EssaysWeekend

Strong Women and Male Privilege at the Felix Art Fair

Kaari Upson’s work resonated with the excesses and liberties that characterize the relationship in Hollywood between powerful men and less powerful women.

Installation view of the Michael Benevento gallery’s special project at the Felix Art Fair, featuring Kaari Upson, Umhum (2008), video, 2:50 min. (all images courtesy Michael Benevento)

LOS ANGELES — Amid the frenzy of art fairs in LA last weekend, the inaugural, free Felix Art Fair, located in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, yielded some of the most challenging projects, for better or worse. The fair’s most talked-about challenge was getting to half the art. Split between the ground floor (the Cabanas) and the 11th floor of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the line to get on the elevator stretched outside, well beyond the hotel’s doors; on the fair’s opening night the wait was an hour.

Once there, visitors could continue to a special exhibition in the 13th-floor penthouse suite. Curated by Andrew Berardini and presented by the French Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art, The 13th Floor was promoted as a “proposition” on the Felix website. Pivoting on the number “13,” it featured works by 15 French and French-American artists including Sonia Delaunay (one of five women) and Guy de Cointet. Artworks, including a playful schematic drawing by de Cointet (presented by Air de Paris), seemed more props than focal points, defused of any real impact, within the sleek, modernist surroundings of the penthouse. This was just part of what felt anachronous and, ultimately, disingenuous about The 13th Floor.

The installation’s combination of commerce and fantasy — the kind of jet-setting wealth conjured by Hollywood penthouse suites — brought the exhibition uncomfortably close to an ad for upward mobility, while the downward mobility rampant in the US was inescapable in the city below. In Los Angeles, as in many major cities, gentrification and overpopulation have led in recent years to skyrocketing rents and an unprecedented number of the homeless and disenfranchised.

The stylized image of the collector’s lifestyle, as presented by The 13th Floor (reinforced by the wait time to ascend), was one of art-world elitism buoyed by white, male privilege — a privilege inescapably enjoyed by Berardini and Felix’s founder, collector Dean Valentine. That the exhibition seemed to reproduce rather than respond to such privilege felt like a missed opportunity.

Dan Finsel “Untitled” After- Depersonalization (2019), silver gelatin print, urethane, resin 27.25 x 19 x 3.5 inches

Two floors down, Los Angeles gallerist Michael Benevento countered the detached cool of the penthouse suite with two powerful bodies of work, provided by artists Dan Finsel and Kaari Upson. In black-and-white photos enclosed in tubular black frames, Finsel squishes and squeezes his chest and stomach, isolating his torso in close-up shots that are both sculptural and comically fleshy.

Upson’s video Umhum (2008), screened on a monitor in front of the hotel bed, was the room’s centerpiece. Umhum closes in on the artist wearing a blond wig and prosthetic body parts, including breasts and a vagina, pantomiming sexual gestures. Drawn from her 2008-9 installation The Grotto — an imposing replica of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion grotto made of charcoal-gray fiberglass boulders — the video was originally viewed through holes in the ersatz rocks.

After a minute or so of watching the Umhum, the simulated sex becomes more awkward than entertaining. The video’s deliberately lo-fi quality is matched by a B-movie performance in which Upson’s silicone prosthetics begin to peel from her skin. The result is a grotesque body seemingly born of the grotto (which is, after all, the root of  “grotesque”), startling in its indecency and sheer queasiness.

Kaari Upson, Umhum (2008), video, 2:50 min.

Upson skewers both the Hollywood image of the enhanced female body and our society’s alternately voyeuristic and antagonistic attitude toward this image. She conjures Medusas, succubi, women reproached and reviled. As Finsel enthusiastically embraces his tubular embodiment, Upson reclaims the sense of abjection thrust upon women’s flesh, whether genuine or fake.

While other exhibitors made clever use of the rooms by installing artworks in unexpected spots like bathrooms, Benevento took unique advantage of the  context by suffusing it with psychosexual debris. The most intimate aspects of human relations and bodies — those perverse and pathetic states typically hidden behind closed doors — were exposed.

Presenting Umhum in the Hollywood Roosevelt also resonated with the excesses and liberties that have long characterized the relationship in Hollywood between powerful men and less powerful women. By weaving female embodiment and sexuality into themes touching on old-school porn and the resistance of the #MeToo movement, Upson’s bizarre humor questions who can claim the body, and its unraveling, while refuting both objectification and victimization. It was a small triumph of substance in a weekend largely about surfaces.

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