Dodie Bellamy on Lynn Hershman Leeson

“About Face” was an intimate, career-spanning exhibit, comprised of approximately forty pieces that explored Lynn Hershman Leeson’s passion for masks. The major tropes associated with his art – mirror, replication, projection, cyborgs, screens, avatars, humor – are represented there, in a questioning of the divisions between fantasy, virtual and real. Arranged non-chronologically, each artifact acted as a sort of hologram that references the whole. This work suggested someone deeply familiar with groundlessness. He exuded the brilliance and distrust of the hypervigilant. The artist’s rigorous experimentation and attention to detail are impeccable, but, even in its most abstract form, his work delivers visceral and emotional hits.

It was a treat to see “About Face” in the city where it was made, the same city that has shaped my own creative output so much. The Thursday night opening of the exhibition was sparsely populated, mostly with curatorial types who had been invited to the dinner that followed. A few weeks later, I returned on a Saturday afternoon and the gallery was virtually empty, as were the galleries at the nearby art mall, Minnesota Street Project. I first encountered Hershman Leeson’s work decades ago at a group show at New Langton Arts, a flagship San Francisco nonprofit gallery that closed in 2008, which featured the documentation of her Roberta Breitmore project, 1973-1978, in which she lived another existence. as the invented character Roberta. The event was so packed that you had to work your way to the art. The contrast between that memory and the white expanses of the Altman Siegel exhibit, which grow larger every time I think about it, is tragic to me, pointing to larger issues in San Francisco’s struggling art scene. But then there is an aura of tragedy in all of Hershman Leeson’s work.

In 2019, impressed by the original obituary that my husband, Kevin Killian, wrote for artist Lutz Bacher, Hershman Leeson wanted to hire him to write an obituary for him. He replied with a long email in which he declined his offer because he himself was dying. They never got to meet in person. Several months later, at Kevin’s memorial, Hershman Leeson read his email in its entirety. It was beautiful, intense and bizarre, but only after watching the artist’s confessional video First person plural, The Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman Leeson 1984–1996, just before going to “About Face”, I realized that his interaction with Kevin was part of his larger multi-genre project. The obituary she came up with was yet another form of portraiture, another donning mask for a character-obsessed artist.

His desire to be vulnerable, to put himself in play, infuses each of Hershman Leeson’s avatars with a libidinal charge. A sculpture with a sound element, Self-portrait as another person, 1965, features a face cast in wax that is actually that of the artist, though much of it is obscured by a long brown wig. From an accompanying tape recorder we hear her breathing – this sound was recorded when she was hospitalized in an oxygen tent due to complications from a pregnancy. His work always refers to the intimate, even if the link is obscured or projected onto a double. Of electronic diaries“I have always told the truth for the person I was.

Like all the best personal art, Hershman Leeson points beyond himself. “About Face” explodes preconceived ideas of what constitutes a self-portrait. The Infinity Engine: Glo CatA 2013 photo of a glowing green cat that had been genetically modified with a jellyfish gene is as much an avatar for Hershman Leeson as his iconic Roberta Build Chart 1, 1975. It is no coincidence that the two works were hung on the same wall. Here, the difference between makeup, plastic surgery and genetic engineering was only a matter of degree. When your artistic production originates in the paradigms of one century, then continues into another century with its very different paradigms, you either freeze up or you look around. Hershman Leeson uses all the culture available to him, enthusiastically engaging with the local tech industry. So not only has she managed to stay relevant, but her art is also always ahead of its time.

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