We typically think of acts of resistance as gestures that stand out, disrupt, or cause a ruckus. But the work of Los Angeles artist Gina Osterloh suggests that resisting can also mean blending in, or fading into the background. For years, she has explored the wavering line between figure and ground, photographing actual people (often herself), fanciful, fabricated mannequins, or rough cardboard silhouettes against paper backdrops of her own devising. These figures are often patterned to match the background in a kind of camouflage, causing their contours to flicker in and out of view. This optical confusion is heightened by the flattening effect of the camera. Robert Crouch, co-curator (with Carol A. Stakenas) of Osterloh's current three-month residency at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), admits that he was at first perplexed by her work. "I could not figure it out at all," he says, "I found it really confusing, but in a good way."
"There's so much confusion happening between the surface of the photo and the depth of the image, the figures in the image and the background, the frame itself as a kind of container," he continues, "It just seemed like they were all speaking to each other, but they were all speaking to each other kind of quietly and secretly."
This fugitive quality can be seen as a kind of protest, as it obfuscates the decisive contours that usually enable identification. "It's the shape of resistance that a body is presenting to refuse being named. It's a very clear choice," Osterloh says.
During her residency, which began in late June (The results will be on view at LACE September 6 - 30), Osterloh has opened her practice to the public, turning the gallery into a photography studio and engaging with anyone who strolls in off Hollywood Boulevard. It's been both challenging and exhilarating for the soft-spoken artist, but the result, still very much in progress, seems to be a more unpredictable, social version of what has until now been a relatively solo practice. It's as if Osterloh's work were following the lead of her paper figures: blending into the stream of life on one of L.A.'s busiest tourist strips.
She has literally invited people into the work, spending the first few weeks of her residency meeting with individuals and tracing their shadows on sheets of cardboard. "We can always see our shadow, but it's not often that our shadow is traced and made permanent," Osterloh says. In fact, she sees the tracings as kind of ready-made portraits, or camera-less photographs. "I was really intrigued and drawn to this type of mark making and this type of tracing that stays after the person leaves," she says.
Shadows also happen to inhabit the liminal spaces between figure and ground, between one person and another. "What does an individual look like? And what is the space or shape between the individual and the group?" she asks, "I'm so drawn to that space when I take the photograph, that space where the figure might collapse into the background or might collapse into the floor."
As of this writing, Osterloh has cut the tracings out to form cardboard silhouettes, but hasn't entirely figured out what she's going to do with them. She's built a large, stage-like wooden set, whose walls and floor are lined with sheets of paper. The paper is in turn patterned with hundreds of hand-drawn diagonal lines in a range of neutral hues. (The pattern was created, one line at a time, with the help of a team of production assistants.) She is also pasting this paper onto the silhouettes, sometimes following the original lines of the cutout, sometimes deviating from it. The papered figures will then be placed in some manner on the set, supported (or not) by real people, and photographed. (The images provided for this article are not the final works.)
Yet, as it turns out her activities in the gallery are not just about making photographs. In the process of tracing their shadows, she often fell into extended conversations with her subjects, many of whom knew about the project because they had supported it financially. "For me it was really about these conversations that happened in the act of tracing," Osterloh says. It was, "in the most basic sense, making new friends."
Acknowledging the importance of this fleeting experience, Osterloh plans to take at least one photograph that includes all of the 60 silhouettes, perhaps mixing them together to form a single, large figure. Over the course of the residency, she has come to see the cutouts as "a weird, obtuse, abstract family." "I'm seeing this interchangeable relationship between individual and group, and maybe I want to cut and collage those bodies together to really make an individual, even though they're a group," she says.
Crouch is fascinated by what he sees as a bit of tension between Osterloh's vision and the specificity of her subjects. Whereas in the past her figures were relatively anonymous, in this case, they are derived directly from actual people. "This is very unlike what we've seen Gina do in the past," he says, "How's she going to deal with the subjectivity of these people trying to push into the work in some way?"
Osterloh, who is strikingly open about her process, agrees that it's a slightly different approach. "Someone else might not recognize that tracing," she says, "but the person that I traced will recognize themselves." She's not sure yet what that means for her work, but notes that it's an evolution of her thinking about the genre of portraiture. "The earlier works were a response to portraiture," she says, adding that she disliked the way in which portraits "created this need within the viewer to identify or name who was in the photograph." She began playing with notions of perception and camouflage precisely to confound and escape this reductive quality.
Although still interested in evasion, Osterloh has begun not only to reconsider the possibilities of the portrait, but to extend her interests beyond the strictly visual realm. During our visit, she shared plans for two collaborative video works, one involving a range of people performing the same simple breathing and speech acts, and another featuring a performance by a drill team or honor guard. (At the time we met, she was still looking for a team to collaborate with.) She sees both as an effort to translate her general concerns with space and bodies into sound and movement. Like the hand-drawn marks on her customized paper--all ostensibly the same, but all slightly different--Osterloh is interested in repetitive movements. "What does repetition look like?" she asks, "And through that repetition, where does difference emerge?"
The same could be asked of Osterloh's day-to-day presence in the gallery, putting her artistic practice fully on view. "The really vulnerable part about this residency is that my process and thoughts are completely open, and it freaks me out," she says,
"but at the same time I have to be [open] because that's what the project is." She admits that sometimes she feels as if she's performing when people walk into the gallery.
Still, the experience has been transformative. "It's just super refreshing for me to work in a space like this because as an artist, all of our labor, all of our production process and art practice is 99.9% this," she says, gesturing to the jumble of paper and cardboard around her, "but what's given visibility is this small object thing in a gallery, which is so bizarre." By letting people go "behind the scenes" as it were, Osterloh blurs the line between production and presentation. In fact, the work of art manages to recede a bit into the background noise of its own fabrication--rough edges, unfinished corners, and above all, evolving ideas--a disappearing act of resistance itself.