BY Stephanie DeGooyer in Profiles | 17 OCT 16
Featured in
Issue 182

Yours Truly

Irony and honesty combine in the work of the late Ellen Cantor

BY Stephanie DeGooyer in Profiles | 17 OCT 16

I want to be both pathetic and admirable, I want to be at the same time a child and an adult.
Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (1977)

There is a sense as an adult, why is this happening? There is no way to get away from it – everywhere around you is perpetual violence, and it’s on a personal level also. Still retaining this vision you grow up with as a child – that there is goodness, honour, love – how do you reconcile this?
Ellen Cantor, My Perversion Is the Belief in True Love (1999)

This autumn, four galleries in New York – Foxy Production, Participant Inc., New York University’s 80WSE Gallery and Maccarone – are collectively offering a major retrospective of works by the late artist Ellen Cantor (1961–2013), following shows at San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art and Künstlerhaus Stuttgart earlier this year. It is fitting that this survey should be scattered across the city. Cantor’s art cannot be summed up in one encounter, much less one curatorial narrative. By training, she was a painter. Yet, as these exhibitions make plain, her most memorable work is in the fields of drawing, video art, film and writing. In these pieces, Cantor draws on lachrymose and hackneyed types – Disney films, classic American movies, French new wave cinema – as well as horror tropes (such as the ‘final girl’: the only one to survive a killer), to tell stories about the female self. Her works are often violent and explicitly sexual, but not sad or angry; they have an adolescent attention span (and sense of melodrama), but they are not diffident or irreverent. Cantor is a postmodern raconteur, who uses irony both to destabilize narratives about love and innocence and to revel in their utopian possibility.

Ellen Cantor, Pinochet Porn, 2008-16, film still. All images courtesy: the Ellen Cantor Estate

Cantor’s longest film work is Pinochet Porn (2008–16), which premieres on Halloween at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, though segments of it are on display, along with the series of drawings upon which it is based, at 80WSE Gallery. Begun in 2008, and posthumously finished this year, Pinochet Porn is difficult to summarize. Cantor herself described it as a soap opera about the lives of five Chilean children growing up under the Pinochet regime. But Pinochet is hardly the film’s epicentre. It opens with a blurry close-up of the dictator, which is merged with archival footage of soldiers, people running in the street and military tanks. After this montage, an animated sequence about two children growing up in a mansion in Santiago bleeds into footage of a hedonistic party cued to mid-1990s evangelical mega-church music as well as a recording of the mystic guru Osho. All this takes place within the first 15 minutes. The film ends with an enigmatic question posed by the narrator: ‘Is tragedy a choice?’

Pinochet Porn is both grotesquely comic and intensely serious. This blend is typical of Cantor’s emotional approach. She is interested in suffering, but knows that there is no proper voice for it. In the early 1990s, she saw herself as part of a new generation of feminist artists aiming to disrupt patriarchal art history by bringing their personal lives to bear on the art world. Much of Cantor’s early work depicts women in various fantasy scenarios or as ancient feminine power figures. Some of these works are on display at Participant Inc., in the show ‘Lovely Girl’s Emotions’, organized by Lia Gangitano (who is also brilliant as the dictator’s spoiled twin daughters in Pinochet Porn). Among them is a painted wood sculpture of naked female bodies arranged like a pinwheel. Some have blackened eyes or ruddy lips; others have their arms extended overhead or brace themselves triumphantly over an animal. An eye-like vagina is the focal point of the piece. The whole thing explodes with a desire and pleasure that is at once deeply allegorical and crudely homespun.

Cantor offers a grand and personal meditation on love, the most clichéd of experiences, fully aware of the limits of communication.

Like her peer Tracy Emin, Cantor challenges divisions between private and public life, but with a key difference: Emin’s most infamous installations (Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, 1995, and My Bed, 1998) reject the shame so often projected onto the female body by exposing its stains, fluids and intimacies to public view. Cantor’s work, however, especially the video she began pursuing from the mid-1990s, is too knowingly melodramatic – too grandly operatic and orchestrated – for confessional art. Cantor also approaches intimacy as a problem. In the video Within Heaven and Hell (1996), for example, she narrates bits from her diary about the end of a love affair to an edited montage of footage from Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). If Cantor really believes in the ‘divine love’ of her narration she takes no pains to convince her audience. There is an understanding in her work that private experience and feelings are not always received with the same force as they are felt by their protagonists. From an outside perspective, personal tragedy is always, to a certain degree, bathetic. ‘You sound like a movie,’ her lover replies to her suggestion that ‘they are like two rivers brought together to form one lake’. 

Around 1999, after moving from New York to London, she began to turn the focus of her work inside out. By her own account, she moved to a society less explicitly – or less optimistically – sexual. In a 2009 interview in MAP Magazine, she recalled ‘walking through Tenerife wearing a hand-drawn clown mask, nearly mad from grief, I realized I could no longer safely draw on love for inspiration’. While her 1990s work bears the heavy imprint of the confessional artists of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s (concerned with issues from ‘woman’s role in society, the AIDS crisis, to gender evaluations, to love’), the work of the London years (which includes Pinochet Porn) is more politically arch. In the video Bambi’s Beastly Buddies (2005), for example, Cantor operates a sinister puppet show in front of the animated Disney film. The juxtaposition brings the violence of everyday adult life to bear on the propagandistic innocence of the child. After hearing that Nick Berg, an American telecommunications contractor, had been filmed being beheaded by Islamic militants, Cantor added a scene in which she ceremoniously set Bambi on fire to a refrain from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9: Ode to Joy (1824), an act that both declared the death of innocence and turned the volume up against death itself. 

Ellen Cantor, Circus Lives from Hell, 2005, pencil and ink on paper

Later in life, Cantor would realize that her art was not so much a radical resistance to Western art history as a different way of approaching its preoccupation with tragedy. In 2008, she recalled going as a child with her father to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Every Sunday, they would look at paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Vincent van Gogh, Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn. They always viewed the same works. ‘Now I realize,’ Cantor reflected in an interview, ‘this tour is the basis for my art making – which is largely political in intent, figurative, highly detailed, dramatic, emotional and contains adult subject matter.’ Cantor was keen to dispel assumptions about the informality of her work. Her drawings, for example, may appear slapdash (like doodles from a bored teenager’s school notebook), but they are self-consciously so. As in the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c.1558), attributed to Bruegel, where Icarus’s crash into the sea is a barely perceptible detail in a scene otherwise preoccupied with the spring harvest, Cantor’s art is about the scale of tragedy. In her work, the end of a love affair or a memory about learning to ride a unicycle assume epic proportions, while the cruelty of political dictatorship is played out in the bedroom.

Classically, tragedy is a genre about proportion – it is about crimes and sufferings that are deep and heavy enough to warrant ‘pity and terror’. In figuratively (and literally) blowing tragedy out of proportion (there is a ten minute blow-job scene in Pinochet Porn), Cantor’s work does not seek an authentic or unspun confession of the self – as in much feminist autobiographical art. Instead, her art belongs with the likes of Chris Kraus’s cult classic I Love Dick (1997) or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), as well as the philosophical autobiographies of Roland Barthes and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Like these authors, Cantor offers a grand and personal meditation on love, the most clichéd of experiences, fully aware of the limits of communication. She is especially close to Kraus in not being afraid to risk corniness in her pursuit of suffering, and she shares with Nelson a deep understanding of how language and culture shape gendered identity. Perhaps this is why her work feels so newly relevant today. It expresses the fictional idealizations by which we survive or ignore our own suffering and the suffering of others. It is about the ignorance of utopian fantasy. Cantor has said: ‘This is a vision I grew up with, a sense of innocence and possibilities in the world.’ It is a vision she maintained, even as she unmade it.

Ellen Cantor (1967–2013) was an artist based between London, UK, and New York, USA. Her solo exhibitions included: ‘Within a Budding Grove’ at Participant Inc., New York, 2008; ‘Bambi’s Beastly Bunnies’, at Sketch, London, 2005; ‘My Perversion Is the Belief in True Love’ at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria, 1999; and ‘Video 1995–1998’ at Kunstverein Salzburg, Austria, 1999. She is currently the subject of retrospective exhibitions at Foxy Production, Participant Inc, 80WSE Gallery and Maccarone, all in New York. Her film Pinochet Porn will premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on 31 October 2016.

Lead image: Ellen Cantor, Pinochet Porn, 2008-16, film still (detail)

Stephanie DeGooyer is assistant professor of English at Willamette University, USA. Her book, The Right To Have Rights, co-authored with Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell and Sam Moyn, is forthcoming from Verso Books. Follow her @Stevie_DG