Sunday, December 21, 2008

Six Shooter Films

Originally published in the holiday issue of SOMA.

Six Shooter Film Series: Bending, Perhaps Even Breaking International Genre-Driven Cinema
By Jesi Khadivi

Feeling broody? Go see a cop film. Want to sleep with your lights on for a week? Check out the latest Saw movie or any of its myriad spin-offs. There’s an appropriate film genre for whatever emotion you’re looking to elicit. Historically produced on the cheap to screen as opening pictures for bigger budget fare, genre films have expanded into a multi-million dollar industry with fans hungry for the next installment of their favorite superhero or slasher flick.

It wasn’t always so banal, however. The seminal French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema extolled the virtues of directors like Nicholas Ray (Larger than Life/Rebel Without a Cause) and Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho/The Byrds). The budding critics of Cahiers, soon to make their names as French New Wave directors in the 1960s, discovered the (not so) hidden existential poetry of the bleak film noir genre in the dark and smoky cine clubs of Paris. At its best, pulp has the uncanny ability to expose cultural zeitgeist. Noirs and detective films showed these young Frenchmen the darker side of the post-war American psyche. Despite the sea of schlock out there, the past decade’s surge in independent filmmaking has contributed to an expansion of media literacy. MTV has aped the techniques of French New Wave icon Godard for years and Quentin Tarantino, the post-modern film-mix tape-compiler himself, mines the traditions of Blaxploitation, Noir, New Wave, and Kung Fu to create the heady mélange of films like Kill Bill and Jackie Brown. The demand for intellectual genre cinema is growing. Always a step ahead of the pack, Magnolia Pictures aims to fill the educated demand for intelligent genre pictures with their Six Shooter Series, restoring the exquisitely moody, character- driven quality of the genre films of yore to the big screen.

The brain child of Tom Quinn, Magnolia’s dynamic head of acquisitions, the series was a labor of love for the production company. As its name suggests, six international films were chosen for the series: Let The Right One In (Sweden), Special (United States), Time Crimes (Spain), Donkey Punch (Britain), Eden Log (France), and Big Man in Japan (you guessed it, Japan). The series is organized in the tradition of the famed Shooting Gallery, an innovative former NYC-based production company and film series that brought us indie favorites like Sling Blade and A Time For Drunken Horses. “Some of the most exciting, forward-thinking cinema today falls under the genre label and deserves a showcase,” says Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles. The Six Shooter is intended as a platform to distribute some of these bold experimentations. The relative simplicity of the films in this series is perhaps their boldest innovation. Eschewing the pyrotechnics of many Hollywood movies, the films featured in the Six Shooter series take on a more contemplative and intellectual tone without sacrificing a whit of entertainment value.

The first film in the series, the award winning Swedish vampire film, Let The Right One In, was released on October 24thin New York and Los Angeles. Receiving nearly universal critical acclaim, the surprisingly tender story of a tortured young boy and his relationship with the 12 year old vampire next-door deftly encapsulates the radical potential of this latest crop of genre pictures: It’s smart, emotive, and though the film can be graphic, it doesn’t rely on violence to drive the narrative. Director Tomas Alfredson revels in what he calls the “unequivocal Swedishness” of his film, depicting the trauma of adolescence and the sensuality of violence with a rigorous attention to detail.

Les, the self-loathing, comic book obsessed traffic cop in Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore’s film Special, becomes convinced he is a super hero after participating in a clinical trial for “Specioprin Hydrochloride,” a drug intended to curtail the chemicals that produce self-doubt.. He stalks through anonymous streets and alleyways in Los Angeles, attacking innocent people that he imagines have committed crimes. Keeping with Magnolia’s unorthodox distribution methods, Special premiered as a VOD (video on demand) on HD Net in early November prior to its theatrical release later that month. (Back in 2006, Steven Soderbergh’s film Bubble was released simultaneously on DVD, HDTV and in the theaters).

While the time-traveling premise of the Spanish thriller, Time Crimes (dir. Nacho Vigalondo), is fantastical, the scariest and most compelling moments in the film come from the small, psychological gestures. Who knew that a man with a pink bandage-wrapped head miming holding a pair of binoculars could be so terrifying?

The new year will bring the British slasher-thriller Donkey Punch (dir.Oliver Blackburn), a story about 7 Euro party animals forced to duke it out after a freak death on a party yacht in the Mediterranean. In February, Eden Log(dir. Franck Vestiel), a French sci-fi horror flick about a man who awakens in a cave to find himself pursued by a mysterious monster will be released. Followed by Big Man Japan (dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto) in March, the funniest film of the bunch, a kitschy, super hero film in the tradition of Asian slapstick like Kung-Fu Hustle. Like many of the films in the series, Big Manconflates the fantastical and the everyday. “It’s a mock doc about an ordinary Japanese man who will hop into purple underpants to battle Godzilla type monsters,” Quinn explains.

With Let the Right One In and Time Crimes garnering rave reviews (both are already slated for English language remakes), things are looking good for the Six Shooter Series. While online film critics and Fantastic Festival patrons started the buzz, many of the films in the series are finding cross-over success in the art film market. Is another series from Magnolia/Magnet in the works? “If we can find the films, we’ll do it,” Quinn laughs, “but we’re not limited to six. We could do the Five Furious Fingers of Film. Or the Seven Samurai of Cinema."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mungo Thomson @ the Hammer

Originally published in the December/January issue of Artweek.

Mungo Thomson
Hammer Projects
By Jesi Khadivi

Taken as a whole, Mungo Thomson’s oeuvre has the deceptive simplicity and humor of a Zen koan. His conversational works filter popular imagery, folkloric tradition, and conceptual art practice through an emphatically Californian insouciance. Works like The American Desert (for Chuck Jones), a mash-up of Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons presented at the High Desert Test Site in Joshua Tree and Silent Film of a Tree Falling in the Forest (the title says it all) combine meditative investigations of space and landscape with an incredibly goofy (and at times downright corny) pop sensibility. Some of Thomson’s early work evokes the wickedly funny Italian conceptualist, Maurizio Cattelan. Tapestry (2004), a woven Ecuadorian wool rug is emblazoned with political slogans that are both insightful (Why are peace activists so violent?) and cracked (Kerry is Bin Laden’s/Bush is Mine). Between Projects (2001), a sculptural installation consisting of a dozen handmade pencils embedded in the ceiling of the exhibition space is hilarious because of the absence it evokes: a bored office worker casually winging pencils at the ceiling like darts. But Thomson isn’t all fun and games. He presented the deathly still Wind Chimes, six sets of charred garden variety wind chimes, in Red Wind, a group exhibition about the enigmatic and quasi-mystical Santa Ana winds. The work’s pared down simplicity and latent possibility encapsulated the dread and precariousness of the mythic winds better than any other work in the exhibition.

Thomson recently exhibited a variant of his ongoing Negative Space project in the Hammer Museum lobby through Hammer curator (and long time Cattelan collaborator), Ali Subotnik. Keeping with his history of experimenting with ambient sounds and sparse gallery installation, Thomson downloaded photos of the M74 and NGC 3370 galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and inverted them in Photoshop to create an photographic mural. The swirling, bubbling depiction of space debris elicits the tensions between positive and negative, fullness and void, verisimilitude and fancy. He leaves room for humor with the ambient loops that accompany the mural (he changes the frequency of whale calls so they sound like birds and vice versa).Thomson says that the project “came out of reflecting on the color of nothing; in outer space the void is black, and in the art context the void – the empty gallery – is always white.” Art work that interrogates its gallery context is as old as Marcel Duchamp’s 1,200 Bags of Coal (1938), if not older, and Thomson does nothing new by calling our attention to this. He succeeds, however, because Negative Space thrives in liminal, almost forgotten spaces: hallways, stair cases, and overhangs—making transitional spaces a locus of infinite possibility.

Chop Shop

Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani creates a world alive with the textures of the outer boroughs in his second feature film, Chop Shop. The young protagonist, an enterprising street orphan named Ale (Alejandro Polanco), lives and works in a shady auto repair shop in Willets Point, Queens in order to secure a future for himself and his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), a lithe young woman prone to secretive relationships and nocturnal assignations. Ale knows how to hustle. He steals hubcaps, hawks bootleg DVDs, and works long hours at the auto shop, all the while squirreling money away in a rusty tin to save up for a catering van that will keep his sister close to him and be their ticket out of abject poverty.
Though he inhabits a child’s body, he clearly lives in a man’s world. Ale’s quest for material and emotional transcendence is rendered with an emotional acuity that is never saccharine. He lives in the shadows of the furthest reaches of New York society without the anchors of family, school, or creature comforts, and though forced by necessity to labor like a man, he reaps none of the benefits of inclusion in the adult world. Polanco channels this anxiety into a taut, energized performance that mingles the carefree joie de vivre of youth with the grim determination of a pre-teen faced with adult responsibilities too young. The rush of the hustle, chaos of the streets, and hurt Ale feels from being cast to the periphery of the grown-up world is viscerally articulated throughout the film. Despite this strong undercurrent of sadness, a feeling of hopefulness prevails.
Keeping with the tradition of contemporary Iranian realist cinema, Chop Shop explores the textures of place and the redemptive bonds of family. Willets Point’s swirl of pigeon keepers, mechanics, lunch trucks, and elevated trains is a playground as much as a prison for Ale and Isamar. Bahrani never pities his characters; instead he imbues them with soulful humanity and presents them as willful dreamers rather than victims of their circumstance. Even in the depths of disappointment they can depend on each other to pull through.

If I am Missing or Dead

Orginally published in Ins & Outs.

By Janine Latus | Simon & Schuster 2008 | $15.00 | 336 pages

“I didn't want to do it, but you made me," Janine Latus’s boyfriend says after brutally beating her on a ski vacation. These ten simple words are practically synonymous with abusive relationships. It is a verbal trap so common that it borders on clichéd, yet it is one of the most distilled expressions of the perverse logic that drives abuse: the aggressor’s desire for absolution from blame and the victim’s search for whatever misdeed could make their loved one so cruel to them. Journalist Janine Latus skillfully explores the rhetoric of abuse in loose, lean prose in her gripping memoir, If I Am Missing or Dead. The book tells the story of Latus and her younger sister Amy, both charming, bright women who continuously choose domineering, abusive partners. Latus finally leaves her husband in the spring of 2002 after over a decade of marriage. Amy isn’t so lucky. Years after successfully leaving one abusive marriage, she is murdered by her boyfriend, a con artist rodeo cowboy named Ron Ball.
Despite the heart wrenching nature of her story, Latus doesn’t leave room for self-pity or florid depictions of abuse and redemption, no small feat considering that these stylistic flourishes are staples of the genre. Instead, she adroitly mines her history of abuse to expose the roots of her cycle of violence in a sensitive, non-sensational manner. Growing up in the pre-feminist Midwest, Latus is saddled with an imperious, lewd father who belittles his children, and she is subject to myriad unwelcome advances by older men. The narrative arc is structured like an abusive relationship itself; her father’s lecherousness and husband’s control issues are introduced into the narrative with little fanfare. Fleeting details are dropped like a warning sign that could be easily overlooked, like her father’s hand grazing her leg for a fraction of a second too long or the daily “weigh in” with her husband, until they spiral out of control pages hence, and her father is sidling up to one of her friends trying to cop a feel or her husband is monitoring her clothing and Body Mass Index. How one chooses to internalize power or perceived lack of it lies at the heart of this unflinching, evocative story that evokes the claustrophobia of infinitely regressive abusive relationships. It reminds its readers that all victims of abuse have agency, without succumbing to the moralization of a cautionary tale.


Hung Liu @ Walter Maciel

My review of Hung Liu @ the Walter Maciel Gallery was published by The Magazine. Check it out online or find it at a local LA gallery or newstand.

Hung Liu
Rat Years 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996 2008
Walter Maciel Gallery
2642 S. La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles
(310) 839-1840

Rat Years 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996 2008

Chinese astrology is organized in twelve-year cycles. Each year is named after an animal, and each animal has symbolic associations believed to shape the tenor of the year.

Chinese-American artist Hung Liu was born in the year of the rat, an animal the Chinese associate with prosperity, order, aggression, war, death, and pestilence. Now in her sixth rat year, Liu has significantly shifted her focus inward for an exhibition of self-portraits, a marked departure from the meta-historical portraiture and abstract work she is best known for. Each piece is painted from a photograph taken during a rat year and accompanied by a digitally rendered painting of a drawing made at the age she was in the portrait. While the formula of pairing self-portraits with old drawings is simple, in this case it works. Liu's formal mastery lends her paintings a distinctive gravity. Painted on unprimed linen, the brushstrokes evoke the sketchy quality of a graphite drawing. When combined with the rich colors she uses to offset small details (a cape, scarf, or brooch), a dazzling play of textures ensues.

Though her self-portraits are intimate and compelling, Liu's Rat King series steals the show. A rat king is a mythic group of rats that live their entire lives bound together by their tangled tails, cemented by dirt, blood, and excrement. Liu began thinking of the folkloric rat colonies in the wake of the earthquake that decimated the Sichuan Province shortly before her trip to Beijing this year. The pastel-hued Rat King II is practically transcendental. Tails delicately twist together like a bouquet, the pale, half-erased rats seem like they are being beckoned to a spirit world. Rat King 1, on the other hand, is a broody, realistic depiction of a rat king preserved at the scientific museum, Mauritianum, in Altenburg, Germany. The image is darkly beguiling and violent, evoking myriad situations where humans are trapped by their conditions, whether political, social, or environmental.
by Jesi Khadivi

Monday, December 8, 2008

Lari Pittman

My review of the Lari Pittman exhibition at Barbara Gladstone in Whitehot Magazine.

LA based artist, Lari Pittman, presents exuberant large-scale paintings in his third show at the Gladstone Gallery. His new body of work is a compelling twist on the tradition of vanitas paintings, 17th century Northern European symbolic still-lives that explore (among other things) man’s mortality and the fleeting impermanence of life’s pleasures. Unlike his Dutch and Flemish brethren, however, there is little room for somberness in Pittman’s paintings. The implied morality in Pittman’s work goes over like a firecracker rather than a lead balloon. On first glance, the paintings are garish. Like a design you would see on a suburban craft fair patron’s t-shirt. The colors are jolting and the iconography is mystifying. Pittman’s densely layered paintings borrow heavily from Pop (think James Rosenquist), tribal art (batik and Thai shadow puppets seem to be an inspiration), and graffiti art. Nonetheless, a bizarre unity begins to coalesce after a few moments with his work. In Untitled #14 a humanoid rabbit-type figure scales a pyramid festooned with delicately hatched patterns towards a shimmering star. A swollen rain/tear drop hangs delicately by a thread from the top of the painting. Bulbous fruits, and I use the word fruit lightly, are interspersed throughout the bottom of the composition, while intestinal looking piping twists throughout the image. The end result is a highly symbolic illustrative style with a Rube Goldbergian quirkiness. Untitled #7 shares some of the iconography of Untitled #2. Translucent layers of highly detailed patterns are painted atop each other. The shadow figures and dripping water remain, yet urns and fried eggs are added to the mix.

In Pittman’s hands, the anxious uncertainty of the vanitas painting is retooled into a celebration of life’s impermanence chock full of stylistic and multi-cultural references. The delicacy with which he paints his bubbles and urns are a paean to life’s possibilities rather than a portent of its brevity.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Camera Ephemera @ Found Gallery

Originally published in the November issue of Whitehot

Polaroid photography is a loaded, over saturated territory. Vice Magazine and NYC enfant terrible Dash Snow, have popularized the genre via images of waifish chicks flashing their tits and strung out hipster guys blowing rails, brawling, and fucking. The raw immediacy of these images holds some appeal, but they lack sensitivity of artists like Nan Goldin and Ryan McGinley who document countercultural groups (that they belong to) without flaunting or pandering. The Vice Magazine Polaroid aesthetic has more in common with hip hop’s tradition of bragging and boasting than Goldin or McGinley’s penetrating snapshots. Staging bacchanalian rabble rousing for the camera is amusing, but quickly becomes tiresome. The compulsion to document oneself constantly underscores the possibility for counter culture to mutate into what journalist Douglas Harder calls “a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum.”

Ashley Tibbits’ first curatorial foray at Found Gallery is an effort to reclaim the Polaroid.Camera Ephemera attempts to reinstate the medium’s capacity for tenderness. “For many, such pictures are tied closely to memories of childhood, of family. Perhaps we realize that the physicality of holding a precious image in your hand might be a feeling as increasingly obsolete as the medium itself,’ Tibbits writes in her statement for the exhibition. She presents a wide range of approaches in this nine person show. “I didn’t want it to be a line of Polaroids on the wall,” she explains, “I wanted to show the different directions you could take the medium.” And she does. Camera Ephemera showcases 9 distinct photographic visions. Tibbits presents a series of self portraits of herself and an anonymous cut out figure enacting sweet, mundane routines. Clearly a paean to a distant (or past) love, the piece is cheekily endearing. Calethea deCanto’s warm, blurry photographs mounted on wood conjure up Maya Deren’s experimental film masterpiece, Meshes of the Afternoon, with its poetic evocation of inner experience.David Louang’s taut sun burnished portraits and interiors are clear indicators of the nostalgia and inherent melancholia Tibbits described in her curatorial statement. Joshua Wysocki’s framed landscapes are the most straight forward of the bunch, but his clear eye for structure and color make them one of the exhibitions stand-outs.

Despite their current ubiquity in underground art exhibitions and fashion/lifestyle mags, there are no solipstic party shots in the exhibtion.

What does Tibbits think about the popular bawdy boys club aesthetic of Vice? “Don’t even get me started about them,” she says and takes a sip of her coffee.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Digitial Issue of Fabrik

The new digital issue of Fabrik is online featuring Information at the Signal, my interview with Ed Ruscha! Check it out here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Julian Hoeber

Published in the November issue of ArtWeek

Julian Hoeber: All That is Solid Melts Into Air
Blum & Poe
September 6th through October 18th
By Jesi Khadivi

In Sartre’s seminal existential novel Nausea, a young historian is cast into conceptual upheaval when inanimate objects and everyday situations suddenly become alien and menacing, thus beginning an odyssey of dissolution, despair, and ultimately a revelatory reexamination of the nature of being. Julian Hoeber’s third solo exhibition at Blum and Poe, a meditation on psychology and nausea entitled All That is Solid Melts into Air, contains a kernel of this anxiety, but there is no crybabying over the fractured psyche; the crisis of fragmentation is instead embraced and cheekily explored through art historical bricolage. Hoeber’s Op inspired drawings and eviscerated bronze cast heads stylistically diverge from the visceral gore of his slasher influenced films and photographs, but his trademark dark humor shines through the coy restraint of his new body of work.

The works on paper exhibit a mélange of influences-- Abstract Expressionism, Outsider Art, Pop, and Conceptual Art references all elbow up against one another. Blue and red lines zip vertically through Ab Ex, while gouache erasures of the concentric circular pattern creates a rippling effect. I Don’t Care…, an Op send up of Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, is a taut example of Sartre’s “sweetish sickness.” It’s the most successful of Hoeber’s attempts at optical illusion and its reference to drowning is something many Americans can relate to given the current mortgage and banking crisis. Whether intentional or not, Hoeber’s persistent Op spirals and bronze heads riddled with puncture wounds are chillingly evocative of the economy’s downward spiral and our seemingly endless state of military engagement. A litany of anxieties could be ascribed to the work, but the artist does not explicitly articulate any. Hoeber’s work engages with malaise from a distance and functions more as an exploration of angst than an overwrought expression of it.

Hoeber flexes his latent gore muscles in a series of “shot, beaten, and bitten” bronze busts on mirrored pedestals which are equally as illusory as the drawings. While the heads have been brutally pummeled and pumped full of lead, for the most part their faces are curiously dispassionate, as if they were killed during a moment of meditative contemplation or sexual ecstasy. The classical presentation and rarified material deny the adrenaline that could be derived from a more active representation of violence, yet (even more creepily) allow the material results of brutality to be appreciated at an aesthetic distance.

The artist clearly embraces what he calls “postmodern silliness.” In his artist statement he proudly proclaims himself a “tube” that has “eaten up all that dead stuff. Cooked it. Chewed it up and made some shit out of it…chewed up history, digested it and pushed out something which although stinking a little of death, has a certain whole synthesized, digested quality.” Lest we get too bogged down in high mindedness, it’s important to remember that Hoeber can be funny. Really funny. In his drawing Stupid Face, the glowering visage of an aging hipster hovers over yet another concentric circle and several works on paper have a knowingly juvenile fixation on breasts. Yet his work succeeds not because of his clowning, but because aesthetic and cultural rigor are conflated with jocularity.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Information at the Signal

My interview with Ed Ruscha is on the cover of the latest issue of Fabrik. Check out the magazine here until I can figure out a way to embed the file. (It's on page 8)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

John Lautner

John Lautner: Between Heaven and Earth
Hammer Museum
Through October 18th
By Jesi Khadivi

Published in Whitehot Magazine, October

American architect John Lautner worked in the right place at the right time.
As one of the progenitors of Googie architecture--the ultra modern, futuristic architectural style that takes its name from a coffee shop Lautner designed on Sunset Boulevard-- his early work dovetailed with the burgeoning automobile and aerospace culture of 1950s Southern California. Lautner’s 1960 commission Chemosphere, a space aged octahedronal dwelling perched upon a twenty foot pole, was described by Encyclopedia Britannica as the “most modern home built in the world” and has been featured in numerous Hollywood films. Lautner’s structures are full of glass and exaggerated curves, many of them nestled in stunning natural landscapes. He was disparaged for his poppiness by many critics of his day (Googie architecture only began to receive academic credibility with Venturi, Izenour, and Brown’s Learning From Las Vegas), but his work remains compelling today because it functions at the interstice of organic architecture and the flamboyantly stylized anticipatory fervor of the atomic age. This fusion was doubtlessly fostered by the blend of natural and unnatural splendors in his adopted home of Southern California, his utilitarian North Woods upbringing, and the tutelage of his mentor, the seminal American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sadly, the Hammer’s Lautner exhibition is the least stimulating of this summer’s architecture fare (The MoMA and the Whiteney Museum in New York mounted exhibitions about pre-fabricated architecture and Buckminster Fuller respectively). Despite the loftiness of its title, the show is leaden and a bit of a downer. The exhibition is comprised of three rooms filled to the brim with architectural drawings and cardboard models. Large scale plaster models are installed in front of projections of landscapes, presumably to contextualize the buildings and give the viewer the feeling of “being there.” This only succeeded in drawing me closer to the exhibition text, which was informative and interspersed with thumbnail views of gorgeously executed photographs of Lautner’s buildings. It’s a pity there weren’t larger scale versions of these photos included in the show because they deftly encapsulated the complicated beauty of Lautner’s buildings. While the exhibition suffers from didactism, the accompanying programming is both thoughtful and inventive. The museum has hosted walk throughs of various Lautner homes, a screening of a documentary film about Lautner, as well as a symposium on post war architecture.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Michael Müller: Werke

By Jesi Khadivi
Orginally published Art

In his first solo exhibition in the US, German artist Michael Müller (who has shows running concurrently in Düsseldorf and London), presents pairs of drawings and small paintings that not only converse, but complete each other. Best known for his work with drawing and text, Müller employs the act of drawing as an instrument of translation. Using each medium like a dialect of a mother tongue, he teases out exquisite variations in texture, perception, and understanding.

Müller's nine-part series (1 a:m_) Reflecting on Pink Elephants (all works 2008) is a restrained play of mirrored images. In Part 3: Reflecktion zu einem Fleck (Reflection of a blot), a small, high gloss painting of a Rorschach-inspired ink-blot on wood is echoed by an ethereal pencil drawing. Although it is discernibly the same image, the taut, hand-wrought scribbles imbue the drawing with a dreamlike, otherworldly quality. In Part 4: Diktatur der Form (Dictatorship of the form), a small piece of wood is painted a glossy white while the corresponding drawing is an exercise in compulsive mark making: the entire sheet is covered with small, delicately hatched pencil markings.

While Müller's work has clear formalist undertones, the exhibition does not suffer from a lack of humor or compassion. The two-part work Corner Love consists of a gestural gouache of an angler fish and a sculpture of a renegade minimalist cube snared on a fishing hook. One of the most gripping pieces is Der Versuch unter Hypnose abtrakt zu sein (The attempt to be abstract under hypnosis), a loving video meditation on the act of drawing, propelled by a minimal, ambient score. Three drawings produced during the making of the film accompany the projection in the mezzanine gallery.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Post Consumed

Originally published on Art Review's site

Center For Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles
31 May – ongoing

Review by Jesi Khadivi

Approximately 38,000 tons of waste is produced in Los Angeles County each day (actually down from the 50,000 tons per day in the 1980s). Because of the city's feverishly-scrutinized sprawl, car culture, and mass entertainment, it's a common target for a critique on detritus. The Center For Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), a somewhat mysterious or at least deliberately ambiguous organisation with a practice that encompasses art, environmentalism, urbanism and sociology, has been examining the uses (or misuses) of fringe and post-industrial landscapes in the US since its inception in 1994. Their current exhibition, Post Consumed, offers a stark, unadorned view of the journey of LA's waste, from curbside to landfill. The exhibition reads like an artifact found in the future; CLUI's approach to presenting this rich investigation is minimal, direct and devoid of any hint of sensationalism.

Most of the information here is presented through four documentary videos, dispassionately titled 'Collecting and Sorting the Trash of LA County', 'Diversions in the Waste Stream', 'Inside an MRF (Material Recovery Center)', and 'Landfills'. Everyday household objects are presented on a pedestal, with corresponding placards explaining how these items comprise the city's waste stream. There's also information on a floating proposal for the future of the city's garbage: a plan to compact trash at El Puente, the county's largest landfill, and load it onto trains for disposal at the Mesquite landfill east of the Salton Sea.

While the city of Los Angeles is referenced frequently throughout the exhibition texts, there is nothing particularly local about Post Consumed. The photographs of vast, anonymous lots and sorting facilities could have been taken anywhere in the US. CLUI's deadpan, detached assessment of waste production and management only underscores the universality of this issue, as well as the anonymity of its perpetrators.

Post Consumed is neither hopeless, nor hopeful. CLUI's retro, instructional approach avoids the chest-beating histrionics that could so easily accompany such an exhibition, and for the most part resists aestheticisation. But there are a few moments in the videos where the material veers towards the artful: the hypnotic repetitive back and forth motion of trash compactors, the surprisingly graceful ease with which garbage workers sort through waste for recyclables. Throughout the exhibition a clipped, staccato pulse of information prevails, leaving the viewer guessing what CLUI's stance on waste management really is. By casting an unflinching eye on the mechanism of waste production, Post Consumed asks the viewer to think about how we structure the by-products of our effluence, whether the system works, and if and how we want to change it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Crying Over Broken Eggs

Originally published in the April issue of the Brooklyn Rail

Crying Over Broken Eggs
By Jesi Khadivi

Known for his glacially paced, emotionally violent films, Michael Haneke has become one of contemporary cinema’s most loathed and feted directors. The Austrian takes on issues that many viewers would prefer to ignore—violence, class difference, power, guilt and sado-masochism.

He wowed American audiences with his 2001 film The Piano Teacher, his adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel about a masochistic piano teacher who becomes romantically involved with her much younger male student. Teacher won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Caché (2005), a thriller about a wealthy couple tormented by mysterious home surveillance tapes and crudely scrawled drawings, won Haneke an even broader American audience. The film also won at Cannes and Haneke nabbed the Best Director, FIPRESCI Prize, and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Last October, MoMA celebrated his career with a retrospective that included all of Haneke’s theatrically released films plus his work for Austrian-German television, calling him one of contemporary cinema’s “most provocative and incisive film makers” and citing a cinematic style “at once musical and mathematical.”

For Haneke, the medium is the message. As with Hitchcock, many of his films toy with the passive voyeurism of film spectatorship. Unlike the British auteur, however, Haneke largely denies his audience visual pleasure. In a typically sadistic fashion, viewers will be punished if they take delight in what they see. And that’s the best case scenario. At his worst, Haneke borders on being didactic and preachy. His films are masterfully constructed but far from visually breathtaking; Haneke remains obsessed with the hidden mechanisms of film rather than the pleasures movies elicit. Many of his films are comprised of long static shots punctuated by brief eruptions of violence, tedious bouts of ennui punctured by flourishes motivated by desperation (A neck slashing suicide in Caché). Each film is a taut, beautifully constructed trap and Haneke feels like a cat playing with his prey before devouring it.

Haneke’s recent American English-language remake of his echt-disturbing 1997 German-language film Funny Games has generated a fair amount of controversy. Critics challenge Haneke’s use of violence and voices have been raised in a superior moral tone, ad nauseum. Funny Games’ plot is simple, timeless even. An eloquent, self-assured young man and his awkward, winsome sidekick show up uninvited at a bourgeois family’s country home and proceed to physically and mentally torture them, all the while displaying impeccable manners.

Most of the violence occurs off-screen and much screen time is devoted to lengthy deliberations and emotional abuse that leaves viewers fidgeting in their seat. The deferral of violence is painful and the classic villainous duo of sadist and buffoon heightens the discomfort.

The “action” begins when a nervous, well-dressed young man named Peter (Brady Corbet) comes to the family’s door. He needs some eggs. Ann (Naomi Watts) is happy to oblige. Peter breaks the eggs before he is out the door. Ann gives him more. He breaks her cell phone by dropping it in a sink full of water. Now Ann’s pissed. Approximately 34 minutes and ¾ of a carton of eggs from the film’s start, the golf clubs come out and the funny games begin. That’s a long-ass time to get some action in a thriller, especially within the lexicon of big budget American movie wherein heads roll within the first 15 minutes of the film. It’s impressive that Haneke preserved his pacing, but the film suffers in other ways. The acting is solid, not stellar. Naomi Watts shows impressive range as Ann, but she reads too friendly and cheerful to play high WASP (That is, until the strangers start beating her family with golf clubs and chairs). Tim Roth and Devon Gearheart give impressive performances, but the sociopaths killers fall flat. This is unfortunate, because the strength of the film relies on their performance. In the original the pair of villains have a creepy In Cold Blood meets Kafkaesque vibe. Peter is a bumbling decoy, and Paul the sadistic genius. The fearsome logic of Arno Frisch (the original Paul and Benny from Benny’s Video) had me trembling in my seat. His trim, dark long-legged physique and steely deadpan demeanor showed a deeply disturbed, repressed psychotic mind. Michael Pitt never becomes his character; he’s in it for the shits and giggles. Funny Games is only the latest example of how the actor shows excellent taste in directors and material, but consistently fails to bring the necessary depth to his roles.

While the look and pacing of the film are still fresh and engaging, other elements haven’t held up so well. It’s tiresome when Peter and Paul break the fourth wall and address the camera. One of Haneke’s great successes as a director is how effortlessly he builds meticulous environments and distills emotions and gestures. He reduces cultural compulsions to their bare essence, though the cheap mechanism of direct address in his films seems like overkill. In an art house German film from the late ’90s, the renowned “remote control scene” packs a bit more punch. It lacks the same gravitas in a Hollywood movie, whose audience is accustomed to trickery. After 11 years, Haneke’s conceptual flourish seems gimmicky.

Haneke said that he originally made Funny Games with an American audience in mind. He comments on the remake: “When I first envisioned Funny Games in the middle of the ’90s, it was my intention to have an American audience watch the movie. It is a reaction to a certain American Cinema, its violence, its naïveté.” Funny, because the “Americanness” of the violence is one of the least interesting things about the film. What was so riveting about the original Funny Games and what inspired my partner to demand that I “turn that damned film OFF” is how cultural repression and proper manners dovetail so seamlessly with violence.

The thought of letting a stranger, however well dressed he may be, into a German home on such a flimsy pretense is hard to believe. To demand the remainder of a carton of eggs after already breaking 3/4 of them in a culture where people discuss and formally agree to use du, the informal form of you, is virtually unthinkable. Manners are written into the German language. The unrelenting “darf ich...” (may I?) posed by the intruders makes Anna, Georg and Schorschi players in the game more than Ann, George and Georgie. Linguistically, the Germans are sanctioning their own demise.

While script, shot sequence, production design and score are virtually the same, something gets lost in cultural translation. When Funny Games is divorced from its cultural context, it takes on the air of a beautifully constructed, Germanically pretentious exploitation film. If you take Funny Games at face value it’s not very interesting, not much more than a film school exegesis on voyeurism, complicity and pleasure. Haneke is a director steeped in European history and aesthetics; he fails at telling an American story. I was hopeful about his first mainstream Hollywood film, even excited. If Haneke attempts another American film he needs to build an American story from the inside out, rather than fix a pedantic European hawk’s eye to the failures of American culture. Because without subtext Haneke will remain a pompous outsider looking in.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Fair Man: Stephen Cohen Talks About the LA Art Scene

Photo Ted Cleve

My interview with LA gallerist Stephen Cohen has been published in the second issue of Fabrik Magazine.

Stephen Cohen casts his net wide. His galleries, the Stephen Cohen gallery in LA and Cohen Amador in New York, represent a staggering number of international photographers working in a wide variety of genres. As if running two internationally renowned photo galleries weren’t enough, he is the founder and driving force behind photo l.a., photo MIAMI and artLA. His fairs have not only been instrumental in drawing attention to the LA art scene, but have broadened the appreciation of photography by serious collectors. Cohen was named one of the “Top 100 most influential people” by American Photography Magazine and included Art + Auctions 2004 “Power List.” He spoke to Fabrik about the evolution of the bourgeoning LA art scene and art fairs while traveling in Europe.

FABRIK: How did you begin your career as an art dealer and how did you choose to focus on photography?

SC: I majored in Art (photography and sculpture) and Theater as an undergrad and went to USC film school for my graduate degree. Art dealing began by accident. I needed to work after graduating from film school, so I augmented whatever film jobs I could get with selling photography books, which I had been collecting since college. Eventually I started selling 19th century prints to dealers in LA. Soon I was doing road trips cross-country selling pieces I had on consignment that dealers in LA and NY considered unsellable. I got a reputation for moving inventory for dealers because I was able to sell them.

After a while I decided I needed to find more clients in LA, so I started photo l.a. which is now in its’ 18th year. My work on the fair allowed me to open a small gallery.

FABRIK: Your gallery has an outstanding artist roster. I’m impressed not only by the quality, but also the range of work you have chosen to represent. It seems that many galleries run the risk of overspecializing. What are the merits of representing such a wide range of artists and what are the potential challenges?

SC: My gallery directors and I feel strongly about our artists. I love vintage work but it’s getting harder to find and it’s very expensive. Contemporary photo-based work has become increasingly desirable for collectors. It is good to have a variety of work to offer them.

We are going through a period of letting some artists go as we add new ones. It is always a challenge to present new work to the public, but it’s satisfying when the response and sales are strong.

FABRIK: LA is quickly becoming an arts destination. At the same time, California galleries and artists often have a regional identity. Do you consider yourself a “California Dealer?”

SC: I am a dealer in California. We work with artists and clients from around the country and the world.

Photo: Ted VanCleave

FABRIK: Tell me about the evolution of the LA art scene and how being a dealer in LA has changed. Do you feel that LA is becoming an international center for the arts? If so, how do you perceive that transition?

SC: LA has a long history of artists coming out here for the weather, cheap rents and the light. The city was a cowboy town and was much more innocent in the past. It allowed artists freedom for experimentation since it wasn’t a center of the art world. Now people recognize that LA was a major force in presenting the work of young artists in the 60s and 70s that are now established in the art world. Ed Ruche immediately comes to mind. The Nick Wilder Gallery was in the forefront of this movement.

Now Los Angeles is back in the art world and stronger. Many established artists call the Southland their home and an increasing number of artists are moving here. It’s hard to pinpoint an LA style because it is a city of immigrants from other States.

Younger galleries have come on the scene over the past ten years and have made a significant impact internationally. Many curators and gallerists come here to grab the young artists at Cal Arts, UCLA, USC and Arts Center before they even have a gallery representing them. LA is hot in that sense.

FABRIK: How did photo l.a. begin?

SC: photo l.a. began in January 1992. I was traveling around the country and had more clients outside of the city than in LA. I initially planned to do the fair for a couple of years, get a good client base and move on. I opened my first small gallery with money from the fair.

As photo l.a.’s fame and reputation spread across the country, we had more dealers wanting to be involved. Eventually our first venue, Butterfields Auction House on Sunset Blvd., was bursting at the seams. After eight years we moved to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium where we were able to expand the size and scope of the fair. This year we moved to the Barker Hangar, which was a huge step up for the size and quality of the fair.

A local dealer suggested that I start a contemporary art fair, so I started ArtLA in 2004. Over the past four years, the fair has grown in stature and attendance. This year had an amazing group of impressive
dealers. Our committee was headed by Doug Hug, who was just appointed the Director of Art Cologne.

FABRIK: How do you think the art fair scene in LA differs from its New York and European counterparts?

SC: Fairs in New York and Europe have a longer history, not to mention the cache of art collecting in Europe. The fairs are much larger and attract a huge audience. US fairs like the Armory and Art Basel Miami Beach have become bigger players in the world and are anxiously awaited each year. While LA’s art scene is much more active than in the past, it doesn’t have the history of New York City or Basel.

FABRIK: Have collectors’ attitudes changed towards photography in your time as a dealer?

SC: Yes. There are more of them collecting photo-based work. On the whole they are becoming much better acquainted with photography through the photo and art fairs.

FABRIK: What do you have planned for your upcoming season?

SC: We are working hard on photo MIAMI which has become a benchmark for contemporary photography and one of the must see fairs during Art Basel Miami Beach after only two years.

We always have something of interest: new galleries, artists and special projects.

FABRIK: What are some LA based artists and emerging spaces to watch?

SC: Many of the young galleries in Culver City and Chinatown are exciting: Jail, in Chinatown; Roberts & Tilton and Blum & Poe, in Culver City and Acme in Los Angeles.

FABRIK: Do you have any advice for artists that are just starting out?

SC: Keep your day job. There are sacrifices if you are serious about your work and life as an artist. Nothing is owed to you and there are a lot of “outrages and injustices“ over what art becomes popular. I think an artist
always needs to look at other art and be a good editor of their own work.

Friday, April 11, 2008

In One Word Emotion

In One Word Emotion
By Jesi Khadivi
Originally published in the April issue of Brooklyn Rail

Pierrot Le Fou opens with a lengthy voice-over explanation of Velasquez narrated over shots of a tennis game and a man leafing through paperbacks in an outdoor Parisian bookshop. Cut to the same man sitting in a bathtub with a cigarette dangling from his lips reading an art history text aloud to a pig-tailed child. Describing Velasquez’s paintings, he tells his daughter, “a spirit of nostalgia prevails, yet we see none of the ugliness or sadness, none of the gloom or cruelty of this crushed childhood.”

Our narrator Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a buttoned-up dreamer, a self described “huge question mark dangling over the Mediterranean horizon.” The acme of Godardian male protagonists, Ferdinand deplores and delights in his own alienation. Despite his shortcomings, his yearning for transcendence and depth is palpable, visible even through his veil of neuroticism and obvious need for control. In other words, Ferdinand’s ripe for self discovery. He wanders around a party—where guests communicate solely in advertising lingo—without saying a word to anybody until he strikes up a conversation (through a translator, no less) with a lone American. In a historic cameo, pulp director Samuel Fuller tells Ferdinand that “a film is like a battleground; It has love, hate, action, violence and death. In one word, emotion.” Pierrot Le Fou proves Fuller’s definition of cinema to be spot-on.

Pierrot follows Ferdinand and his ill-fated love for his former flame Marianne, a fun-loving con artist (the exact nature of her underworld connections remains shady, even after multiple viewings). Ferdinand and Marianne leave Paris on the run with a suitcase full of stolen money and proceed to rob, cheat and charm their way to the South of France. Marianne calls herself “a sentimental girl.” She likes flowers, animals, blue skies and music. A cunning woman-child, Marianne is as loveable as she is amoral. She can kill a man without blinking, but walks around for much of the movie swinging a well-worn stuffed dog. While she may not subscribe to traditional, or even sub-cultural ideas about right and wrong (ultimately she betrays everyone she meets, a big no-no in the underworld), she remains a woman in thrall to her emotions. This is due in equal parts to Ms. Karina’s evocative performance and the director’s complex adoration of his actress/wife Anna Karina. Velasquez’s spirit of nostalgia; its “open spaces and silences” pervade the film, which proves to be Godard’s paean to his fading youth (he was 35) and deteriorating relationship with his Karina, his long time collaborator and great love. Pierrot depicts lovers of the worst kind: a man who’s too hard-hearted to love effectively and who desperately needs to be loved, and a woman brimming with love and vitality who cannot be trusted.

The peaks and valleys of Marianne and Ferdinand’s love are punctuated with fine art and comic stills, flashing neon and excerpts from Ferdinand’s journal. This mélange of melodrama, road movie and crime film establishes the bold visual style that Godard continues to explore in Weekend, La Chinoise and Two or Three Things I Know About Her. It’s a poppy film, teetering on the brink of adulthood; a film about wanting to be seen, negotiating what it means to be alive, and the distance between feelings and ideas.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Revolutionary Art Of Emory Douglas

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas
MOCA Pacific Design Center
October 21st, 2007 through February 24th, 2008

By Jesi Khadivi
Originally published in Whitehot Magazine, February 2008

For better or worse, style plays a significant role in propelling social movements and historicizing their images. The seductive, bomb throwing chic of the Baader-Meinhof Gang and Hanoi Jane’s power fisted mug shot have spawned numerous fetishist coffee table books and fashion magazines spreads. (Prada Meinhof, anyone?) Revolutionary groups live on in our popular consciousness because of the radical style they embody as much as their politics.

The Black Panther Party is no exception. Founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California in 1966, the Panthers espoused the importance of self-determination in the wake of a government that oppressed, neglected and exploited African American people. They started programs offering breakfast for school children, free food, free clothing and free shoes. Not only did they serve their community, they made being black look powerful. Their uniform of afros, berets and leather jackets perfectly encapsulated the Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s.

The Panthers built their brand beautifully. They were brilliant self-promoters. An integral part of the Panther “By any means necessary” image is the work of their Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas. Douglas joined the party in 1967 at the age of 22. His lithograph posters, collages and drawings were featured prominently in the party newspaper, The Black Panther. MOCA Pacific Design Center has mounted an impressive exhibition of Douglas’ work thanks to the generous assistance of collectors Alden and Mary Kimbrough, as well as other private collectors and cultural institutions. The exhibition features lithograph posters in both black and white and eye-popping color, an extensive selection of The Black Panther papers and a wall sized reproduction of Douglas’ design for Afro-American Solidarity with the Oppressed People of the World.

The right to self-defense was a critical component of the Panther credo. Huey P. Newton chose the metaphor because the cat never attacks unprovoked, but will fight to its death. Douglas’ representations of this ethos fuse Russian Constructivism, psychedelic poster design and FAP style propaganda. The overall tenor swings between the quasi-evangelical progressivism and aggression. Many of Douglas’ designs feature inspirational quotations like “We shall survive. Without a doubt.” As many, if not more, show the possession of a weapon as a vital step on this road to liberation. Douglas’ iconic use of women, children and firearms showed that the movement was nurtured, growing and nothing to fuck with.

Everybody Gets Screwed

Everybody Gets Screwed
By Jesi Khadivi
The Yacoubian Building (2006), Dir. Marwan Hamed, Strand Releasing
Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail, February 2008

This good old-fashioned melodrama explores political corruption, sexual coercion, poverty, religious fundamentalism and the deep-rooted melancholia at the core of contemporary Egyptian life. At $6 million, Marwan Hamed’s directorial debut had the highest budget of any Egyptian film to date. The anxiously awaited adaptation of Alaa Al Aswany’s best selling novel tells the story of the Yacoubian Building, an elegant, old world building in downtown Cairo that has fallen from grace.

Once the home of well-heeled families, it now houses faded dignitaries, a homosexual newspaper editor and a rooftop teeming with dispossessed migrant workers from the countryside. Everyone has his or her cross to bear. Bothayna, a beautiful and conservative young woman, must help her mother support her siblings after her father’s death while dodging the leering eyes and wandering hands of her employers. Her childhood sweetheart, Taha, an earnest and studious janitor’s son, buckles under social pressure and shame at his poverty, and becomes a religious fundamentalist. Even the rich don’t have it so easy. Hatem Rachid, a cosmopolitan newspaper editor, lures young soldiers into his bed with bottles of fine wine. His smug countenance barely disguises the deep loneliness and isolation that he feels in a culture leagues away from accepting his sexuality. Haj Azzam, a millionaire drug lord/politician, takes a secret second wife after recurring wet dreams. Perhaps the most tragic figure in this social tableau is Zaki El Dessouki, a wealthy, foreign educated engineer from a distinguished Egyptian family. His neighbors still call him by the ceremonial title “pasha”, the rough equivalent of an English lord. His poorer neighbors revere him and ply him with requests for advice. Zaki’s social equals, however, see him as a skirt chaser fueled by copious amounts of alcohol.

At first glance, the film is a morality play with high dramatic flourishes. It’s shot like television and has the narrative engine of a soap opera. In spite of, or perhaps because of these traits, the film is surprisingly compelling. The power dynamic between men and women, rich and poor and urban and rural plays out between the sheets. Sex is the common currency driving the film and it provides insight into characters that would otherwise be lost beneath layers of schmaltz and melodrama. The sympathy that the simple, broad smiling soldier Abdo Raboh elicits as he unwittingly begins to succumb to Hatem Rachid’s advances is quickly complicated as he boasts that he frequently takes his wife by force when she is too tired to make love. The political and social ills of contemporary Egypt are expressed via sexual humiliation; everybody is screwing everybody else, but no one comes out on top.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sister Act

Originally published in Pitch

by Jesi Khadivi

Getting around late at night in Brooklyn can be a drag. Things have improved over the years, but back in 2000, commuters were known to throw things out of frustration waiting for the G train. It was a total buzz kill.

Imagine my delight when I was offered a ride in a pink Buick to a Madagascar Institute party in Cobble Hill. My lovely driver was Miss Tanya Gagné, one half of the amazing Wau Wau Sisters (the other is the fabulous Adrienne Truscott). Not only did I get a ride, I showed up in style. This fantastic pink whale of a car (complete with dice on the locks) is a perfect summation of Wau Wau style: a careful attention to detail, a deep understanding of genre and retro accoutrements, and a razor-sharp wit.

In her canonical Notes on “Camp”, Susan Sontag describes “camp” as an aesthetic phenomenon, a way of seeing the world. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks…to perceive camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” The Wau Wau Sisters have built a deliciously cracked myth around their personas as performers that colors every aspect of their impressively varied and physically demanding act, which includes trapeze artistry, off-kilter hipster circus routines, and country and heavy metal songs played on matching guitars.

The Sisters tell the tale of their humble beginnings in the short Super 8 film, Wau Wau Sisters Meet! According to the legend, three strangers met “…somewhere off route I-95 in 1969,” and had a romp in the sheets together. “A few months and a few cocktails later,” the sisters were born. They lived unaware of each other until a chance meeting in knee socks and hot pants exploded into an impromptu dance routine with the neighbors that could put even the Sharks and the Jets to shame.

Adrienne and Tanya really are half-sisters, but they grew up separately. “Adrienne grew up with her mum on the golden shores of New Jersey and I grew up with my mum in the Live Free or Die State of New Hampshire,” Tanya explains. Performers from day one, they both independently took a shine to dance and gymnastics, and would regale family and neighbors with their respective routines. “We would even make colorful programs, charge admission and make weird snacks to give out,” says Tanya. The sisters began circus and trapeze work in their teens and twenties, and even worked for the same two groups: Circus Amok, a political one-ring circus/theater troupe; and LAVA, a Brooklyn-based dance group. “When we both found ourselves living and working in New York as performers,” Tanya says, “AND found out that we both wrote dirty songs and played guitars, the Wau Wau Sisters were born.”

I first saw the Wau Waus perform Sister Christian, a gymnastic strip-tease chock full of lesbian innuendo, set to the Night Ranger power ballad of the same name, at Galapagos, a bar and performance venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2000. Clad in Catholic school-girl uniforms and knee socks (a Wau Wau costume staple), Adrienne and Tanya naughtily read the bible, smoke cigarettes, guzzle booze from chalices and tear each other’s clothes off during a series of handstands, splits, and assisted balancing acts.

The Wau Wau Sisters may prove the exception to Sontag’s point that “…camp which knows itself to be camp is less satisfying.” Sister Christian is more than a goofy, spicy strip tease by two beautiful women: it’s a deft interplay of bold physical comedy and high concept. The Sisters purposefully undermine their gymnastic prowess with cornball flourishes reminiscent of a middle-school talent show. The cheeky crucifixion at the end of the piece pokes fun at the prurient sensuality of passion plays, a sensibility that reached its pinnacle in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ.

The act is laugh-out-loud funny and oozing with sex appeal. But these women aren’t just hot; they could probably beat you up. As anyone who has suffered through a yoga class can tell you, it’s hard enough lifting your leg straight up in the air, let alone dangling from someone’s toes or somersaulting on a trapeze.

The subversiveness of the Wau Wau Sisters’ acts is due in no small part to the self-aware sexuality that the new burlesque movement embodies at its best. “I think the neo-burlesque movement has been a pretty amazing opportunity for women performers, women in comedy and for performance art in general,” Adrienne told me. “There is a small element of the movement that is very retro and focused on being sexy. For me, that isn't enough to keep it interesting.” Adrienne acknowledges that there is tremendous potential for burlesque; indeed, the Wau Wau Sisters’ ingenuity as pioneers of the movement in New York City is a testament to just how interesting it can be. Although classics like Sister Christian are still included in their act, the Wau Waus are always working on new material—they’ve come a long way from the Galapagos days. Constant touring has required that they hone their routines, and they regularly incorporate new elements and surprises into their act. “We refuse to become bored or content as performers,” Adrienne explains. “I think we add a lot more new material and improvisation than the average touring show.”

Throughout all of their acts (and there are over 80 of them), the sisters combine physical comeliness with jaw-dropping physical dexterity, all in a variety of perfectly turned out costumes and props. As guests on the Sharon Osbourne Show, Adrienne holds a perfect handstand for over a minute in a skirt with a bull’s eye on her butt while Tanya sings her song Easy Target. Adrienne then sings the next song, a hilarious lament about being shunned by a boyfriend’s Texan parents, which ends, “The good Lord he protects us/from girls like you/who are poor,” while perched on her sister’s feet. They regularly perform with matching guitars while sitting on each other’s shoulders. Their trapeze routine, set to rock classics like The Clash’s London Calling and Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle, manages to be both spectacular and funny. Who knew it was possible to be witty while dangling upside down?