Joe Scanlan’s 2003 Self Portrait (Pay Dirt) is a photograph of the artist, grinning, shirt collar open, with a layer of brown muck smeared all over his face. His subtitle offers a punning critique of capitalism (“filthy rich”), willfully ignoring the image’s obvious associations with blackface. In the context of Scanlan’s most famous ongoing project—in which the artist assigns the authorship of collages, sculptures and shady conceptual gags to a character he invented, a black woman named Donelle Woolford—what emerges is the business of profiting off of one’s white privilege, in other words, Scanlan’s career.
Meme (2015) is a remake, for which Scanlan has placed the text “HA HA! BUSINESS!” (in the blocky, all-caps font made famous by lolcats) on the same image, as if this time the language of the Internet would distract from the worst of the white racial imaginary. Perhaps, Scanlan imagined, we’d recall the “HA HA! BUSINESS!” meme: that same text over a stock photo of a suited white normaloid celebrating on a cell phone. Scanlan’s remake was included in (and made the promotional image for) an exhibition at Luis De Jesus occasioned by the “HA HA! BUSINESS!” meme. Surely, business was the paramount impetus for this and much of L.A.’s recent smattering of limp group shows, and the curation here was pure laughs: Scanlan’s piece; less offensive but still disappointing works by Josh Reames and Juan Pablo Echeverri; respectable contributions by Zackary Drucker and Ramiro Gomez installed too densely to appreciate; and the best performance I’ve seen in months—Deja Vu (2015), by the African-American artist Lex Brown.
A persistent synth beat and a sequence of YouTube clips formed the background as Brown rapped and sang. With a half-dozen original “tracks” and pauses for “real talk,” she inflected vicious critiques of white supremacy with a pop star’s virtuosity: “Thank you Starbucks for helping me accept my bourgeoisie / Thank you slave ancestors for teaching your sons how to read / Because of you I’m ’bout to reach a new level of mobility / Talking about me!” Calling out the narcissism of pop music and performance art (think: the bootstraps narrative of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” or the cult of celebrity around Chris Burden’s Shoot), Brown challenged the promise of personal fame as an escape from structural inequality, the redlining of high and low culture that relegates much of black art to the status of entertainment, and the vulnerability of the black female body. Brown’s most chilling lyric rings: “I’m just using my mother tongue / But my mother, she was raped by a man with a gun / And she learned to talk at gunpoint.”
Through Woolford, Scanlan accessed the language of black female identity without the imperiled embodiment that shapes its syntax. Searching, as he has put it, for “someone who could better exploit [his work’s] historical and cultural references,” Scanlan mistook the social codes of identity for exchangeable commodities, and the artist’s role for that of an overseer. As Brown’s parody of pop entertainment makes clear, every attempt to parlay identity—even one’s own—into profit is an act that risks #trending as it presses for change. Authenticity is often just self-aware self-exploitation. HA HA: it’s a lever and a trap.