2.11 / Review

La Destitution de la Jeune Fille

By Michele Carlson February 7, 2011

La Destitution de la Jeune Fille (The Deposition of the Young Girl) is the second solo show of the collective The Old Boys’ Club, the assumed moniker of multimedia artist Katya Bonnenfant, on view at Haines Gallery. The mysterious gouache drawings, sculptures, and animations that fill the gallery are isolated, small studies of her recent show of the same name that was on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.1 The show at Haines Gallery holds its own ground, despite the fact that these smaller drawings are positioned as studies of the same images rendered into a large wallpaper and mixed-media installations at YBCA. This new, fragmented version creates a visual history—a counter-narrative that uses tactics of appropriation and refigures history and visual culture in order to comment on structures of power, violence, and history.

Groupings of framed and unframed small-scale gouache drawings fill the gallery walls, revealing an overwhelming visual narration of an unknown civilization through figures resembling hieroglyphics. The Old Boys’ Club’s stylized cartoonish hand at first makes the images easy to approach, but a closer look quickly complicates a viewing. Colorful depictions of arcane symbols, fleshy figures, masked creatures, and strangely familiar landscapes are pieced together in small form, but in monumental arrangement. There is a sense that the sheer number of these drawings points to a significance that is great, yet that remains mysterious to the viewer. Like the forms and figures represented in the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, the cuneiform writings of ancient Sumeria, or the hieroglyphics of Egypt, the scale and craft of the images suggest a deeply relevant meaning to its maker, even if that meaning is uncertain to other viewers.

The characters in the drawings seem to be human, and their costumes teeter visually between superhero spandex and some ambiguous global cultural appropriation of tribal or traditional dress. Pieced together, some elements of the figures’ costumes are distinctly recognizable, pulled from the vast span of the visual landscape, and others are reminiscent of particular cultural representations—a certain perception or coalescence of cultural accoutrements. A bandana-masked cowboy or a teal-bodied figure wearing a World War I–era gas mask are depicted next to other figures, which are adorned with what resemble Japanese Hanya masks or Javanese headdresses. In Study for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille #38 (2010), a concealed figure wears a burka and holds a metal-tipped spear, while a figure nearby wears a deep-sea diving suit, even fitted with a three-bolt brass diving helmet. The one consistent characteristic among the figures is that they are all armed, mostly with spears and the occasional samurai sword.

Throughout the series of drawings, this reoccurring band of nimble, masked, and spear-bearing characters fights, attacks, and captures. The figures are grouped disparately and outfitted diversely and could leap off the page and spear a viewer with the precision and strength of a trained warrior.

Studies for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille, 2010; installation view, Haines Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Haines Gallery. Photo: Monique Deschaines.

Study for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille #41, 2010; gouache on paper; 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

But it is not always clear who fights whom: there are no obvious sides and no distinct evidence that any of the characters fight for the right cause, whatever that might mean for them. The victory is unknown, as is the case in many depictions of battlefields. There is a quiet ambiguity about what moment one is witnessing—is this an epic battle scene, documented grandly as such moments often are? Is this a moment right before an act of violence? Or perhaps these are the moments after such an act, full of an echoing emptiness.

It is clear, though, that this is a symbolic war, fought on a battlefield that conflates a global visual and historic landscape—and The Old Boys’ Club takes liberties with any sort of historical accuracy. This work addresses a space where the residue of history may offer a refigured representation of certain pasts and, by default, futures, but not necessarily a specific retelling of it. The Old Boys’ Club archives the remnants of patterns, spaces, and practices that civilizations leave behind, but not with an archeologist’s hand or an historian’s precision. The works chart a space of history that is unmoored and unfixed—a rhizomatic space; it is, perhaps, a counter-historical narrative of the inhabitants of an unknown space, where there is no beginning, middle, or end. Maybe it is an ethnographical analysis into a civilization one may not know, but in which one disarmingly recognizes oneself, in some not so far off dystopian future.

The Old Boys’ Club strategically creates this nebulous historical space by borrowing visual accoutrements from past and present visual landscapes. La Destitution de la Jeune Fille raises a certain question about the efficacy of using appropriations rooted in cultural borrowing, as well as the consumption of handpicked accoutrements or iconography, in order to critique the inevitable mixing of a postcolonial cocktail. Can the very thing performed also be critiqued? Yet, there is an unapologetic rhythm—a sort of method to the madness—behind The Old Boys’ Club’s counter-narratives; built into the fabric of this visual saga are the reciprocal exchanges that exist within power and, therefore, violence. One who has power over another is dependent on the powerless to acknowledge and allow the powerful to maintain that role. The Old Boys’ Club creates an epic landscape of ambiguous enemies and uncertain allies who duke it out on an unknown battleground: a fluid, yet precarious space where history is uprooted. As the collective suggests that power is what one allows it to be, we’re left with the most important question—to what end?

 

La Destitution de la Jeune Fille (The Deposition of the Young Girl) is on view at Haines Gallery, in San Francisco, through April 2, 2011.

 

________
NOTES:

1. La Destitution de la Jeune Fille (The Deposition of the Young Girl) was on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from October 14, 2010 to January 9, 2011.

Comments ShowHide