SAN FRANCISCO — Monet Clark’s current exhibition at Krowswork Gallery in Oakland, California represents the first solo showing of 20 years worth of performance and video work in which her own body and life experiences serve as subject matter. Images of Clark as the ideal “California girl” are juxtaposed with documentation of the deterioration of her body due to environmental illness, a condition that causes the sufferer to become allergic to common household chemicals.
The subtitle of the show, A Retrospective Debut, can also be read as a symptom of the human condition. Our identities are made up of a retrospective lineage of past experiences, language and memories which our ever-changing physical body constantly debuts in the present moment. This dichotomy of a transient vs. corporeal existence is one of the themes woven throughout Clark’s body of work. Clark’s work explores the tension between the power of the female body, society’s efforts to control it and the betrayals of the mortal body when it exerts its own will.
Projected on the wall in the largest room of the show is a video of the artist performing a strip tease entitled “Convulsive Stripper” (1992). At first, the sequence seems familiar and contrived, but the mood is violently disrupted as Clark slips into a series of uncontrollable spasms. She attempts to continue her erotic performance through these fits, resulting in a vulnerability that repels the gaze and breaks the viewers ability to objectify her. That she seeks to gain mastery over her body in order to perform movements of prescribed “sexiness” to be consumed by the (male) gaze points to another sort of control over the female body. Ironically, these feigned fits of illness foreshadow her battle with environmental illness years later.
The series Poisoning/Phoenix, Performance Document (2001/2007), pairs images of the artist during bouts of illness with photos that show her in relative health, posed in a sexualized, cliché manner. Her body and face are so changed in the “before” photos that her illness seems to obscure her identity. Even more disturbing than the differences are the similarities between the two images and how they lead us to question our desire. We want to fantasize that the object of desire in the “Myspace” style photo is distinct from the less desirable human aspects attached, but the juxtaposition of the two images suggests that the image of illness is already inside the sexy phantasm. This relationship has profound implications as to what society fetishizes as sexy in the first place.
Many of Clark’s pieces hinge on using her own body as an ideal female form. Tall and thin, Clark easily embodies the current beauty ideal, which is part of what makes it so effective when she ruptures the continuity of the illusion which she has created. Her ability to elicit desire makes it all the more shocking to imagine her wasting away in a hospital, or confined to a wheelchair, reduced to skin and bones. When she reveals her vulnerability and humanity, she indicts the viewer for objectifying her, but desire is a double-edged sword as she is also complicit in this objectification.
Clark plays upon this dichotomy in another piece called “Butterfly’s Shoe Fetish” (2009). The video features just her feet, walking back and forth in a white room modeling her extensive collection of high heels. The work was made following a period of time in which she couldn’t walk due to illness. Reality and performance become blurred, as the sixty-two pairs of shoes she models are her own, but in the video they come to represent the gilded cage of desire. At the same time that she regains the freedom to walk, she is thrown into the constraints of society.
The artworks of Monet Clark are, essentially, documents of her life, both real and projected. Their effectiveness hinges on her relentless sincerity, and her willingness to admit her own complicity in the very systems and ideas that she critiques. We see ourselves in the image of Clark, through the demonstration of her own painful personal experience.
Monet Clark: California Girl, A Retrospective Debut is on view until December 17, 2011 at Krowswork Gallery (480 Street – side entrance, Oakland, California).