Bobbi Woods, Stay Time
Bobbi Woods at Fourteen30 Contemporary, Portland, OR
Published in Stay Time: A Year of Writing with Fourteen30 Contemporary
The art practice of Los Angeles–based artist Bobbi Woods is inseparable from the raw materials of pop culture. Using promotional movie and fan posters as her canvases, she manipulates their existing imagery with spray-painted enamel, designed to obscure and slant in the subtlest of ways. Some posters are blanched to near-whiteness; others are interrupted by imposing black polygons that rend worrying gaps in a viewer's context. Elsewhere, she uses the stock iconography of pop culture—the Playboy bunny, Marilyn Monroe's lips—as the foundation of works that, like the posters, isolate or embellish these images to stress their symbolic currency. Stripped of their original contexts or otherwise disfigured, they nonetheless radiate sexuality. They still seduce.
Though Woods's treatment of her materials almost always involves a strategy of obfuscation, this move operates along the lines of "blocking" in film and theater. Just as the director frames his actors—often through stylized obstructions—Woods runs deceptively facile interference on the posters she manipulates to refocus our attention on the absurd and often disturbing subtexts that lurk there. Put another way, she reveals the artifacts of popular media to be so overabundant in their visibility that even her defacement of them results in another level of signification. It's a dazzling inversion of perceived binaries, in which Woods applies opacity and interruption as devices to produce transparency.
In A Huge Comedy with Tiny Balls (2008), Woods coats the surface of the poster for the sophomoric 2007 tennis-table comedy Balls of Fury in a layer of spray-painted white. In a seeming nod to Rauschenberg's infamous erasure of a de Kooning drawing, the piece is sapped of color; information about the film's talent is completely absent. All that remains is the titular tagline, reduced to a muted gray, and an even fainter image of the phallic handle of a ping-pong paddle, flanked by two plastic balls. In Woods's handling, the deliberate disconnection of text and image from its context sabotages the multiple coded meanings necessary for the tagline to function as a joke. Suddenly, the phrase becomes a blunt—if somewhat smug—commentary on machismo and other performed representations of virility. Over time, though, the text's ability to signify on any level begins to weaken. Like the quips in Ruscha's word paintings, the phrases Woods isolates seem to suffer performance anxiety and gradually cross-fade into pure form, as drained of linguistic potency as the poster is bled of color.
Sexuality pervades Woods's work—pointedly, with the same conflicted mix of playful curiosity and embarrassed discomfort that marks nearly all adolescent initiations. As such, sex is ubiquitous, but filtered through puns and punch lines. An implied but unspoken pun—the cleavage between "body" and "bawdy"—is a spectral presence throughout, suggesting that the fleeting nature of both physical existence and carnal pleasure is a fact too grave to face head-on. We require the subterfuge of comedy to negotiate helplessness and disappointment because there is safety in shrugging dismissal.
Formally, Woods mirrors the joke's ability to broker detached confrontation through her obstructions and erasures. Whip! Chair! (2008) finds an immense black shape laid over a well-known image of pinup icon Bettie Page, who is holding a small whip overhead. However, Woods positions the shape to effectively veil Page's body—or at least those parts most likely to be sexualized by the male gaze. Instead, the blocking redirects a viewer's eyes to Page's left foot, her gloved hand hoisting the whip, and glimpses of a nondescript background. With the original image's focal point suppressed, the viewer is forced to interpret the composition's periphery, which, fascinatingly, reveals gestures of defiance and opposition, not seduction. Page's foot flexes in stiff extension, as if stamping out a cigarette or crushing a bug, while the limp whip she raises casts a shadow—and a portrait of wilting virility—on the wall behind her.
In other pieces, Woods uses multiples of her source posters, in which shapes of varying dimensions alternately conceal and reveal aspects of the same underlying poster. As the black shapes are rearranged across the multiples—an effect Woods describes as "like a curtain moving back and forth"—they create a tangle of complex spatial relationships and, more importantly, further delve into the mechanics of seduction. After all, the same devouring impulse that holds the viewer's gaze during a striptease is at work here, as the promise of complete disclosure competes with the elusive reveal. In fact, it is the act of concealing—of shrouding the mystery—that engages the imagination in erotic production, inviting viewers to fill in the voids with their own projected desires.
This process of seeing—and abetted construction of the image—is underscored through a series of multiples titled Nothing/If It Feels Good (2009), which appropriates the poster for the 1970s soft-core porno Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman. Woods uses the series as a kind of striptease, revealing different portions of the poster with each successive multiple. In #4 and #5, we see a man—his shoulder, his ear, his hair—facing, we presume, a woman. However, Woods has simultaneously isolated the poster's text, so that only the word "Nothing," at the top of the poster, and the clipped phrase "No one under," at bottom, appear. By the third multiple (#6), the implied denials in the two snippets of text are shown to be prankish and misleading: not only is the man glimpsed in the first two multiples, in fact, facing a woman, but a second woman is revealed to be lying between them, as the truncated text "if it feels good" looms overhead. In other words, the text—like the viewer's ability to behold the "naked" poster—is repeatedly interrupted. Language is reduced to suggestive fragments that flirt with revelation, but never deliver the goods.
Woods's repurposing of copyrighted materials—and the memorabilia of fan culture, in particular—places her within a lineage of appropriation artists, most notably Mark Flood, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, and Louise Lawler. But Woods is less interested in appropriation as a means to explore notions of authenticity and authorship as specifically artistic concerns. She is far more preoccupied with considering how, in an age of complete media saturation, appropriation functions as a process of identity formation. It is no coincidence, then, that her materials are also the adornments of freshman dorms and high school bedrooms, ad hoc altars of teenage longing. Insofar as the posters a youth might decorate his bedroom with telegraph status through likes and dislikes, they function as signifiers of taste and, more precisely, exclusivity and elitism. Identity, then, becomes a collection of attributes and stances appropriated from external sources. One's identity is not singular or unique; it is a matrix of claimed likenesses, so categorized to present the illusion of order. That is, Woods suggests that the construction of identity is a curatorial endeavor and that, like cool-chasing teens, art collectors and dealers are equally invested in what the art that hangs on their walls says about them.
Such a reading might suggest that Woods's work sketches out this web of connections in order to critique what she uncovers. And while her alterations of posters disfigure, undermine, and complicate the ostensible meanings of the originals, the attitude that informs these moves is decidedly nonjudgmental. Perhaps this is due to the fact that an artist of Woods's generation—unlike Pop's first wave or pioneering video artists—has no concept of culture apart from mediation. Where the rise of consumerism and video rapidly transformed those cultural moments, we are conditioned to expect the new; our expertise in forgetting has been honed by the rigid timetables of buzz-building marketing campaigns, product launches, and cyclical brand reinventions. Our idea of progress persists, but it advances invisibly.
When a world void of manipulative appeals and fabricated desires is unimaginable, there is no foil to inspire critique, no utopia to dream. Woods is fully immersed in the vocabulary of mediation and uses its language to simply show that it exists, however covertly. In this body of work, her voice is extraneous, beside the point; there are already infinite voices—pleading, peddling, persuading—for her to try on as her own. Who would she be to ignore their advances?