LA-based photographer Heather Cantrell is having way too much fun. Her photos of the artists, curators, dealers, writers, collectors, and friends who populate her world are eccentric, enigmatic documents taking aim at conventional understandings of how the portrait functions, from art history to pop psychology. Her subjects collaborate with Cantrell’s premises; interacting with zany props like taxidermy animals, elaborate masks, candles, potted plants, clothing, books, and exotic textiles to create individualized tableaux.
Reminiscent of the lyrics of Bowie’s 1971 tribute to Warhol, “Dress your friends up just for show / See them as they really are,” the function of communicating personality now lies in the subject’s way of dealing with the surroundings, as much if not more than in the qualities of his or her physical appearance. Witness ersatz LA Weekly editor Tom Christie with his shamanic candles and piercing stare; artist and designer Peregrine Honig strident as a swashbuckling pin-up girl; gallerist Whitney Carter in full-on mask and prop mode; or respected curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist dapper and possibly irked against an expressively abstract painted wall, standing erect with zero shenanigans.
Cantrell’s current series, Mirror Gaze, is a continuation of an ongoing portrait project, with variable settings ranging from public gallery spaces to private in-studio invitationals. The title refers in part to the artist’s “presence” in each picture, as the far wall behind the subject is literally a mirror in which her own reflection is captured during the picture-taking, such that both she and the sitter face the viewer. The little game of finding her masked and/or bikini-clad figure in the dense foliage collapses both the pictorial space and the fourth wall, revealing the artifice of the image (which given the cheeky poses and surreal wardrobe choices is not really necessary); but it also makes explicit the artist’s desire to both exploit and subvert conventions of 18th and 19th Century painting, as well as the popularity and “novelty” that attended the long-ago advent of photography itself.
Heather Cantrell: Mirror Gaze is on view at Kinkead Contemporary in Los Angeles through February 19.
Click through for a gallery of images.
Heather Cantrell, A Study in Portraiture (Tom Christie), 2010, silver rag archival ink jet, ed. unique, 15 x 12″