer, etc. This frenzy is backed by commerce) that's why I addressed the fashion in High Fashion Crime Scenes.
In Violent Times (my newest series) it goes a bit deeper — in this series it's more about the face of war, the propaganda. I made the soldier portraits look almost lifeless like toy soldiers or an army advertisement. I played with historic methods of depicting war by casting models to represent soldiers (this has been done for hundreds of years). The face of violence in the series is very dramatic and stylized — again questionable and overly theatrical. I'm always questioning accuracy. I could go on about this for sometime.
Because people bring emotional content to the viewing of symbols like the swastika or imagery that could be perceived as misogynistic how do you content with their criticism?
I'm not going to slide around what makes people uncomfortable to create 'easy' art. I feel this defies the purpose for me. I deal with imagery and concepts that give me a reaction emotionally, things that stop me from sleeping and things that reoccur in society again and again — these things haunt me. So to shy away from this and try to be nice about it or to not address it is something that I can't do. I use these symbols and dress them up, make them highly cinematic to play up what I see in the world. I add a drama to what I see and if someone walks away feeling there's something uncomfortable about that — that's a healthy reaction.
Have you ever been edited or attacked by anyone about your
Yes, but when it's happened it normally came from a place of misunderstanding what my work is about.
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Mary Anna Pomonis is a writer in LA.