Today BURNAWAY is pleased to present a creative piece on art and poetry by Alissa Nutting for our monthly column, Authors on Art, curated by Blake Butler.
Desirée Holman is the high abbess of the domestic creepy. Hers is a world of fantasy, role play, and dress-up; except, rather than conceal or deceive, the costumes of Holman’s design amplify the pretending human beneath. In her project Magic Window, she makes Leatherface-ish, flesh-colored masks with features inspired by the cast members of hit television programs Roseanne and The Cosby Show. Her actors then don these corpse-skins to enact hyperbolized family sitcom motions, complete with a great deal of dancing.
Clearly, these masks do not invite suspension of belief. Instead, as with the movie Lars and the Real Girl, the viewer understands the fantasy to be a delusion rather than an illusion. Here, Holman has the actors literally slip into the (albeit manufactured, thankfully) skin of another. We can see the ways the mask slips and bobs, the split neckline that delineates the costume.
Yet seeing the fantasy rendered with no attempts at realism sparks a crack in the windshield of make-believe. In Holman’s work, the fragile lines that distinguish reality and performance in our everyday lives become visible. Just how distinct are the differences between disguises we don for play and disguises we don for identity in our daily lives? Do we insist on this distinction to protect us from the fact that others might be able to see our inner selves more clearly than we wish: Masks of confidence can be just as visible as masks of costume. When I first saw this installation at San Francisco’s MOMA, it made me wish all my affectations, coping skills, orthodontic work, and makeup were a single tortoiseshell clutch, just so I could hold it to my chest and pretend that the ways I think I prevent people from actually seeing me, my exterior armor, was a real and tangible thing that could not be taken away. But I stood there and considered, or perhaps knew, that no, it wasn’t convincing at all. I am no different than Holman’s actors; I am an awkward girl with a weird latex mascot-face of a less-awkward girl sliding to and fro across my head like a hand-me-down Halloween costume. And as I watched myself on the screen in the gallery, I may or may not have let a miniscule stream of urine, so small as to be fully absorbed by my clothing and not visible to observers, pass from me in resignation of this truth.
But at their very core, Holman’s work is a convincing argument for the validity of the masquerade. If pretending is lying, I love Holman’s work because she’s such an honest liar. In her project Bucolic Life, bestowing herself with a mannequin husband and daughter, Holman takes her “family” to places like the zoo, dance class, and to sit on Santa’s lap. Inside a dance studio, her mannequin child wearing a tutu is juxtaposed with other living children wearing similar tutus. Holman cleverly poses the mannequins so that their faces — instant giveaways — are turned away from the camera. It takes the eye a moment to catch the deceit, question the hair, and confirm the glossy plastic skin as artificial. Once this is detected, the acorn of “why” splits open, and the viewer is exposed to the possibilities of fantasy. The fantasy on its own, taken to its fullest possible potential isn’t always a wish towards realization; sometimes it’s fulfilling by itself.
I do not want to be committed, so I’ll refrain from elucidating the many ways I was not, as a child, a good doll mother. But I loved playing with dolls. I put speedball-sized amounts of baby powder into their diapers then spanked them repeatedly so big clouds of white dust would come out. I cut their hair to its plastic-plug roots then used Vaseline to style the straggling wisps into flaccid combovers. Never did this translate into actually thinking about having my own living baby. I just liked to play. Holman embraces this desire to pretend while also acknowledging that imitation can be a natural response to voids of all kinds — particularly those voids instilled through a desire to replicate what the mainstream media espouses as normal.
Part of my elation with her work stems from the fact that “Hey! Something is off here!” is not the surprise punchline. It is clearly written on the work’s surface like a HELLO MY NAME IS _________ badge, and for good reason. Her project Troglodyte includes people in overtly shabby chimpanzee costumes smoking cigarettes or gyrating before a screensaver-esque picture of waterfalls. Her recent work Reborn includes women in bikinis dancing lasciviously while wearing realistic baby dolls in slings around their chests. Of course the dancing women are veiled, and of course the cultural implications made are manifold, but this also reinforces the revelation-through-concealment pattern: Holman’s broadest and most poignant statement is that we as individuals put on masks in order to better see inside ourselves.
Alissa Nutting is the author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, released in 2010 from Starcherone Books. She also appears in a recent anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, which was attacked on Amazon for ‘glorifying cannibalism.’ Alissa lives in Las Vegas.
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