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Writer Sarah Nicole Prickett, who co-founded an erotic mag with no straight men on the editorial team, was unapologetic in her ArtForum coverage of Art Basel Miami. She dismissed the high-grossing (male) artists who acted like they didn’t know what their paintings went for and, when describing a performance gone grimy–Mykki Blanco throwing bits of sandwich—she started to worry, in writing, about her newly dry-cleaned, discounted Jil Sander dress. She was the fiercely critical professional worried about prettinesss, and openly admitted to it.
I thought of Prickett and prettiness when viewing Saline Communion, the two-person show currently on view at Harmony Murphy Gallery. In the first room, fleshy, rippled fabric stitched together and stretched across a wooden frame looks like a Courtney Love slip dress; the kind she wore in the nineties. It’s been flattened, but signs of unruly bustiness remain in the folds. This work hangs above an overturned stoneware vessel–brown, ribbed exterior, shiny aluminum interior—resting on a creamy yellow towel. It reminds me of a guest bathroom, a “private” space meant to be seen. The artist calls the towel-and-vessel installation Self-Portrait. Across the room, a glossier stretched fabric piece hangs near an authoritative, rough-edged triangular totem. Harder elegance and punk softness cohabitate throughout.
It’s not exactly necessary to know who’s authored which works in Saline Communion. The artists, Erica Mahinay and Kathryn O’Halloran, are former Cranbrook MFA classmates. The exhibition can be experienced as a conversation between friends with compatible sensibilities—a line in the press release pokes at the cult of personality still so prominent in the art world. It’s not that the show is about friendship, certainly not in any sweet way; it’s more like friendship is a tool to be used like any other, a more tangible material.
Outside the gallery, on a pile of rocks, is an off-kilter bathroom sink with a seashell-shaped basin and sand-covered faucet that barely drips. The only full-on collaboration between Mahinay and O’Halloran in the show, this altered found object, is a modish water source suited to an equally modish and drought-stricken ecosystem. Some aspects of the sink remind me of “hipster minimalism,” a term I started using a few years ago, when so many newly-minted MFAs were showing seemingly off-the-cuff objects, that had been suavely pared down: the slacker artist who’s also a Robert Morris acolyte. But in context of the show, rather, the sink installation embraces stylishness while poking fun at high culture solipsism.
The stylish ball-buster approach puts O’Halloran and Mahinay in conversation with a larger group of relatively young, mostly well-educated women with careers in arts and letters. It includes artist April Street, who stretches nylon she’s actually worn across frames in bodily but highly composed ways, and artist Rosha Yaghmai, whose sculptures are experiments with performance, boldness and delicacy. Then there’s Emily Gould and Angela Ledgerwood, pleasantly soft-spoken New York writers, who recently started the podcast LitUp, where they often talk to and about other women. Gould has contributed to Women in Clothes, a project by Heidi Julavits, Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton where women discuss self-presentation and style. While the lineage is evident, these women aren’t of the confessional-is-subversive generation that Chris Kraus or Tracey Emin belonged to. They’re part of our current moment: where being not-male remains a market disadvantage, but professionalism is expected of all genders equally. So how can we question ourselves—allowing for vulnerability, femininity—while compelling others to treat us as professionals?
The question is open, and unresolved, in Saline Communion. At times, the dance between elegance and vulnerability feels more dubious: in the series of still life oil paintings, for instance, where Mahinay documented a Los Feliz pool as its reflective, blue-green surface changed over the course of a day. Her work is an exercise in durational attention, like Lee Lozano’s Waves: paintings done in single sittings. The impulse to learn how hyper-disciplined work can relate to lived experiences and to appearances makes sense here. But the repeated pool motif—an L.A. cliché—makes the paintings somehow less canny than other works in the show.
In the same gallery where the pool paintings hang is O’Halloran’s sculpture, Infinite Solitude, which looks like a piece of furniture with unknown function. A white, bumpy, shoulder-high rectangle with open sides, it has two mirrors inside that reflect only itself. Looking into the mirrors on tiptoes, or from unnatural angles, can deliver some interesting views of the object’s planes and quirks. On the wall directly behind it, Mahinay’s tan, translucent canvas looks more like skin than others in the show, its seams more like scars. The piece is attractive and tight, an exploration in being exposed, under-control and unapologetically worked over at once. It has it all—for she who wants having it all to look as complicated as it does seductive.
Saline Communion runs May 2–June 27, 2015 at Harmony Murphy Gallery (679 S Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles 90021).