Gil Blank
Misc Fields
This past June, a Manhattan jury decided that the elaborately constructed fictional persona by which a forty-one year old former punk musician and child ward of the state—for the most part previously unknown but for the originating circumstances of her current prosecution—had during some half-dozen years managed to publish three books, option two films, and sustain an ongoing campaign of wide media attention, as well as the cultish adoration of fans internationally, to say little of conniving dozens of other authors, musicians, and assorted celebrities into shilling on behalf of a phantom child prostitute-cum-literary star, was not merely the manifestation of a possibly clinical personality, but indeed felonious. The popular phenomenon of “JT Leroy” had found its apogee, attaining the dimensions of social comedy, albeit one that featured a protagonist emblematic of a more troubling human condition, as all great comedies must.


“If you take JT”, Laura Albert was quoted as telling the jury, “you take my other, and I die”, indicating perhaps that her conviction for fraud was to her mind not so much a binding legal sanction as a yet contestable territory, an aleatory distinction among data otherwise less inclined towards bureaucratic preferences for fixity.


Opening at The Santa Monica Museum of Art almost simultaneously with the release of the Leroy verdict, Identity Theft concentrated on a tight handful of ’70s-era projects by three artists, each of whom used disguises and false identities to analyze wider social imbalances, symbolically sited on the female body. The exhibition relied heavily on photography, or more delicately, on that aspect of photography that curator Jori Finkel ambiguously calls its “truth-telling power”, now understood as a means of un-truth-telling that—by Finkel’s inferral—is due in part to the seminal deconstructions of identity politics on display. The works exploit the practice of image making, or as it was referred to in the language of the time, the “pictorial regime”, as a means for its own undoing.


Eleanor Antin, in her relatively well-known series of photographs The King of Solana Beach, goes grocery shopping at Vons ridiculously kitted out like an extra from a period romance film, complete with cape and conspicuously fake beard. Lynn Hershman is unique among the three in building a singular avatar; her extended project on “becoming” Roberta Breitmore edges towards fulfilled mania, though ironically only when she ends it by staging Roberta’s exorcism at the crypt of Lucrezia Borgia. And Suzy Lake’s especially stunning video, A Natural Way To Draw, shows her carefully applying a classical chiarascuro rendering of a face directly on top of her own, now obliterated beneath layers of pancake makeup and felt-tip marker.


But if the foreseeable point of reference for the show is the work of Cindy Sherman (which Finkel openly acknowledges, framing the artists involved as Sherman’s forebears), then the comparison to the case of Laura Albert is more instructive. The incidental artistry of Albert’s convoluted sham—by far her singular achievement, and certainly greater than any of the stories she wrote pseudonymously—manages by means of sheer obsession to totally bypass the grey polemics and didacticism in which Identity Theft inevitably gets bogged down.


As varied as the approaches and media used by Antin, Hershman, and Lake are, the single link between them is a self-conscious air of theatricality. This is understandable as a deliberate pose of resistance, but is at odds with the act of creating either a cogent persona or an autonomous work of art. To say that “JT Leroy” demonstrated a superior degree of absorption in her mise-en-scène is not only to elide the fact of how deeply sucked into her delusion an ever-widening spiral of other people got as well, but to underplay the catastrophic—and thus uniquely enlightening—extent to which a semantic and psychological device became wholly fused to the separate construction that the rest of us now refer to in comparatively less flamboyant terms as “Laura Albert.”


By contrast, when Antin went shopping in 1974, she wasn’t provoking cognitive dissonance so much as just being a ham, and this in Southern California, no less. The frequent shortfall of artists attempting a genuinely profound disruption of social relations is that their ultimate intentionality rarely transcends consideration within an artistic context as such. They toe a strictly rhetorical line that keeps them from ever veering off into pathology, which, as performers, means they never risk losing themselves entirely, for worse or darkly better.


© Copyright Gil Blank


Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, and Suzy Lake, 1972 - 1978
The Santa Monica Museum of Art

Originally published in Art on Paper magazine, vol. 12, September/October 2007.