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LOS ANGELES — Cosima von Bonin’s art is easy to like. The oversized stuffed animals and textile collages she has made for over two decades are, by turns, quizzical and endearing, familiar enough to be both consolations and surrogates for the viewer, but not so much that they become queasily uncanny. Likewise, her mise-en-scènes and titles are often dryly funny, as if she is inviting us to be in the joke, fittingly for an artist whose practice is founded on collaboration and sociality. At the same time, her art can come across as a series of in-jokes that leave the uninitiated out of the loop.
Von Bonin matured as an artist amid the much-mythicized 1980s and ’90s Cologne art scene, where her earliest works were collaborative conceptual gestures. Though she has long since embraced the object, her practice retains a sense of decentralized social activity that mixes art-historical and insider references.
HETERO at Gaga & Reena Spaulings, her second show with House of Gaga (the first was Shit and Chanel in 2019 at the gallery’s Mexico City location), may at first suggest a menagerie of set-pieces from an absurdist play that only a chosen few have seen. Yet with time, this selection of diverse objects give rise to a chorus voicing the frustrations and anxieties of those who fear being drowned out or disappeared.
The press release explains the title as an open-ended engagement with the prefix: “Hetero? Heterosexual or heterodox?” This ambiguity finds apparent resolution in the binaries that structure the show: hard/soft, black/white, masculine/feminine, manufactured/handmade.
The first work encountered upon entering is “LOVE/HATE” (2011), a jute banner printed with the two words in opposite corners, behind which a neon cigarette, “Smoke” (2008), hides. (All other works 2020.) These clear-cut binaries produce less a feeling of tension than a sense of balance, reducing the idea of “difference” — signified by “hetero-” — into neatly packaged opposites.
But the interplay of signifiers is never that simplistic in a von Bonin show; two puffy signs that read “cute” (“Cute (pink)” and “Cute (black)”) unsettle this balance. The signs, which seem to be melting, are not particularly cute, but nearly everything else is — not least the title work, a large, Bambi-esque fawn standing on a mint-green trunk (“Hetero”), and a tableau named for the gallery’s neighborhood (“MacArthur Park”), composed of a blue wall hanging, a pink bench for one, and a canvas bin jammed with stuffed Bugs Bunny dolls.
Accompanying these works in the main gallery are textile collages and a selection of sculptures, including two human-scale rockets (“The Loser (black and white version)”; “The Loser (green silver version)”) and three soft fences made of stuffed black velvet.
The “cute” signs serve as a kind of metanarrative. We can’t be sure whether von Bonin is calling her own work cute, or suggesting that others see it that way, or using the term ironically; she neither defines “cute” nor explicitly posits what form “not-cute” might take. Instead, the signs call into question the term’s ramifications. It’s from this dynamic that the tension missing in the binary structure arises.
In this context the prefix “hetero” indicates internal difference — for instance, not-cute things (missiles, cigarettes, social ills) that are repackaged as cute and “cute” things that are forever underestimated. Fences and rockets are designed to protect us from threats, to different degrees. Von Bonin strips both of their utility, and their potency, by making the fence flaccid and labeling the rockets “loser.” In essence, she colonizes them under the sign of “cute.”
The symbolic takedown of male virility by a woman who makes “cute” things may be a playful punchline, but it’s merely the most obvious interpretation of the missiles and fences. Implicit throughout the show is the tension between the feeling of failure and the struggle to be recognized and taken seriously, rather than erased, something that translates into a meaningful statement on the obstacles that women, and other marginalized people, face every day.
“Thumper Bubbling (version 1)” and “Thumper Bubbling (version 2),” almost identical freestanding fabric collages displayed like screens, with their stretchers visible from behind, portray Bambi’s rabbit friend as an outlined body stitched into the surface, with big, anxious eyes. Thumper shrinks from a three-fingered, white-gloved fist that could belong to Mickey Mouse as it flies like a comet through space.
In contrast, “Hetero” is a prominent presence, but one circumscribed by its cuteness. The question of why a wide-eyed cartoon fawn should be taken seriously is not necessarily rhetorical. As long as it remains unexamined it can be dismissed, along with its subject. And what is first dismissed is later marginalized, and, finally, erased.
Two other textiles, “Faust” and “I Love Rilke,” hint at force and fear beneath a cartoon facade. In “Faust,” von Bonin centers a red fist on a quilt made of gingham dish towels, while “I Love Rilke” depicts a grinning Daffy Duck, his body blending into the black background, flanked by two frightened little Thumpers. Whatever you make of the references to Faust, who made a pact with the Devil, and to Rilke, they serve to undercut the prevailing cuteness with allusions to German and Austrian history (and the artist’s heritage), and to intimidation, be it by the Devil or Daffy. (Incidentally, the story Bambi, a Life in the Woods, 1923, was written by Felix Salten, an Austrian author and hunter.)
It’s unclear whether “MacArthur Park” — whose blue backdrop reflects the lake visible through the gallery’s windows — is meant to obliquely, and perhaps too blithely, refer to the neighborhood’s fraught history of affluence, decline, and revitalization, or to its significance to immigrant communities who have made their home there. Either way, though, the brand-new toys, their legs sticking out of the bin every which way, reiterate the idea that what is cute — small, soft, sweet, nonthreatening — can be disregarded or, as here, disposed of.
HETERO has its weak points. Some issues — for instance, race (in the “cute” signs’ pink and black colors) and sexuality (in “Ax,” a white ax head with a rainbow-striped handle, plunged into the gallery wall) — receive cursory or ambivalent treatment. And the artist’s works are equivocal enough to deflect interpretation as much as they invite it.
However, by identifying “cuteness” with insignificance and invisibility, von Bonin presents an ethics that at once transcends the cliquish art world and speaks to its internal biases. Whether this resonates with audiences who simply want art that is easy to like is another story. But HETERO at least offers an ethical route, and that amplifies its chorus of voices enough to know they’re there.
Cosima von Bonin: HETERO continues at Gaga & Reena Spaulings (2228 West 7th Street, Los Angeles, California) through September 26.