LOS ANGELES — In the lead-up to a Trump presidency, the worst possible outcome for an America that has come so far in the past 100 years in terms of social progress and civil rights, it’s not insane to think that conservatives could take us back to a pre–Roe v. Wade era, to a time when all race-based hate crimes were labeled as basically normal. Not to mention that the environment and the economy will go to hell. This is not our country, and this is not the new normal — this is a time for refusal, a time to resist rather than to hallucinate into some sort of feeble complacency.
The election was certainly on my mind when I saw LA artist Genevieve Gaignard’s exhibition Smell the Roses at the California African American Museum. The characterizations that she creates in her work mine the intersections of race, class, and gender, portraying some of the vulnerable Americans who will be most affected by the next four years (or fewer, if Trump gets impeached like Michael Moore is predicting!).
This is Gaignard’s first solo museum show, which follows her solo exhibition Us Only last year at Shulamit Nazarin Gallery in Venice, California. Here, Gaignard continues her exploration of the space between performance and the reality of race, class, and gender through different personas or avatars, domestic spaces, and collections of Americana kitsch and knickknacks, toeing the line between high and low culture, between fiction and personal history. As the fair-skinned daughter of a black father and a white mother, her work speaks to being mixed race, discussing issues of visibility and invisibility. She mixes highbrow and lowbrow aesthetics — a major influence is John Waters, who similarly indulges in camp and kitsch. Gaignard’s arrangements of objects ranging from books and records to family photographs mix the familial and the political in a way that’s reminiscent of Rashid Johnson’s post-minimalist, cold domestic “shelves.” The difference is that in Gaignard’s work, every object emanates warmth. It’s fitting that her exhibition deals heavily with the emotional experience of loss on both a personal and political level.
In her photography, Gaignard embodies various “persona-play performances,” a term coined by feminist art historian and critic Moira Roth, which refers to performances that blend autobiography and mythology. “Gaignard’s performances can be positioned in a genealogy of feminist persona-play, including Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being, Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, and Howardena Pindell’s Free, White, and 21, as well as Nikki S. Lee’s Projects, Eleanor Antin’s black ballerina, Eleanora Antinova, and Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight,” writes UCLA Associate English Professor Uri McMillan in his essay “Masquerade, Surface, and Mourning: The Performance of Memory-Work in Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses.” It’s important to distinguish Gaignard’s work from the Cindy Sherman’s — a comparison it usually receives because of their shared interest in character. Sherman, however, reveals no autobiographical information, instead working with female archetypes in the media, whereas Gaignard makes the personal political while also creating new American mythologies.
In “Extra Value (After Venus)” (2016), the artist stands in front of an American flag mural painted on a brick wall wearing a shirt with the words “THUG LIFE” on the front, holding a large cup of soda and fries from McDonald’s. She gazes intensely at the camera as if to confront viewers with the fast food choices of poor and working-class American woman. In another photograph from this series, “Drive By Side Eye,” she stands adjacent to a red car that’s parked in front of an American flag, sipping her McD’s soda. In “Compton Contrapposto” (2016), she poses with her left leg bent in front of a vintage green ride, her hair poofed out into a ’70s-style ginger afro. These photographs all employ female stereotypes, creating characters that offer both intrigue — who is this person and why is she here? — and critique of such gendered American performances of femininity.
“Red State, Blue Plate” (2016) sees Gaignard posed on top of a little red car with a Massachusetts license plate, holding a 40-oz Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Her hair is straightened but wavy, and woods can be seen the background. In some of the other photographs, such as “Basic Cable & Chill” and “Smell the Roses” (both 2016), Gaignard poses in front of homes, blending herself into the landscape. In the photograph “The Color Purple,” she embodies a scared young girl standing in front of a purple house, simultaneously referencing Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. In placing her body here, she creates a new dialogue between herself, the house, and the literary reference to this story about women of color living through violence and oppression in 1930s Georgia.
Gaignard’s work may be compared to singer Nicki Minaj for her use of avatars, or to Japanese artist Tomoko Sawada, who creates different personalities and types based on stereotypes and categories of people in Japanese culture. Sawada uses the vernacular of public photo booths in much the same way that Gaignard uses the vernacular of American Dream fulfillment in her photography.
Gaignard further explores class dynamics in this exhibit’s two domestic installations. One of these is a young girl’s bedroom, replete with Black Cabbage Patch dolls, a hanging felt cross, a vintage blue workout bike, and an MC Hammer Barbie with his hands up in the “Don’t shoot!” gesture, alluding to police slayings of Black men. On the wall outside this installation, a giant X marks it as unsafe, alluding to a poignant real-world tragedy for Gaignard, whose niece died in a fire. Her niece is also the subject of the photograph and memorial tribute “Baby Girl” (2016), which hangs in this installation. The sentiment of extreme pain signaled by loss is also found in the video “Missing You” (2016), located at the very back of the exhibition, where Gaignard embodies a Diana Ross–type diva persona, belting out lyrics that are a tribute to both her niece and the Black lives lost due to senseless acts of violence by the police, which sparked the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
America is on the brink of an extreme-right backlash, facing white supremacy and, most likely, a plummeting economy and ravaged environment in the years to come — especially if Trump pulls out of the Paris Agreement. Now, more than ever, we need powerful work like Gaignard’s that fearlessly examines America’s heart.
Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses continues at the California African American Museum (600 State Dr, Los Angeles) through February 26.