CHICAGO – It didn’t take much to get a bunch of strangers at a press meet up to come to Chanel Von Habsburg Lothringen’s opening last weekend. One look at her invite for “Seduced and Abandoned” at Boyfriends, which leads with a photograph of a couple wearing lingerie and a creepy, featureless mask, and pretty much everyone wanted to get the story. What was that work anyway?
Even after having seen the show, that answer remains unclear. Why do all the models in these photographs wear masks? No idea, but I have a feeling it has something to do with a desire to remove all clues that would place the work within a specific time period.
Lothringen mentions this desire in her artist statement, but it also becomes clear after spending time with the eerily uncanny work. Her compositions are derived from 1970’s advertisements, but the final images don’t seem to be peddling anything more specific then themselves. Take for example, “Clueless Mom Possibilities” which casts a young women wearing a yellow and white checked dress suit in the foreground while an enlarged image of an older women wearing the same dress fills the entire background. It looks like ad staging, but for what?
In another photograph titled “Grannyboo” Lothringen positions her grandmother in the same pose as seemingly countless Oil of Olay ads, but replaces a blank backdrop with patterning that matches her grandmother’s shirt. The composition is very similar to “Clueless Mom”, but in this case, the ad more clearly informs the photograph. Until I identified a possible ad match, looking at the piece felt a little like trying to identify an old song I knew without any of the lyrics or music at hand. Trying to name the reference can drive a person mad.
Ultimately, though, those specific references don’t matter. The point isn’t to puzzle over the pictures, but to simply let them unsettle you. And oddly enough, this tactic seems increasingly popular amongst some contemporary artists. Narsisster and Rona Yefman also use masks in their work for similar affect, though in both those cases there seems to be a greater desire to explore identity. Here, the point seems to be to erase it, which may be why the work feels so unsettling. These pictures aren’t archetypal, nor do they take a particular point of view. If anything they seem to depict a kind of directionless consumerism, which in the context of the booming art world, may actually be a critical statement.