The first wall of prints in A.L. Steiner’s installation at Blum & Poe was sequenced with a formalist eye. One photograph led to the next in a way that suggested they were elaborating on each other like sentences in an essay, or a polemic.
The opening photograph in the sequence was in color and appeared to show a sunrise over water, while the last, black-and-white, seemed to portray a sunset over water. In between were 15 prints of mostly nude or seminude women that made a disjointed but unmistakable statement. A pregnant woman in a red bikini sits by a swimming pool. In the next picture, a woman kneels on a bed, painting red circles around her nipples. Two pictures later, a begrimed, naked woman holds up a camera as if taking our picture. Next, a bare-breasted woman looks at a snapshot we can see only the back of, after which comes a woman we see from the back looking at a painting of another bare-breasted woman. Then a naked woman looks back toward the previous pictures as she shoots a video.
The confrontational tone of the sequence was at its strongest in the next pairing. First a young woman stands in a room where “i have No VAgiNA” has been graffitied on a door; in the next photograph, an older woman seen from below in a car stares us down as she hoists up her skirt and spreads her legs so we can look right into her vagina. And yet . . . The care with which the photographs were arranged and their increasingly forceful feel were intentionally undermined by the casual, haphazard way they’d been displayed, suspended from a steel wire on binder clips like family
wash on a clothesline.
Thus, despite a certain heavy-handedness, Steiner ultimately showed a desire to domesticate impressions of the lesbian culture in which she lives. And this was where the really radical aspect of her exhibition lay, in the various installation strategies and what they suggested. Most significant in this regard was her decision to include, in the middle of the sparsely hung show, a compactly built, multi-drawer archive in which at least a thousand more prints were available. An archivist was on duty to retrieve work filed in over 100 categories.
There were pictures in which the subjects’ defiance of conventional mores slips over into conventional pornography, including the S & M variety. But the overall effect was that you saw these women’s lives in enough detail to realize that you were looking at a kind of self-celebration not ultimately alien to the mainstream’s endless selfies and goofy party pictures. These prints tone down the rhetoric of what’s on the walls not only because they give variety and dimension to the lives their subjects live, but because they’re all little Shutterfly or Snapfish prints, the common photographic coin of our shared civilization. That the women in these pictures are usually more or less naked might initially be shocking, but the more you look, the more familiar their lives become.