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Art review: Zoe Crosher at Charlie James

November 4, 2010 | 11:22 am

ZC_lipstick02

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all perform different versions of ourselves as we fill the roles required by daily life: co-worker, lover, relative, friend. In some cases — say, call center operators or movie stars — the roles might require a different name and a separate persona. Taken to extremes, they may demand a life all their own. Zoe Crosher takes a close look at one such life in “For UR Eyes Only: The Unveiling of Michelle duBois,” a suite of photo-based work, curated by Emma Gray, at Charlie James gallery. (Additional pieces that I did not see are on view at Dan Graham gallery and the Orange County Museum of Art.) 

It seems “Michelle duBois” was one of many pseudonyms used by a flight attendant and call girl in the 1980s who gave her personal collection of photographs and memorabilia to Crosher. The artist has re-photographed, enlarged and altered some of these items to create a fragmented portrait of a woman with a penchant for self-display, dressing up and emulating classic tropes of femininity. In these images — most likely taken by male admirers or clients — we see DuBois alternately as a belly dancer, a blond femme fatale, a society wife and a burlesque star in silk panties. (Move over Cindy Sherman.)

ZC_Obfuscated_MaeWest The details of DuBois’ actual identity and relation to Crosher are murky — a gallery attendant suggested that the two might be distant relatives (there is a slight resemblance). But it’s not entirely clear whether DuBois is a real person or an elaborate fiction. In addition to the photographs Crosher took of DuBois’ collection, she has included a few items that seem original — Polaroids and, most convincingly, a set of negatives on disc film, a now-defunct format that dates from the early '80s. These seem to function as a kind of proof, even though the pictures on the disc appear to be taken by DuBois, rather than of her. As such, they might provide glimpses of the world as she saw it — or they might not.

This uncertainty is the point, it seems. The project is not so much about getting to know Michelle DuBois as it is a meditation on the impossibility of really knowing anyone. DuBois’ fantasies may be less purposeful than Sherman’s roll call of B-movie vamps, but they are no less revealing when it comes to the influence of hollow media archetypes and the performative nature of identity. 

What’s more, in interpreting duBois’ collection, Crosher adopts another artistic strategy from the “Pictures” generation — photographing photographs à la Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine. Like them, Crosher reframes and recontextualizes relatively straightforward photos as layered works of art. One trio of photos captures how someone — presumably DuBois — attached handwritten notes to the original prints, obscuring the figures’ faces. The notes record DuBois’ thoughts or memories about the scene depicted, but they also throw the identity of the subject into question. Here, Crosher turns DuBois’ idiosyncratic filing system into a new photographic record that removes DuBois from view even as it offers up more intimate details of her life. 

ZC-Silhouetted2 In another image, part of a series of misty black-and-whites of DuBois in a trench coat (and little else), Crosher has left the inkjet print uncropped with its computer filename printed on the lower edge. This small detail points to how the artist, even with her light touch, has thoroughly transformed these materials. Not only has she turned personal effects into art; she has converted analog objects into digital ones, which, like DuBois’ self-fashioning, are endlessly malleable. In this sense, it hardly matters whether Michelle duBois was a real person or not, as whatever she left behind dissolves into digital ether.

-- Sharon Mizota

Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, L.A., (213) 687-0844, through Dec. 4. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.cjamesgallery.com

Images: "Mirrored Autoportrait #2" (top), "Obfuscated Mae West (and the 1,001 Knights)" and "Silhouetted #2." Credits: Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.

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