Fuck, yeah! That’s a phrase I’ve never before used (and never much imagined I would) in an art review, but apparently there just hadn’t been an exhibition for which such an affirmation could serve appropriately as both a kind of appraisal and a channeling of the show’s attitude.
The announcement of a joint exhibition between sculptor Lara Schnitger and My Barbarian, a performance collective comprising Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade, brought with it worry that two trains already rumbling along nicely on their own tracks could wind up in a wreck. But there were signs of hope as well. Schnitger, whose sculptures are something along the lines of self-actualized costumes, has herself dabbled in performance, has navigated theater settings before, and has previously worked on costumes for My Barbarian. She and the trio have in common a perverse sense of humor, a flair for theatricality, and a love of patterned stretch fabrics.
The bad news: If you weren’t there for the exhibition opening at Cal State L.A.’s Luckman Gallery on January 17, you missed a terrific performance that confirmed everything in your worst fears about performance art, but nevertheless made you love it. (Call the Luckman and go to My Barbarian’s MySpace page, and demand an encore performance.) The good news: A video of a similar show last year at the Museum Het Domein in Sittard, Netherlands, where this exhibition originated, is part of the Luckman’s presentation.
Sharing the exhibition’s title, “Dance Witches Dance,” the performance brings together snippets of plot lines found in stories ranging from Faust, Alice in Wonderland and the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea to the Robert Johnson legend or Xanadu. Schnitger plays herself in ingénue mode, wandering among her sculptures — patchwork skins of fabric lifted into quasi-figurative form by internal wooden armatures. She’s feeling naughty, and soon finds herself joined by three witches (Gaines, Gordon and Segade) decked out in sleeveless unitards of which Freddie Mercury could only have dreamed. The witches promise that if Schnitger sells her soul to the devil, they will bring three sculptures to life, and, with assurances that she doesn’t need a soul to make art anyway (thank you, My Barbarian), she closes the deal. Yet the magic the witches conjure is not an animating breath of life, but rather a combination of precisely the formal analysis, semiotic exegesis and psychological unpacking to which Schnitger’s works lend themselves.
This critique/reading comes in the form of techno-rock-operatic supertitled musical theater, with the My Barbarian cast donning special accessories coordinated with the sculptures and singing lyrics printed in large type on the adjacent walls. In response to Schnitger’s sculpture Celia — an oversized and overbearing baroque amalgam of cascades, gatherings, nips and tucks of fluffy fabric lavished with flourishes and embellishments — Gordon, looking fine in an iridescent snakeskin-print fabric, sings “The Cougar,” a bouncy pop melody about a surgically enhanced vixen living in an Arizona suburb. Gaines, sporting a geometric print that registers as both folksy and modern, serenades Schnitger’s “Beijing Bitch” — a grand yet ominous freestanding gown/robe looking like a punk version of something Ming the Merciless would have worn — with the ballad “Beijing (Is a) Bitch,” a solemn but at times punchy meditation on shifting cultures, ideologies, economics and social realities. And strutting/slithering in camouflage lame, Segade both rebukes and tries to understand Schnitger’s bomb-belted “Suicide Woman” with a loungey, torchy song of the same name, ending with a bang — a detonation and the leveling of the four performers by projectiles reminiscent of the spring-loaded snakes that pop out of gag gifts.
Regaining consciousness and pleased with the experience, Schnitger expresses hope that all of her sculptures might come alive, and that all witches might dance, whereupon the trio dons long bell-shaped skirts and spins about the room, unfurling banners that both summon and empower all witches (audience apparently included) to dance before making their exit.
And dance (or at least come to life) the sculptures did. For what the three witches sang about the sculptures is what Schnitger produces every day in her studio — works that are as much compelling forms and interesting structures as they are complex cultural cocktails and fascinating characters or personalities. Such is the talent that has made Schnitger one of the most interesting sculptors working in Los Angeles. But if you think you already know her work, think again: This is Schnitger 2.0, with a sexually and politically in-your-face barrage of images and codes unlike what she has previously offered, and an even more dynamic approach to form and structure.
My Barbarian, meanwhile, is at the top of its game, taking performance to a level enjoyable not just because of how it riffs on performance and theater, but because it is good theater, and an astute cabaret of insight and satire dealing in a combination of localized needling and grand summation worthy of Voltaire. The Only One, their new video work made in collaboration with Schnitger, goes beyond performance documentation into smart filmmaking. Shot in the screening room of Liberace’s former Hollywood Hills home, the work uses the location, with its multiple matching-patterned couches and small stage and screen, as a spatial representation of mind frame in which images (shadow puppetry and montage) fuse with personalities (the My Barbarian players), clothing, props and sculptures in a kind of eroticized existential luxury.
This not-to-be-missed exhibition is a case study in all that can go right in a collaborative double-billing. The practices of Schnitger and My Barbarian remain distinct while they complement and support one another in the production of something that feels vital, urgent, intelligent, pithy, humorous and hopeful. One more time: Fuck, yeah!
Luckman Gallery, California State University, Los Angeles, 5151 State University Dr., L.A. Mon.-Thurs., Sat., 12-5 p.m., thru March 14. (323) 343-6604 or www.luckmanarts.org.