True Confessions

John Haber
in New York City

Andrea Fraser, Hannah Starkey, and Jana Leo

Art as true confession has a long history, even before expressionism and action painting. A typical history of the English novel finds its origin in Pamela and then Clarissa, each the diary of a young woman. Each takes its heroine's crises so slowly that they appear to unfold like a video, in real time. I never made it through either one from start to finish. No one sticks through most video art either.

Of course, these diaries are fictions—tales of what Pamela calls virtue rewarded. So for that matter is their female point of view. Still, Samuel Richardson's invention has had staying power. Novels also quickly became a woman's way of finding her own voice. With art's latest "madwomen in the attic," too, piecing out the truth gets trickier than ever. An intimate revelation may reveal only the viewer's hunger to know. Andrea Fraser's Projection (Friedrich Petzel, 2009)

The phrase in quotes adapts a 1979 classic in feminist criticism, by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar—but you knew that. (If it is not obvious, their title refers to the plot of Jane Eyre.) It sure seems to apply to Andrea Fraser, who recreates her therapy session in alarmingly confined spaces. It seems remote from Hannah Starkey, whose photographs appear to capture ordinary women with their guard down, on the streets of an anonymous city. It seems downright malevolent to apply it to Jana Leo, who painstakingly documents her trauma as a rape victim. One does not often have so much to sort out—or so frank an invitation to do so.

At least it seems that way. Fraser's only therapist, on a facing projection, is herself. Starkey has staged her street photography. Leo reconstructs the police investigation as the viewer's investigation, while she hands over the evidence in person, one sheet at a time. Someone is watching these amazingly frank confessions, you. And the artist is looking over your shoulder while you do your best to take them in.

Session player

In another recent installation, Sophie Calle copes with a breakup in grand style, to say the least. Calle shares it with over a hundred collaborators, a legendary New York dealer, the Venice Biennale, and anyone else who will listen. Art like this gives new meaning to "relational esthetics," as in the show "Take Me (I'm Yours)." Of course, she could just have forgotten the whole thing and gone into therapy. Or maybe Calle's art is group therapy, with an unwieldy group.

If so, the overworked therapist will find relief from Andrea Fraser. The twin projections in Projection tune out any distractions. They fill the walls at both ends of a long, narrow gallery with much the same image: in each, the artist is seated against a totally black background. She wears the same hair style, short tights, and black tank top in both. How straightforward and natural—and how confining.

At any given moment, the room divides neatly into two spaces of ordinary dimensions. At any given moment, too, the second party has otherwise vanished. The shifts emphasize the artifice, while they put Fraser in collusion with herself against outsiders. She does not just make art out of therapy, her therapy. She plays both patient and psychologist. The viewer had better not expect a quick cure.

At one end, Fraser gropes for words as she shrinks into the preposterously large, curvy lounge chair. Its dated style all but shouts psychoanalysis. At the other, she speaks confidently, with every word and gesture an accusation. Although a voice occasionally speaks up in reply, Fraser pretty much conducts a monologue—and an unsettling one for those who think that therapists should guide and not lecture. One image fades out after a few minutes, just as the other fades in. It also traps the viewer in the middle.

Instead of a costume drama, with gallery-goers safely in the audience, she offers a confrontation and a virtuoso performance. But what exactly is she confronting? Fraser claims to have used her own therapy for a script, although several schools of therapy might argue about the ethics of recording a session. In fact, the whole work turns on the "observer effect"—and what that says about the function of art for its observers. Fraser presses herself hard on-screen about what she is investing, or projecting, in her art. Is she looking to art for emotional rescue, where she ought to be looking to herself?

She is surely asking the same question about Chelsea. Obviously Freudian interpretations of art have a long history, and so do Freudian or Lacanian interpretations of the origins of art. Jackson Pollock had his Jungian phase, and Postmodernism has ridiculed painting as self-expression. In her tank-top, Fraser does her best to invite the male gaze—and to pounce on it. With her sequence of scenes, without clear beginning or endpoint, she also invites one to consider her art as therapy while denying an outcome. Or am I only projecting?

Window shades

Hannah Starkey allows her subjects their personal space, and then she violates it. A shopkeeper looks out the window—one arm crossing her waist, the other raised to her shoulder. The woman dresses simply but well, and her hair falls where it will. She might be pensive, self-possessed, or bored. She may or may not expect customers any time soon, but she will see them before they see her. Yet the photographer is looking, and so now are others.

Hannah Starkey's Untitled (February 2009) (Tanya Bonakdar, 2009)All Starkey's subjects are women, most often protected and violated by solitude, a window, and the hint of a city beyond it. The shoes at the shopkeeper's feet belong to her, mock her, and define her, like leftovers from Sex and the City. So do the reflections in the glass—the imposing entrance to a bank or offices, flanked by an ornate column bearing a bird or winged victory. They imply a male world out there, even though she and the photographer are its only life forms. On the adjacent storefront, cartoon eyeglasses similarly reduce the male gaze to a logo. Amid all these reflections, the woman could just as well be standing outside looking in.

The large photographs all have a female subject and a window. Like the fourth wall of a stage, it converts a standing portrait into a performance. A young woman in close-up looks elusive enough through a blue translucent curtain. A pregnant woman alone in a cafeteria looks perplexed by her own belly. Another woman shrinks behind window blinds, while also pushing them aside to stare out. As an elderly woman hurries past a black male, their lack of eye-contact becomes explicit, and yet the camera denies their lack of interest.

It takes time to sort out the reflections and spaces. It takes longer still to spot the secondary cast, like another heroic or leering statue—this time of a centaur. The additions may seem to characterize the leading lady, like the shopkeeper's shoes or fallen leaves behind the older woman. They also seem like painted overlays, like the poster of a clown or the many-colored reflections on window blinds. Each photograph offers a sudden, unexpected glimpse of life, like the staged self-revelations from Cindy Sherman. Each photograph, too, makes solitude into the fabric of a city.

A second room continues the theme of public and private lives. It has smaller photos, with much less going on. Their women all stand outdoors and in close-up. Some of these women, too, present an optical barrier—but of sunglasses. They, too, also occupy a stage, if only a narrow one. It has only one wall, for women to pose in front of it or to rush past.

One might as well rush by another British photographer, downstairs in the gallery's main space. Phil Collins says that his shots represent Aspen, Colorado, and a culture changed by immigrants. In practice, the skinheads, dowdy women, and stills from a soap opera look transplanted from London, and they also look stagier than Starkey at her worst. Her small photographs look more casual than her large ones, to the point of boring. Still, they continue individual lives and the lives of cities. Peeling paint, posters, or graffiti on the wall behind can amplify a woman's allure or arrest her in flight.

The investigation

I cannot write about Jana Leo without giving the lie to her experience—and, just as important, to yours. Oh, sure, people say that all the time about critics. I am not, however, talking about an art beyond words. Her show is all about words, document after document of them, with herself as their "archivist" and gatekeeper. Rather, I am in the position of giving spoilers to a crime story. To make matters worse, the artist is still in search of an ending, and that, too, is part of the work.

Eight years ago, Leo was raped at gunpoint in her West Harlem apartment. Then came a hospital examination, an arrest, a guilty plea, and a successful suit against her landlord. A photographer with a PhD in philosophy, she began almost instinctively to document the events. She has since obsessively collected the evidence, so obsessively that she displays correspondence with her lawyer requesting it. It includes boxes and boxes of papers, but also audio or video of the police investigation, the landlord's testimony, a therapist's report, and even a Euro-pop song she composed about it all. One may ask to examine any of it, one piece and only one piece at a time.

It is a grueling experience—starting with signing a waiver, displaying photo ID, and standing for a photograph like a crime victim or suspect. It has to be, when one is reading about this crime or staring at photographs of a bruised vagina. It has to be, too, when one must choose between lingering over someone else's suffering or turning away from it, all under her eyes. It has to be grueling for her, too, and the performance ran for just a week. All that is very much to the point. The work is about the indifference or complicity of others when it comes to rape, the demeaning scrutiny that follows, and the tendency to turn away.

It is also about the need to work through things, to share them with others, and to reclaim ownership, much as for Calle or Chantal Akerman. It invites analogies to art as therapy or, conversely, art as cold, clinical dissection of human lives. The records end with her account of the events and of rape in society, with New York as its "mecca." This leads to still another point—the difficulty of making sense of this or any experience. Without her summing up, one might never figure out how the police caught the rapist or why Leo sued the landlord. As I say, I have already given her tale the lie, by trying to make sense of it.

So, in a sense, has the artist. On the one hand, she points to the fragmentation of perception and the need to create narratives in order to understand. She shows the subjectivity of her needs and her point of view, as in the number of photographs of her with her boyfriend. I am not a criminologist, but I doubt that statistics make New York the mecca of rape. On the other hand, the work seems to insist on its truth—her truth. She has the evidence to prove it.

The contradictions enter into the performance. One needs to request any one document, but one can first see them all in reproduction in a single bound volume. It would take too long otherwise, and besides one would have no idea what to request. The viewer's multiple roles may not make as much sense as I wanted, too. I could feel tensions and divided loyalties, without being quite sure what they were. Perhaps she and the viewer must find out together.

BACK to John's arts home page

Andrea Fraser ran at Friedrich Petzel through June 13, 2009, Hannah Starkey and Phil Collins at Tanya Bonakdar through June 20, and Jana Leo at Invisible-Exports through July 3.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME