Vernon Gardens, Los Angeles 17 July – 21 August
In her final interview before her death, in 2019, Agnès Varda recalled meeting the photographer Brassaï when she was a young filmmaker. As she described it, he advised her to ‘“take your time, look at things. Look carefully.” I liked the idea that it’s not the act,’ Varda recalled, ‘it’s what you have in mind before you take a picture.’ In the decades since this encounter, numerous female artists have taken on the project of ‘reclaiming the male gaze’ over women. Significantly fewer have, like Varda, probed the experience of subjection to this gaze and how the awareness of its presence might inform the very actions they document. Photographer Gillian Steiner similarly mines the presuppositions of viewer and subject alike. Hers is the record of an unreliable narrator who troubles the division between performance and truth.
In this intimate exhibition of ten small photographs, the women Steiner depicts reveal the multifaceted realities of gendered performance. There are no men, though some works feature dogs and children, and there’s one night-lit shot of startled donkeys. Like the photographer Roe Ethridge, Steiner wryly imitates the tropes of highly stylised, even campy fashion photography, as in Playgirl (2021), whose nude model lies Odalisque-like poolside, wrapped in a serpentine garden hose. But in contrast to the vacant smiles of Ethridge’s models, Steiner’s subject, vamping for the camera, is in on the joke from within the frame.
The photographs range from posed to candid, with many residing in between. A young woman cradles a baby doll in a frontal wrap (Fake Baby, 2019), perhaps experimenting with motherhood, perhaps simply reenacting the image of it for the camera. Mennonite Mother and Child (2020), which shows a bonneted Mennonite mother cradling her child on the beach, formally recalls Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother (1936), a gaunt Depression-era migrant mother who also averts our eyes. Yet these subjects, however consumed by, respectively, the reverie of new motherhood and poverty, must surely have been aware of the person capturing them at such close range.
These works are moored in the performance of femininity. Steiner trains her eye inward, recording the experience specific (while not unique) to female-presenting persons who are being watched and have taken on agency in deciding what to do with this gaze. Cat Kron