9th June - 16th July 2016
Ellis King is pleased to present the solo debut of Los Angeles-based artist Nora Berman’s Charm, an exhibition of eight, outsize, two-sided painting objects that toy with the perverse power of fascination. Each object’s life as a charm, so to speak, originates from Berman’s lived experiences as creator and subject of their opposing facades. Each work has a distinct front and back, and composed in the haphazard constellation of this show, they eschew their directionality and play off of one another as yin and yang—embellished photographs of the artist, and opposite, expressive figurations beamed out via her mind, eye, and hand.
Photos of the artist mounted on stretchers form the foundation of one side. The snapshots were taken in and around her studio in Alhambra, California, a mix of suburbs and light industrial strips in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Downtown Los Angeles. The icon of the small city is a multi-story stucco arch built in 2010 as an homage to its namesake palace in the south of Spain. The arch, illuminated against a night sky and foregrounded by brushy botanicals, serves as a sort of establishing shot for photographic story that unfolds. It reappears in another image pointed up the artist’s skirt as her flash-blanched body twirls with abandon. Often spinning, in other pieces Berman offers images of herself abstracted or occluded, often by her own hand—a motif throughout the suite that toys with the polarity of push and pull between viewer and artwork, alternately inviting in and holding out.
The stylised candor of these shots, recall a documentary-style fashion editorial, which is intentional. Amateur photos of young artists have recently inspired a superficial, kneejerk rhetoric around ‘selfies’, which is not altogether accurate in this case. Berman has enlisted someone else to shoot her, rather exploitatively, as she poses—taking inspiration from a Japanese porn star whom privileges earnestness and personal style over graphic sexuality. (While previous works by Berman have doubled as sets for performances, the other vestiges of such that could be read into these works are these documented performances for camera). As if she were selling Lacoste in one shot, or chipped nail polish in another, there is an implicitly merchandised quality to the images that frustrated the power dynamics of what otherwise might appear to be a young woman objectified in her underwear. Rather than trying to promote the sale of herself through sexualized imagery, Berman casts herself as a vaguely employed model, taking sexy pictures to sell other commodities. Among them are more ineffable ones like romance, tourism, and youth culture, all tying back into the notion physicalized charms as mementos of being.
Berman has adorned and degraded these canvas prints with hand-drawn interventions; streaked oil stick, sprayed bleach, and stitched of yarn sewed into their facades. Most strikingly, on some the sewing spells out neologisms like DRAEDALIX (on the Alhambra arch up-skirt image) and KLYNX (written small, upon an outstretched finger as the image of the artist tumbles backwards into a Persian rug and overlaid bleach spiral). These made up words hover somewhere between onomatopoeia and instinctive meaning, invoking something like a Jewish dominatrix in the former, and breathing phonetic life into the spirit of fun in the latter. Berman relates these language games to the notion of jouissance, of the potent enjoyment that comes from free and at times disorienting, destabilizing play. Reading can be projected onto the art works on multiple registers, verbal and non-verbal, and in that reading the viewer can lose themselves as easily in an individual work as in the menagerie of panels.
The verso of these painting objects are wildly gestural, figuratively rooted works done in watered down ink with oil paint. With fewer hardcoded allusions than the photographic canvases, but the limitless inherent to abstract gesture, these distended faces and bodies afloat on fields of color, flora, astral energies, ribbons and flares operate as portals that both welcome and overwhelm. They are mirror counterpoints to their other halves, wrought with an improvisational intimacy that showcases mark making as an act of pure fetish—mainlining the literal forms of self-exploitative fetish on display elsewhere in the exhibition.
Taken as a whole, Berman’s first show at the gallery is a forest of totems to expressive freedom. Like a fun house or freak show or pages of a novel, viewers amble through the physical maze as an analog to psychological or transcendental ones, finding a path dictated by the frictions that capture their attention and propel them through a personal journey in conversation with the artist’s. These freestanding, corporealized images whose dueling faces ricochet off one another in a chorus of overtures of retreats, into a interior world externalized, governed by play and pleasure, confusion and reclaimed clarity.