She's a magic woman

SECA: Try to understand — the play is the thing in Desirée Holman's masked wonderlands


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There is a lot of play going on in the work of Desirée Holman. As evinced by the handmade masks, props, and costumes that populate her multimedia pieces — a family therapy workshop comprised of dolls in 2002's Art as Therapy; a clan of Bigfoot-like sapiens in 2005's Troglodyte; and most recently, the estranged visages of television's Huxtable and Conner families in The Magic Window — an anarchic "let's raid the dress-up box" impulse is often her guiding force. Family sitcoms, pop cultural junk food, and mediated existence in a thoroughly televised culture are her source materials.

From Cindy Sherman's faux film stills and prosthetic body part augmentations to Paul McCarthy's return-of-the-repressed performances using all manner of foodstuffs and costume shop detritus, the act of playing dress-up has its art-historical precedents. While Holman's work superficially brings Sherman and McCarthy to mind (the influence of the former is certainly apparent in 2006's Bucolic Life, where she plays mother and wife to a mannequin family within a series of supposedly candid snapshots), her art is not as routinely fixated on confronting the viewer with the grotesque and abject.

"I can see why people would find my work creepy, but I don't see it that way," laughs Holman over the phone. Judging from the opening night crowd's response to The Magic Window — which takes pride of place at the SECA Art Award show — the most common response to Holman's work seems to be nervous laughter. But when Roseanne Conner resembles Leatherface, it's not hard to see why.

However palpable, unease is just a surface response to Holman's rough-hewn masks and bodysuits. As fellow Guardian critic Glen Helfand noted in an Artforum review of Troglodyte, the empty costumes of the piece's hirsute, apelike creatures "still channel our evolutionary connection to them" — a connection underscored by videos and photographs of the costumed creatures smoking cigarettes and dancing. No matter how funny or scary we find the ape family, we remain inescapably tied to them. Holman's art teases out these strange channels and treats them as invitations to play along.

This invitation to connect beyond familiar comfort zones — even if, as viewers, we are frequently stuck, costumeless, on the outside looking in — is what animates The Magic Window, a project originally conceived for and shown at SF's Silverman Gallery, which is showing work by Holman this April. Comprised of a three-channel video on one wall and colored pencil drawings on the wall opposite, The Magic Window takes its title from a 1939 ad campaign used to sell early, primitive TV sets to American consumers. But the name could just as easily be applied to the sculptural masks worn by Holman and her cast.

The video starts off with parallel narratives loosely modeled after incidents from Roseanne and The Cosby Show, and ends with both families leaving their respective screens to visit each other's homes/sets. For a finale, the two clans come together for a center-screen psychedelic dance-off set in a purely virtual space where everyone glows with a green-screen aura. (This aura effect is rendered beautifully through tensile wisps in Holman's delicate drawings). In other hands, the Huxtables and Conners would be mined for parodic laughs or used for nastier ends (see McCarthy's and Mike Kelley's assault on family life in their 1992 video Heidi), but Holman has a deep affection for her source material. "I personally like both television shows, which were really progressive for their time," she says.

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