3.21 / Best Of: Year Three

Best Of: Larissa Archer

By Larissa Archer August 16, 2012

Image: Dita von Teese, Strip Strip Hooray, 2012. Photo: Kaylin Idora.

Best inspiration to blow paycheck at Agent Provocateur: Dita Von Teese, Strip Strip Hooray, The Fillmore, May 21-22, 2012

There are artists whose appeal extends beyond the ranks of enthusiasts of their particular art forms, performers whose virtuosity confutes personal taste and can hold in thrall connoisseurs, novices, and skeptics alike. The United Kingdom’s greatest theater critic, Kenneth Tynan, named this phenomenon “high-definition performance” and described it as that “supreme professional polish, hard-edged technical skill…the hypnotic saving grace of high and low art alike, the common denominator that unites tragedy, ballroom dancing, conversation and cricket.”

 Had he lived to see Dita von Teese’s performance at The Fillmore in San Francisco, Tynan may well have included her, the “Queen of Burlesque,” in his pantheon of high-definition performers. “Supreme professional polish” is an apt description for what held several hundred people rapt for two performances in May. As expected, her various routines thrilled with flamboyant costumes and sets attendant to various themes, from the questionably insensitive old-Hollywood-style Opium Den to her dazzling signature Martini Glass. Von Teese applied that professional polish not only to the showstoppers—the classic arched back, pointed toe, and unraveled-corset revelations—but also to the way in which she moved into and out of those moments. It was nearly impossible to catch her in a graceless pose; there was not an instant in which she betrayed the mechanics behind the illusion. She even managed to look dainty while slinging a leg over the tall, plush bucking cushion in her Cowgirl act and to pull her stockings off without sickling her feet.

Her self-possession made her riveting in ways that less exacting dancers could not achieve even with routines that featured showier, more acrobatic choreography and tricks. Von Teese doesn’t show off much—she doesn’t flaunt the degree of the athleticism that no doubt goes into maintaining her body and its adroitness. She doesn’t kick her feet to her face or perform tricks with her nipple tassles or even smile very widely. The only nod to such efforts is her powder-puff routine, which she performs entirely en pointe. She doesn’t appear concerned about pleasing her audience at all, just calmly confident that she indeed does. Von Teese’s prowess hinges on the iciness of her stage persona, the discipline of her stillness, the sense that no matter how few and tiny the vestments she stripped to, she was withholding far more than she gave. And so the kind of foot-stomping frenzy that other dancers that night had to give their all for, Von Teese inspired with the simple act of undoing a single button. It was not only a generous aesthetic and erotic spectacle; it was also a lesson in stagecraft—that “hard-edged technical skill” Tynan described so well.


Lee Friedlander. California, 2009; gelatin-silver print; 18.5 x 12.25 in. Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. © Lee Friedlander.

Best re-appropriation of commerce’s visual noise as art: Lee Friedlander, Mannequin, at Fraenkel Gallery, May 3 – June 23, 2012

A lingerie shop’s window display shows two female mannequins posed with the erotic accoutrements sold within. Both wear the sort of underthings you wouldn’t actually wear under anything; one presents a stockinged leg, the other, a paddle. They both stare suggestively outwards but, seen from a street that’s empty except for a few parked cars reflected in the windowpane, what was intended to be an enticing scene transmogrifies into a comedy of misfortune: All dressed up and no one to spank. But look more closely, and see that the street is not entirely empty. Friedlander himself is reflected there, too, fingers curled over his camera, appearing to stand directly in front of the woman with the paddle, who herself seems still to seek a playmate but willfully ignores the man literally and figuratively focused on her. The vignette morphs once again, this time into one of crossed desires, of ardor and aloofness—a reminder that, even for the most seemingly unattainable object of desire, there is someone else whom she or he cannot attain.

Much of the delight in Friedlander’s Mannequin series at Fraenkel Gallery last spring was in observing the way he created visual repetitions and arranged provocative juxtapositions. His photographs playfully combine coincidental factors (like the emptiness of the street, or the reflection of a cloud illusorily hovering over the fluffy white halo of a mannequin in an angel costume) with the givens of commercial settings (the models’ postures, clothing, the visible interiors of the window displays, the city scenes) and even with his own gnomic presence. Each element adds both graphic and figurative power, enriching and confounding the possible imagined meanings of each tableau.


Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Yuri Possokhov's Francesca da Rimini, 2012. © Erik Tomasson.

Most attractive adulterers and hell-fiends: Yuri Possokhov, Francesca da Rimini, San Francisco Ballet, February 16-26, 2012

It’s a rare but potent thing when classical narrative ballet deals with themes like erotic obsession successfully. Indeed, it is strange that a medium supremely suited to expressing our physical experience so often shies away from the darker, more adult territories, with erotic attraction often culminating in nothing steamier than a chaste kiss and feet extended in tendus. The resident choreographer at the San Francisco Ballet (SFB), Yuri Possokhov, however, honestly depicted the carnality of the adulterous lovers in the Divine Comedy while avoiding crass literalism. While this was refreshing, it was not itself the masterstroke; Possokhov (with the help of SFB’s technically and dramatically impressive dancers) infused the lovers’ pas de deux with opposing tugs of intense erotic attraction and the acute revulsion of the conscience-stricken. With each movement, their bodies simultaneously expressed conflicting emotions and appetites, creating a psychologically complex, rapid-fire physical dialogue that was both beautiful and challenging to watch. In one moment, the reckless sweep of a leg said one thing while the rigid back and tortured face said something else entirely. The three gatekeepers of Hell, who eventually dragged the lovers to their eternal canto in the ground, were brilliantly fashioned after Rodin’s sculptures of the same characters, even mimicking through movement the gnarled musculature that exemplifies the great sculptor’s nudes. They added menace and a dramatic inevitability more reminiscent of Greek theater than medieval poetry.


Chris Mccaw. Sunburned GSP#493 (Sierras), 2011; unique gelatin silver paper negative; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco.

Most beautiful destruction: Chris McCaw, Ride into the Sun, Stephen Wirtz Gallery, October 20-December 22, 2011

Today, we experience photographs as mostly immaterial apparitions on our computer screens that vanish at the click of a mouse. But McCaw takes us back to photography's "primal beginnings,” when image making and the experimentation therein was as much a scientific endeavor as an artistic one, involving complex chemical processes.2 Easily thwarted by imprecision, the very materials developed to capture and preserve an image could just as easily explode, break, or catch fire instead. McCaw’s Sunburn series arose out of such a snafu (which the artist attributes to whiskey). In hours-long exposures, the tonality of the landscape and sky are reversed through solarization, and the sun itself literally burns a path through a light-sensitive negative. But the resulting image is more than a failure of the representational function we expect from photography. The arcs seared through the photo paper connote the passage of time, proclaim the physicality of photography’s seminal processes, and add a tinge of violence, a brutal grace to the dark, still gorgeousness of McCaw’s landscapes.



1. Kenneth Tynan, Show People: Profiles in Entertainment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979).

2. Quote from the artist’s statement, at www.chrismccaw.com.

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