by Kara Q. Smith
Amidst the polished concrete and the overwhelming strip-mall-blasé that permeates the floors of galleries at 49 Geary Street, Haines Gallery offers some spare reprieve in their back room space with this latest exhibition. Boasting grey walls (a welcomed contrast to the impeccable white dominating all other viewing experiences), I found the colorful works of Le Destitution de la Jeune Fille, the most recent installation by The Old Boys’ Club ( the recently coined moniker of multi-media artist Katya Bonnenfant) to be not only an aesthetic reprieve, but a weirdly playful opportunity to navel-gaze on post-colonialism and its discontents.
Playful warrior-like figures wield arrows and nonrepresentational flags march and dance across otherwise blank white tableaux, the spacious volume of which seemed to instantly surround me. From the playful colors and the crisply naive drawings, the installation looks like a very fancy child’s very fancy playroom. Depictions of nature and a handful of abstract, repetitive shapes also populate the salon-style installation, shapes and colors coming together like a still-life of kid’s television. While the show statement lends the works to a narrative surrounding a theoretical Young Girl, an alternative reading came across to me as I took a closer look at the milieu of inhabitants besieging me in the room.
Each of the dozens of vibrant characters, often playfully jousting or interacting with others on the same paper (or confronting those of a work next door), sported a plethora of ambiguous decorated faces, Japanese, Javanese and Native American ceremonial masks, or the heads of popular culture icons (such as Bart Simpson and Hello Kitty) – and yes, my favorite was that of a figure with the head of a non-descript cat, casually being propped up by the feet of a duck-headed companion.
The website of www.katya-bonnenfant.com currently reads:
“Let's stop the my-name.com, let's kill the signature, let's destroy the me myself and I, let's dance. Katya Bonnenfant has joined The Old Boys Club for the Better and Worse. The work of an artist is inhabited by you, by me, by them, and not only. It's an offer.”
The appropriation of imagery present in Le Destitution de la Jeune Fille represents the artists’ own experiences and inspirations. Creating a dance between contemporary ethos and the older modes of Eastern and Western civilization, The Old Boys’ Club quite poignantly extrapolates the Edward Said-esque critique of colonialism and the cultural borders determining us-versus-them situations.
Or in other words, in the land of the Old Boys’ Club, everyone is a colorful mutant capable of pointing the finger.
When considering Japanese imagery rendered by a French artist in an American gallery, it was proving difficult to ignore thoughts about exploitation and colonialism. I was reminded of my undergraduate thesis (please, indulge me for just one, long sentence?) where I so passionately highlighted the exploitation of women in Whistler’s paintings as well as in the Japanese prints from which he appropriated his modern stylistic tendencies, while timidly asserting that all Modernism only came about because we took what we wanted aesthetically from Eastern culture and discarded, or exploited, the rest. Ok, I’m glad I got that out of the way. I mention this only because when I paced around this exhibition, I thought maybe I had it all wrong: I was being too harsh and too sophomoric as a young, Southern art history undergad.
I then realized that this experience was only an extension of my youthful knee-jerks. Le Destitution de la Jeune Fille is not a blending of cultures, per se, nor is it exploitation. It is playfully placing different interpretations of civilization in contact with each other, which, to draw from Aimé Césaire, “is an an excellent thing to blend different worlds…that for civilizations, exchange is oxygen.”
There is no blame in this exhibition, it is merely a new lens, re-imagined and re-ordered so that many points of view may be inserted, evidenced especially by the artist’s online statement declaring obligatory anonymity. Conceivably a tale of the artist’s whimsical interpretations of her own histories and influences, the result in exhibition form is a contemporary juxtaposition of imperial order, embodying more hope and inclusion, and more dancing, without getting lose in the finger-pointing.
—Kara Q. Smith
(Images: The Old Boys' Club, Study for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille #38, 2010,Gouache on paperPaper: 12 x 9 inches / Frame: 13.25 x 10.25 inches, Installation at Haines Gallery of Studies for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille, 2010 Gouache on paper. Study for La Destitution de la Jeune Fille #81, 2010, Gouache on paperPaper: 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery)