in Frieze | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Still Ill

Liza May Post

in Frieze | 07 JUN 97

Obviously people feel one way among furniture that is soft and comfortable and voluptuous, and quite another among the straight lines of these tables, chairs and draperies. This brightness and hardness, this cold, austere simplicity and reserved strength, Madame - it has upon me the ultimate effect of an inward purification and rebirth. Beyond a doubt it is morally uplifting.

- Thomas Mann, Tristian (1902)

The site of the drama is the institution. The dull thump of padded soles echoes the age-old mantra of hygiene, restraint and suppression; the long corridors of whiteness prescribe rigidity as the mandatory path to well-being. Institutional settings - be they fictive (Thomas Mann and Ken Kesey) or documented (Oliver Sacks and filmmaker Frederick Weissman) - produce dinner theatre at the drop of a hat. Here delusional ranting and eavesdropping are, if not desirable, then at the very least expected. In these monumental caves the grandest of voyeurs, with their miked and mirrored consulting rooms, observe and modify, providing an excellent model for the practice of photography.

These spaces - the Hospital, the Asylum, the School, the Orphanage - provide the perfect stage for Liza May Post's photographs, which tape down the drag of time that is their norm. The bleak white cube strives to erode difference and promote an imperturbable sense of assimilation, but it also remains susceptible to the smallest prop or colour to subvert its order and in turn create a drama. In a sense it becomes the screen onto which irregularity is flushed out of hiding. In Post's world, space swallows up its inhabitants and bodies develop the rare ability to blend into their horizons. An open refrigerator door; an expanse of white linen sheets; a white concrete floor; pale white skin; a white vanity and matching head-dress - elements of artificial tranquility become exercises in sensory deprivation, somewhere between ambient and catatonic. The peaceful tenor of these pictures is warped by the nonsensical series of occurrences they contain. In Spilling (1995), a girlish woman contemplates a magenta pool of liquid that seems to have originated not from an empty refrigerator door that juts into the frame, but from some other, non-visible duct. The liquid's suggestive placement teases the viewer, reflecting the underneath of the woman's pleated pink skirt. In the end, after having been lured between her legs, the viewer's eye moves back up to her chest to find it has caught a dropper full of the liquid on its way to the puddle below.

Like many of her contemporaries (Inez van Lamsweerde, Vanessa Beecroft and Karen Kilimnik), but perhaps with more rigour, Post offers a body of work which is able to reference 80s photography associated with female representation (Sarah Charlesworth, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman) without being wholly determined by a set of predatory discourses. In this post-Theory era, the puddle may be read through Luce Irigaray as well as some modern Margaret Mead. In the 90s autobiography and invention cross to create a set of believable fictions that has its roots both in the modern psychoanalytic view that places how the story is told on a par with how events actually unfolded, and the anthropological desire to work backwards towards the scene of the actual occurrence. In Post's work the ritual is traced rather than broken down and rewritten. The illness that floats like a spectre in each picture is not only the complex condition of femininity located in a subject, but something that is occurring off-stage, being witnessed, perhaps fabricated; a psychological thriller rather than a psychoanalytic twist. And yet, Post's work is a bridge. It allows for the useful questions that were broached in the 70s and 80s, but hardly depends on them for its definition. Her employment of stark white walls and monochromatic furniture (Sci-Fi's fantasy of a far-off modernity) replaces the kitsch sentimentality and 50s references utilised by artists of the previous generation. But despite their coolness, Post's tableaux still manage to promote a creepy, unsettled veneer, like the feeling conjured up by the revisitations of Hitchcock's Marnie to the scene of the crime; indeed they often touch upon film's characterisations of women, replacing dialogue with an almost schizoid narrative.

Antithetical to these sparse scenarios, where tranquility and mourning intersect, are the more saturated exterior shots. Here the mesmerising tension of insularity is replaced by a more proactive performance, as the characters that Post documents seems caught up in some undetermined conflict. Thrown up over the shoulders of a man (Lifting Up, 1994) a woman's bare legs lead to an exposed pair of white cotton panties. As if in the middle of an experimental figure-skating lift, his head disappears under her skirt while hers vanishes behind his back into a brick wall. The rouge used to create a strange rash across the man's exposed skin further asserts the ambiguity of this movement. In The Perfume Department (1996) a woman overcome either by perfume fumes or a bout of extreme melancholia lies on the floor while shoppers move in a blur around her. Melding the posture of protest (the refusal to move) and invisibility, the female form breaks rank in the middle of her synthetic eco-system. This mixture of dysfunction and reductive heroism in the image of a woman who may or may not have lost control in a public arena, is also apparent in Stretch (1995). In its frozen antiquity, compulsion appears as a sexy, dusty elf in a Christmas window display: a woman who appears to have been dipped in flour cuts out paper chains in a corner filled with plain paper-covered books. 1 This figure, unlike most in Post's work, not only shows her face, but also an expression that acknowledges the viewer's gaze. Back in the institution, tasks are routinely performed for no result other than the performance: the mimesis of productivity - work sets you free.

In the last two decades of visual art it has been Cindy Sherman's face that has overwhelmingly reflected female expression. Picture after picture reveals her malleable features, groomed and styled into the pert, coy, wistful, innocent, gaudy, flirtatious and vulnerable; the expressions of waiting, yearning, desiring; and the appearances of boredom, disappointment and optimism. All these mood manoeuvres successfully remade Hollywood stereotypes, commenting on and simultaneously providing us with the images we love the most. Post's work brings another dimension to the female self-portrait by maintaining a distance that results in a denial of consumption, or a collaboration with the viewer's expectations. Key to the female poses of the 80s (and the unspoken distinction between 'us' and 'them') has been the invisible respondent: the male lead. And being observed by a simulated male presence turns easily to performing for one. In Henry James' The Aspern Papers (1888), a dowager wears a green veil over her face when she speaks to a biographer who seeks to retrieve some valuable correspondence. This use of the veil is brought to mind by Post's illusions, not only because she does not want to be seen, but perhaps because, like the old woman, she does not want to see her interloper's assessment and, therefore, definition of her.

In the bulk of Post's work, the face, the signifier of distrust, disgust, arousal and everything else is removed from the frame. Communication is subtitled with set decoration, costume and the aura of a missing identity. Looking through gauze in the melodramatic Untitled (1996) may be impractical, but not impossible. It may be misconstrued as hiding, or hiding may be confused with turning away. Post's subject looks to look away, to remove not only your appraisal, but her own gaze, her own contact with your response. In this interruption of the photograph's circuitous illusion, the viewer never gets it, never gets a foot in. Regardless of the level of political content, the photograph seduces, and the awkward placement of the body in Post's work attests to the difficulty of not engaging the viewer erotically when presenting them with a female face. Whether seated at a school desk (Table, 1992) or suspended above ground, Post's bodies hold their form like mannequins so that even body language is hushed. While bare skin, slender legs and the nape of a neck all offer evocative meanderings, the lifeless countenance suspends objectification. Perhaps, as in the performances of Vanessa Beecroft, alienation interrupts sexual innuendo. As with Beecroft's wind tunnel of replicas, in Post's built-up little worlds there is no antagonism, no flinch, just a shallow pause, as if waiting for the light to change.

That there is little flirtation in this work is a constant reinforcement of the artist's control and manipulation. The potent intersection between sex and death, sexual and medical restraint is crystalline in Spilling, where the girl catching her reflection in the puddle seems to be standing on stumps, her arms tightly wrapped behind her back. Putting the female body in a position to be taken from behind is reminiscent of any number of horror films, most notably Psycho (1960), yet the passive/aggressive static quality renders the image barren of standard titillation. In Misprint (1993), Post shoots a visitor in a hospital examining room. The visitor's legs look like prosthetics, but their moulded appearance is achieved by make-up and a double coat of high socks, the tops of which are also painted to blend in with the flesh.

Herein lies an important metaphor for a body in flux, with very little difference between inside and outside. A fake leg is not really nude, but in fact acts as a kind of cover-up, for a stump, an error. Where a reading by Irigaray might lead us to another discussion of inside and out vis-à-vis the locus of female pleasure, it would be a mistake to underestimate autobiography and the narrative pull of these pieces. In Post's work, isolated segments of drama are not just symbolic fodder for case studies, but examinations of the ebb and flow of displacement as it is contrasted by real time. In A Slower Life (1992), a woman's back and plasticine bare thighs and a cool linoleum floor provide all that was eerie in Sherman's noir stills without delivering the familiar facial expressions that promised a dramatic climax. 2 (As the title suggests, there is little climaxing going on in this picture.) The blur of a set of old-fashioned luggage is the only suggestion of movement or life: where the woman is going is irrelevant. With its canopied child's bed and dust-ruffled furniture, the room becomes the set of a conflict that has long been wiped clean.

1. These volumes had already been made by the artist: at one point in time she recovered all the books she owned with the same plain paper, so that they would be indistinguishable from one another. This idea of homogeneity runs through her work, culminating in an image of a woman dressed in the same material as the sofa she sits upon.

2. c.f. Sherman's Untitled Film Still # 48 (The Hitchhiker) (1979)