Exhibitions

Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Suzy Lake, 1972-1978

Main Gallery May 19–Aug 11, 2007

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ID Theft ELSA Intro Image 620x403
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Identity Theft: Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, Suzy Lake, 1972-1978
May 19–Aug 11, 2007

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Eleanor Antin, Portraits of the King, 1972

Identity Theft was the first show to feature the early, pioneering work of Eleanor Antin, Lynn Hershman, and Suzy Lake, artists who developed alter egos or false identities in photographs, videos, on stage, and in real-life performances. Conceived and guest-curated by Jori Finkel, the exhibition explored the history of role-playing in contemporary art through works created during the heyday of feminism. Identity Theft marked a number of milestones in the exposition of these artists’ works: the first-ever full presentation of Hershman’s Roberta Breitmore project; the first screening of Antin’s The Nurse and the Hijackers since September 11, 2001, when the disaster movie spoof (set on an airplane) was pulled from an exhibition in England; and the first U.S. showing of Lake’s groundbreaking Transformations series since their 1975 debut. The exhibition included more than 100 photographs, videos, sculpture, and ephemera.

In San Francisco in 1974, Lynn Hershman donned a wig and adopted a particular set of gestures to create an alter ego named Roberta Breitmore, a fictional character who grew so real over the years that she acquired her own driver’s license, apartment, and romantic encounters. She also went to Weight Watchers, EST seminars, and psychotherapy. Hershman alternately describes Roberta as the ”underbelly” of her own personality and a ”mirror held up to her culture.”

In Southern California starting in 1972, Eleanor Antin gave birth to three ”selves”: a king, a ballerina, and a nurse, which she compared to Jungian archetypes. First, she painstakingly applied a beard and took to the streets of Solana Beach as a king attending his peoples. She next became her ”idealized female self”–a classical ballerina, practicing her technique every day so she could quasi-legitimately play the role in staged and taped performance. Later, in photographs and videos, she brought to life two different kinds of nurses: a flirtatious nurse worthy of any soap opera and a historical figure inspired by Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile, in Montreal, Detroit-born artist Suzy Lake investigated the cultural construction of character by trying on various roles for size. She posed as a glamorous fashion model for one series, which took the form of a slideshow (1972-75). She borrowed the facial features of her friends for another, which consists of large-scale pre-Photoshop manipulated photographs called Transformations (1974). She also applied cosmetics directly to the surface of photographic prints, recognizing makeup as the oil paint of the day, and her face as the canvas.

Together, Antin, Hershman, and Lake were pioneers of what art critic Kim Levin once called the ”high-risk” art of self-transformation. Their work challenged fixed notions of identity and femininity, raising questions of who we are and whom we can pass as. They combined acting skills with more traditional artmaking techniques to document their double lives in detail. They relied above all on the medium of photography, paving the way for conceptual artists to come, from Cindy Sherman to Nikki S. Lee.