She's a magic woman
SECA: Try to understand — the play is the thing in Desirée Holman's masked wonderlands
By Matt Sussman
SECA ART AWARDS
There is a lot of play going on in the work of Desirée Holman. As evinced by the handmade masks, props, and costumes that populate her multimedia pieces — a family therapy workshop comprised of dolls in 2002's Art as Therapy; a clan of Bigfoot-like sapiens in 2005's Troglodyte; and most recently, the estranged visages of television's Huxtable and Conner families in The Magic Window — an anarchic "let's raid the dress-up box" impulse is often her guiding force. Family sitcoms, pop cultural junk food, and mediated existence in a thoroughly televised culture are her source materials.
From Cindy Sherman's faux film stills and prosthetic body part augmentations to Paul McCarthy's return-of-the-repressed performances using all manner of foodstuffs and costume shop detritus, the act of playing dress-up has its art-historical precedents. While Holman's work superficially brings Sherman and McCarthy to mind (the influence of the former is certainly apparent in 2006's Bucolic Life, where she plays mother and wife to a mannequin family within a series of supposedly candid snapshots), her art is not as routinely fixated on confronting the viewer with the grotesque and abject.
"I can see why people would find my work creepy, but I don't see it that way," laughs Holman over the phone. Judging from the opening night crowd's response to The Magic Window — which takes pride of place at the SECA Art Award show — the most common response to Holman's work seems to be nervous laughter. But when Roseanne Conner resembles Leatherface, it's not hard to see why.
However palpable, unease is just a surface response to Holman's rough-hewn masks and bodysuits. As fellow Guardian critic Glen Helfand noted in an Artforum review of Troglodyte, the empty costumes of the piece's hirsute, apelike creatures "still channel our evolutionary connection to them" — a connection underscored by videos and photographs of the costumed creatures smoking cigarettes and dancing. No matter how funny or scary we find the ape family, we remain inescapably tied to them. Holman's art teases out these strange channels and treats them as invitations to play along.
This invitation to connect beyond familiar comfort zones — even if, as viewers, we are frequently stuck, costumeless, on the outside looking in — is what animates The Magic Window, a project originally conceived for and shown at SF's Silverman Gallery, which is showing work by Holman this April. Comprised of a three-channel video on one wall and colored pencil drawings on the wall opposite, The Magic Window takes its title from a 1939 ad campaign used to sell early, primitive TV sets to American consumers. But the name could just as easily be applied to the sculptural masks worn by Holman and her cast.
The video starts off with parallel narratives loosely modeled after incidents from Roseanne and The Cosby Show, and ends with both families leaving their respective screens to visit each other's homes/sets. For a finale, the two clans come together for a center-screen psychedelic dance-off set in a purely virtual space where everyone glows with a green-screen aura. (This aura effect is rendered beautifully through tensile wisps in Holman's delicate drawings). In other hands, the Huxtables and Conners would be mined for parodic laughs or used for nastier ends (see McCarthy's and Mike Kelley's assault on family life in their 1992 video Heidi), but Holman has a deep affection for her source material. "I personally like both television shows, which were really progressive for their time," she says. "And I really wanted to look at the similarities between the two families."
Holman's collaborative fantasy union — in which one of television's most popular, white, middle-class families gets down with its first-ever affluent, upper-middle class African American kin — could not resonate more with our country's current political moment. The Huxtables are now, in a sense, the First Family, and the notion of a "post-racial America" has never had greater currency or been as thoroughly debated. To wit, Holman recently revealed in an interview with the blog Future Shipwreck that she created the masks for The Magic Window by attempting to combine the facial characteristics of her cast members with those of the actors who portrayed the characters on television.
In light of the recent election and current events, Holman has, understandably, been thinking a lot about The Magic Window. "On the one hand, [it presents] a critique of reenacting something that is already a fiction," she says, when asked about the piece. Then, as if channeling the zeitgeist on cue, she continues, "But on the other hand — and more powerful for me — are the acts of hope that these families act out in the video."
SECA ART AWARD EXHIBITION: TAUBA AUERBACH, DESIRÉE HOLMAN, JORDAN KANTOR, AND TREVOR PAGLEN
Through May 10; $12.50 adults, $8 seniors, $7 students (free for 12 and under)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF