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Will the Real Eleanor Antin Stand Up? (And Take a Bow)

LACMA retrospective is a showcase of the artist's subversive take on identity.

May 27, 1999|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Expect a transformative experience at the Eleanor Antin retrospective that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Transformation is key to Antin's art, and Howard Fox, curator of this utterly engaging show, has made it an integral part of the installation. From the first few white-box galleries to the saturated color and dramatic darkness of the last, the show itself is theater, a terrifically apt showcase for Antin's theatrical sensibility, both comedic and tragic.

The 30-year path traced here stretches from the conceptual to the burlesque, using an equally broad range of means--photography, sculpture, performance, installation and film. Diverse as they appear, Antin's works are surprisingly consistent in the issues of personal identity that they cluster around, as well as in their wit, charm and intelligence.

Right from the start, Antin's work had a subversive spunkiness that abraded boundaries and tickled convention. In the late 1960s and early '70s, she staged an arranged marriage of unexpected compatibility between feminism's validation of the autobiographical and domestic, and the ascetic sterility of Minimal and Conceptual art. The result: austerely provocative works like "Carving" from 1972. With pseudo-scientific precision, "Carving" documents Antin's weight loss over a 36-day period using a grid of black-and-white photographs of the artist, nude, shot from the front, back and sides.

If laughter is the natural first response to the work, what follows is a more clouded reconsideration of what it means for a woman to alter her body in order to conform to a male-defined societal ideal. Challenging the status quo then, for Antin, who was born in 1935, and her feminist-oriented peers, metamorphosed into the identity politics of the art world today. And Antin's own negotiation of the web of expectations tied to gender, age, race and profession became the basis for three decades of her own work.

Starting in the early '70s, Antin began to take on other personas, using photographs, video and performance to document them, and drawings and writings to speak from within them. Assuming the role of a king, nurse, ballerina and film director, Antin seriously toys with the notion that the self is not a unified concept but a congruence of influences, aspirations and experiences. Antin the artist remains present within these different selves just enough to generate a little friction. The multiple self is more than a theatrical conceit; it's an operative principle of Antin's life.

Her transformation from one self to another occasionally becomes part of the work itself. In a nearly hourlong video, Antin can be seen applying mustache, beard and a certain attitude to render herself the King of Solana Beach. She moved to the small coastal community north of San Diego from New York in 1968, when her husband, poet David Antin, was hired to teach at UC San Diego. She, too, has taught at UCSD since 1975.

Photographs of Antin in costume on the street, in line at the bank or drinking beer at the beach bring to mind Cindy Sherman's black-and-white role-playing contrived "film stills" of the late '70s, but Antin was there first. She didn't stop at the photographic one-liner, but played out her scenarios more fully, and with deeper intent.

Antin's anachronistic, disjunctive journeys into other personas can be savvy one moment and silly the next. Dressed as the nurse in a video from 1976, she reminisces and fantasizes with the help of painted cardboard characters. If ever art-making flaunted its roots in the imaginative play of children, it is here, in Antin's slightly refined version of dressing up and playing with paper dolls. The video runs here next to a twin bed strewn with stuffed animals and the painted cutouts.

But in just the next gallery, Antin shifts gears radically, presenting a brilliant suite of fake 19th century photographs "documenting" the nurse's tour of duty in the Crimean War. The "Angel of Mercy" photographs hang salon-style, two or three deep in an elegant, pale-olive room decorated with chandelier and velvet drapes. Captioned in looping, sepia script, the pictures insinuate themselves right into photo history, between Roger Fenton's real records of the Crimean conflict of the 1850s and the Civil War reportage of a decade later.

Revelation comes through transformation in Antin's art, and not just through the artist's own costume changes, but in her genre-shifting, by-whatever-means-necessary visual strategies. Her most complex character, for instance, a black American ballerina in Diaghilev's legendary Ballets Russes, reveals herself to us through the pristine artifice of studio stills, her glass-enshrined toe shoes, as well as two playful, marvelously inventive installations that incorporate film.

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