COLA Award Exhibition
Smile was created for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs’ Individual Artist Award (COLA) in 2010. Online catalog essay by Peter Frank.
Viewed from straight ahead, the Smile wall drawings resembles red splatters radiating out from various points in the room. The shiny splatters suggest the bloodshed of a violent event, albeit in the tidy advertising vernacular of vinyl lettering. If the viewer is drawn to the convergence of the splatters, and places herself in the imaginary explosive center of the drawing, the wall transforms from an index of violence into an anamorphic wall of words reading, “smile.”
In this context, the perky word smile conjures a perverse range of advertising slogans and snapshot prompts: The 70’s Have a Happy Day!” smiley face, the WalMart smile promising us Lowest Prices Always!, or the ubiquitous command to arrange yourself, happily, for a photograph. Store signs advising us to smile for the surveillance cameras suggest a darker reading of the word, underscoring that consumer purchasing and endemic surveillance underpins our daily semblance of calm and cheery American optimism.
Smile functions as a momento mori, albeit in an inverse relation to the anamorphic skull of Hans Holbein’s famous painting of 1533, “The French Ambassadors.” There, the skull undermines the painting’s dominant display of imperial power broking and scientific mastery, reminding us of the presence of death and the frailty of human knowledge and power. In Smile, the splatters, the signs of violence, are the a priori condition; in place of the grinning skull we have the cynical command to smile, put on a happy face, grin and bear it. The word smile lurks in the image of chaos, hailing the viewer as a subject . While many viewers reflexively smile when the word congeals from the splattered mess, the delight turns to a haunting sense that we are on notice, being watched, expected to perform the face of a happy subject in the wake of the American Century.
Smile is accompanied by a crude, tumor-like red ball of vinyl sitting in the middle of the gallery floor. Entitled, Holbein’s Teratoma, the sculpture is made of the vinyl waste of the wall installation, Smile. Holbein’s Teratoma has a brooding physical presence underscored by its construction of the negative space between the words, suggesting a kind of physicality that language cannot represent.