Portrait Samara Golden
Samara Golden‘s phantasmagoric installations bring to mind the halls of mirrors in old amusement parks as well as the dark glamour of Hollywood. On the occasion of the Los Angeles–based artist‘s exhibition at MoMA PS1, Dorothée Dupuis explores the uncanny power of Golden‘s work and discovers a form of resistance in the emotions conjured up by the shimmering interiors of the American home.
The home has long been the main stage for the fabrication of American values and identity, where a polished main protagonist, the perfect American family, performs within its starring decor, the living room (with its giant TV set). American TV shows such as Friends, Roseanne, The Cosby Show, Married with Children, to name just a few of those I watched as a child, all share this conventional though enigmatic setting. The main action is always centred on the couch, where the characters sit and chat as if the viewers had taken the place of their TV set. This Alice-through-the-looking-glass setting was completed, on the other side of the screen, by my own familial and domestic situation. In the plot of these shows, the American home seems to affirm itself as a site of negotiation between two glaring polarities of American society: the desire for conformity and social respectability, on the one hand, and the longing for individualism, freedom and self-expression, on the other – a paradox that continues to puzzle me in American culture.
This dystopian domestic space appears to be Samara Golden’s favourite playground. The ambitious, detailed sculptural environments she constructs often allude to existing places drawn from the artist’s biography, such as her grandparents’ home in Arizona, a couch crowded with friends and visitors at her studio, and a hypothetical hospital room recalling a near-death experience Golden had in her early thirties. These spaces, though life-size, are not built in a realistic way, but rather so as to evoke the emotions once experienced in these various settings. Golden’s point is not to document: the emphasis is rather on feelings, atmospheres, memories and mental landscapes. The vintage quality of the work acts as an attempt to recall a recent past present in all of us, and encourages one to delve into one’s own imagination to confront one’s traumas, dreams and emotions. What am I witnessing, after all, as I watch the dysfunctional family on the other side of the television screen? A drawn-out battle between society, rules, constraints, and the possibilities of getting closer to one’s desires, needs, objects of envy, and one’s own self, through a dialectic between imagination and reality – that, here, plays out in art’s battle with representation.
Most of Golden’s installations are built in Rmax, an insulation material made of high-density foam pressed in slabs and covered with a type of aluminium foil that gives it disruptive reflective properties. In the past she also used many found objects, confessing to being an obsessive thrifter, but now most of the objects in her installations are made by hand. The built artefacts – couches, bar stools, tables, beds, musical instruments, blinds, windows, etc. – are then bathed in sophisticatedly choreographed light, with shy mauves, minty greens, warm oranges, and rich turquoises coming mostly from video projections and monitors but also from domestic lights arranged in a lovinghousewife kind of way. Colourful plaids, carpet and other fabrics are reflected in the shiny materials and add specific spots of colour here and there, forming nuanced tableaux that could come straight out of an early David Lynch movie. Like TV sets, these arrangements always lack the fourth wall, and within them large mirrored surfaces replace some part of the floor, ceiling, or walls, in order to cleverly reflect and duplicate some points of view, evoking the halls of mirrors in old theme parks. It’s very impressive to see how this very simple trick remains so effective, its analogue process easily hushing away the most powerful CGI image, turning the space into an infinite game of reflections, in which the viewers also see themselves. The monitors, moreover, often display surveillance- type looped footage of the installation itself. The larger video projections mostly represent exterior spaces, such as a sunset (in Golden’s show earlier this year at the Night Gallery in Los Angeles), or a view of an idealised tropical beach (for the installation currently on view at MoMA PS1 in New York). Discreet touches of sound here and there – waves endlessly crashing on the shore, tiny radio sets broadcasting lazily cheerful supermarket music – add the last subtle notes to these carefully choreographed environments.
Of course, it’s hard not to see in Golden’s work an affiliation with previous generations of Los Angeles artists concerned with the representation of the American family in a distorted and neurotic way, such as Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and so many others, as is also suggested by the explicitly brutal titles of her exhibitions and installations: Bad Brains (2012), “Rape of the Mirror” (2010), “Mass Murder” (2014), or “The Flat Side of the Knife” (2014). Her work’s proximity to decor can of course be seen as relating to Hollywood, too, but rather than longing for activation, Golden’s empty stages present a stillness in keeping with their phantasmagorical nature, as if their purpose were just to fix in space some lingering mental obsessions. Golden nevertheless mentions Tony Oursler as a possible influence, although she insists on working mainly from her own imagination and memories, uninterested in quoting other artists in her practice, in an almost amnesiac way that seems as honest as it is nonchalant. If searching out links to recent art history is not the point, neither is engaging a particular conversation with other sculptural trends.
The art object here is not conceived from the perspective of its commodification: it’s above all a material for experience.
But what primarily makes Golden’s work stand out in the context of current American art is its particular understanding of time – a time not geared towards productivity, capital, or efficiency, but reflection, dreams, the romance of memory, longing, loneliness. Golden’s art reminds us that we are contemplative beings much more affected by our surroundings than we are usually willing to admit. At PS1, for example, the viewer could peer into an immaculate room with several objects reflected in its mirrored floor. One saw a bed, a few armchairs, a carpet, and guitars, while its windows appeared to open onto a perfect sandy beach. Golden explained to me that this room represented an imaginary retreat, a place to create, write, relax, take refuge from daily routine and reality. Although this image informs the rest of the show, the space is itself inaccessible and can thus be seen as the exhibition’s unconscious. It reminds me of New York–based artist and writer John Menick’s ideas about contemporary American cinema: I remember him saying once that American cinema now favours rapid personality shifts (as in superhero movies, where a shy teenager transforms into a confident brute) over the slower, more Freudian mechanisms typical of the golden era of Hollywood, when dark, ambiguous heroines and heroes devel oped and grew older – archetypal personas exploring antagonistic facets of human personality and experience.
Golden graduated from Columbia in 2009. She was then aged 37. After graduation, she moved to LA, seeing it as a place where she could make art differently, with more space and, of course, more time. Golden’s work reminds us that there are artists for whom America’s underground, folk, popular, vernacular and countercultural realm, which has again and again proved itself a site of resistance, remains vivid and operational.
Dorothée Dupuis is an independent curator and writer living between France and Mexico City. She is co-publisher of the magazine Petunia and founder of terremoto.mx.
Samara Golden, born 1973 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lives in Los Angeles. Exhibitions: MoMA PS1, New York (solo); Made in LA, Hammer Museum, LA; Wrong’s What I Do Best, San Francisco Art Institute; Mass Murder, Night Gallery, LA (solo) (2014); Set Pieces, Cardi Black Box, Milano; Nevermore, On Stellar Rays, NY (2013); Modern Painters (with/mit Davida Nemeroff); Various Small Fires; LA; Hot Tub Time Machine, Canada Gallery, NY; Bad Brains, Frieze Art Fair, NY (2012); Rape of the Mirror, Night Gallery, LA (solo) (2011). Represented by: Night Gallery, Los Angeles; Canada Gallery, New York