In My Barbarian’s recent exhibition, as on the analyst’s couch, all roads pointed to one source: the mother. For “Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse,” the Los Angeles-based collective—Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade—created a provocative amalgam of maternal imagery. Yet, like psychoanalysis itself, My Barbarian’s work only further tangles the gnarled relationships and histories it purports to unpack.
The show’s unwieldy title is a mash-up of a famous 1948 manifesto coauthored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and a 1929 speech given by Freud’s acolyte-turned-competitor Melanie Klein. Both historical figures appear in the video Working Mother (2013), in which they are played by venerable feminist artists in the L.A. art world, Eleanor Antin and Mary Kelly, respectively, who have themselves dealt with the subject of maternity. Other scenes in the video depict tender intergenerational exchanges between the artists and their own mothers. The earnestness and humor of these conversations contrast with self-consciously “acted” vignettes on the themes of maternity and domesticity, including My Barbarian’s own deadpan delivery of the Shangri-Las’ 1960s ballad “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”
While recurring images of mothers ostensibly link each of these segments, the video’s varied styles and tones also defamiliarize traditional representations of motherhood, opening the way for new images of maternal care. Perhaps the most famous mother-and-child duo appears in the video’s finale, as the group performs a dance based on Michelangelo’s Pietà. Amid a black-box setting, the trio alternates cradling one another languidly; a shuffling of steps and awkward maneuvering of positions mark each hasty transition. Willfully reversing the Renaissance master’s somber tribute to suffering and eternal salvation, the represented “sculpture” is constantly shifting and impermanent, subject to the episodic logic of the theater.
The exhibition opened with My Barbarian staging an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1932 play The Mother. Masks and drawings used in that performance flanked a triangular plywood stage in the gallery. Brecht’s drama examines a mother’s growing radicalism amid restless factory workers on the eve of the October Revolution. In the hands of My Barbarian, the didactic play becomes a timely and knowing caper, self-consciously mobilizing the playwright’s influential theories for both comedic effect and contemporary political relevance.
To add to an already dizzying list of historical references, the play’s props and scenography draw on various modernist sources, including the political drawings of German artist Käthe Kollwitz, Surrealist imagery and the woodcuts of Mary Cassatt. These artifacts seem to embody Klein’s famous notion that artists produce objects to work through their own mommy issues. Another of the psychoanalyst’s major contributions was to identify the depressive position: the infant’s learned ability to reconcile notions of the mother as the one who both frustrates and gratifies. Equal parts sincere and sardonic, My Barbarian extrapolates this ability to sustain contradiction to great effect.
“He’s in. What’s next?” “Looking down at your hands and seeing monsters.” So goes a nonsensical exchange in the video The Night Epi$ode Pilot: Purgatorial Curatorial between artists Malik Gaines, playing a blind chief curator who works in the “sightless context” of sound and sculpture, and Jade Gordon, in the role of a “nightmare curator” who says she plans to wear a suicide bomb to an opening. Projected on a large screen, the piece is one of seven looped segments that constitute the installation “The Night Epi$ode” (2009). This topical, beautifully produced New York debut by the Los Angeles-based trio My Barbarian sustained a campy sensibility throughout but no overarching plotline. The videos operate in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, famously catalyzed by the traumas of World War II. My Barbarian’s trademark lunacy, however, touches on—and provides some wanted relief from—contemporary anxieties over issues such as the recent economic collapse, unemployment, Internet dating, environmental sustainability, healthcare and gay marriage.
Purgatorial Curatorial spoofs—without getting so close to home that any particular person might get his or her hackles up—the praxis of the art world’s select pool of deciders. In this vignette, My Barbarian’s third member, Alejandro Segade, who has a vertical black stripe painted on one eyelid, plays a “curator of interdimensional practices.” The three have an earnest discussion about insane exhibition possibilities that bear just enough resemblance to certain contemporary art to be funny but not enough to constitute a critique: a Japanese duo who once destroyed a whole town, and a woman artist who wrapped herself in marijuana, set herself on fire and got high off of her own burning flesh. “We must get the budget from the education department!” one curator exclaims. Loosely based on Sartre’s No Exit and played on a theater-scale screen, Purgatorial Curatorial presides over an installation of old televisions on plinths, where other wacky stories unfold.
All members of My Barbarian periodically burst into song, and they do it well. In the segment Veronika Phoenix—which like the others is looped on a TV and preceded by opening credits—Gordon wanders outdoors with blood dripping down her face and her throat slit, wearing a diaphanous white dress, singing about a Prius and an SUV. In the hilarious Yoga Matt, Segade (playing a character named Matt) takes a yoga class taught by Gordon, who here has lip, brow and nose rings. After the yoga releases noxious toxins and causes oozing boils to overtake his body, a witch doctor (Gaines) shows up wearing pants decorated with Obama’s visage to cure Segade. At a time when right-wing Tea Party protestors proffer blatantly racist portrayals of Obama as a witch doctor, it’s quite nice to see My Barbarian making the association seem as silly as it is.
Photo: My Barbarian: The Night Epi$ose Pilot: Purgatorial Curatorial, 2009, single-channel video, 15 minutes; at Participant Inc.