Gillian Steiner

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

 ?? ?? Mennonite Mother and Child, 2020, digital c-print, 55 × 79 cm (framed). Courtesy the artist
Mennonite Mother and Child, 2020, digital c-print, 55 × 79 cm (framed). Courtesy the artist

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