Heilman-C's one-night event, “Women Loving Women,” consisted of the following elements: several bronze sculptures depicting an iconographic rendering of a female figure with large breasts (self-portraits, according to the artist), done in a gloppy, expressionistic style; paintings, with titles such as Self Portrait: That Funny Feeling in My Tummy and Self Portrait: Queen of the World, most of which featured the same imagery as the sculptures; and (here's the crowd pleaser), 11 naked starlets, some drawn from the porn industry, gyrating to the beat of a repetitive techno soundtrack augmented with orgasmic women's moans.
Readers of Artforum and/or Coagula might have recognized Heilman-C from her recent spate of half-naked, full-page advertisements promoting her February performance at the Jack Tilton Gallery in New York. In that piece, she presented a live sex show performed by a handful of porno's most popular performers, attracting throngs of curiosity seekers and porn aficionados, though failing to garner the serious attention of the art press.
“The funny thing,” announced one braggingly observant bystander at the California installment of the project, “is no one seems to be looking at the art on the walls. They just can't stop looking at the girls.” Of course, this was true. Standing sentry at any crossroads in the cavernous private warehouse, anyone with functioning eyesight could see that the crowds were riveted to the spectacle of sensuously seductive flesh, while the paintings and sculptures, unless they were directly involved as props, were pointedly ignored.
Ostensibly, though, it was this overlooked artwork, with prices, which normally start at $1,000, lowered to $35, that was funding the freaky spectacle. When staff members of the Heilman-C empire were asked, “How does an emerging artist manage to finance such an impressive show?” the party line was “She sells a lot of art.” (The rumor mill, as usual, was more interesting. There were whispers that the artist's alleged boyfriend-backer owned 20,000 tanning salons, as well as a hemp-shampoo business, and was a big collector of Warhol, hoping to make her North Hollywood space into a millennium-style Factory.) Meanwhile, members of ISWFACE, the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture and Education, were on hand to announce that 30 percent of the proceeds of the night's show would go to them.
Whatever the case, it was a high-dollar endeavor. Along with the crowds of slack-jawed men and more than a few weak-kneed ladies, an immense staff kept the show running smoothly. Six off-duty police officers prevented drooling men from pawing the performers, though curious women in the audience were permitted to participate – and some did. Aside from the cops and the starlets, other employees, including door people, bartenders, makeup artists, video-camera operators and various other point people, roamed the space, some (including the artist) wearing radio headsets. At some points, Gloria Heilman, a.k.a. Heilman-C, a harried, distracted blond, would leap into the action, keeping her clothes on while dancing with the naked women and simultaneously answering questions via radio headset. Video cameras also monitored the action, while projecting the proceedings on the wall. “It's part of an ongoing documentary she's doing about her audience and their reactions,” commented Heilman-C's manager.
What any of the hoopla had to do with concerns of contemporary art was unclear. Though references to pornography and blatant self-promotion are combined in the work of Lynda Benglis, Jeff Koons, Andres Serrano, Richard Hawkins and others, there is usually an attendant critique of, or commentary on, feminism, media, representation, appropriation or portraiture. High-quality strippers are available for viewing at countless venues, and their absorption into an art environment requires careful consideration – Vanessa Beecroft's recent event in the lobby of NYC's Guggenheim, which utilized bored, nude and nearly-nude models standing around in Gucci heels and underwear, was more reflective than titillating. But such consideration seemed to be lacking in this decadent performance. There's no doubt that spectators enjoy looking at naked girls, but does this necessarily qualify it as art?
“It's about women loving women, just like the title says,” said the artist to a group of rapt journalists, adding, “and it's about free love.”