Sabrina Tarasoff investigates Black Mirror, a series of paintings and related preliminary works realized in the last decade by the Los Angeles–based artist Monica Majoli. The artist photographed and subsequently painted a number of her former lovers in a dim light; her relationships to the models, the social complexities arising from the situations, and the interior spaces are the starting point for an articulated reflection on autobiography and artifice.
Consider three paintings. One: depicting the reciprocity of love, as Mary Magdalene lies at the feet of Christ at the House of the Pharisees, pleading forgiveness for sins of the flesh. One: where a woman named Caroline is seen ascending a curved staircase, just about to disappear into the soft candlelight of a manor at nighttime, probably retreating to her quarters. And one: of the muted contours of a nude figure, faintly emerging from the depths of a darkened room as though drawn from the subtle cues of desire itself. In these, the figure is formed of the fluid and bottomless mutuality of absence and presence, each woman a ghostly Venus birthed from the black seas of absolute deliverance, of the erotics of intimacy, of privatized loss. Absence, as it goes, is only ever marked by what remains, not in contrast with what is, but rather as a “long echo that intermingles from afar,”¹ an embodiment of some Baudelairean correspondence. This implies an understanding of history as a constellation of affects, in which interiority, in its most abstract and intimate sense, comes prior to the definition of space itself. Each image enacts an emotionally convincing, yet physically imprecise or impossible, reflection of its subject through time, like a domestic scene from the 17th century cast out of the scrying lens of some convex mirror. Inner life is intensified; surface arches into illusion. What results in Jean Béraud’s The Magdalene at the House of the Pharisees (A)(1891), Caspar David Friedrich’s Caroline on the Stairs (B) (1825), and, in particular, Monica Majoli’s Black Mirror (Pamela) (2012), is a prosopography of desire etched into private encounter, which, like those curved mirrors, functions at its blackest depths to present the self, most mysteriously, to itself.
In The Prelude (1850), William Wordsworth writes of seeing the Magdalene of Le Brun, “A beauty exquisitely wrought— fair face / and rueful, with its ever-flowing tears,”² picking up, even in passing, the base notes of some indulgent and seductive sadness evoked in the “beautiful sinner.” Hers are the features of a myth limned over and again by artists and writers seeking to understand the “accusing conscience of her love,”³ at times as ecclesiastic guilt leading to spiritual revelation, or elsewhere as an embodiment of the erotics of resignation. Arguably, Béraud’s 1891 rendition concerned itself more with the latter interpretation, with Magdalene cast as a demimondaine⁴ in white lying on the floor of a Belle Époque apartment, her wild swells of hair tousled over the feet of Christ while the Pharisees—depicted by the peering eyes of Béraud’s own social group—look over at her abjection in gross curiosity. Here, her pain is not that of a sinner, but of a woman who has intuited love as a “wound,”⁵ the body a bag full of God, the skin a romantic subject filled to the brim with melancholic substance. This correspondence, a constant reciprocity between desire and longing, is then cast at the feet of Christ as though asking him to share, or perhaps bear, her emotional burden. Of course Béraud’s Magdalene is first and foremost a satire directed at the hypocrisies (and libidinal moralisms) of 19th century Parisians (another timeless quality), yet it would dull as social critique, did it not carve a couloir for timeless emotion to pass through. After all, the misgivings of love, its misplaced or often-indecorous eroticisms, or the responsibilities of passion hardly belong to these fin de siècle Pharisees alone.
At that, like seeing Béraud’s Magdalene at the Musée d’Orsay for the first time, fraught as it is with the traces of sex and grief and self-exposure strewn all embarrassingly into the public eye, Monica Majoli’s Black Mirror (Pamela) induces in its viewer a moment of emotional reckoning as exclusive as it is stark. Desire (and all that comes with it) is contoured in the curves of a former lover, with gradations of light blending soft skin in oil paints, each brushstroke reflecting an idealized surface of something that seems far too private to be in the public eye. Yet little is offered up. The woman’s presence is more suggestion than fact—an image of lingering tensions and ties—and the room a dimly lit trace of black windows loosely lined with soft folds of an ill-defined arabesque. Even her nudity is obscured, as it dissolves into the dark. What is absent, lost, or undefined, however, does not negate the intensity of the image, but conversely charges it with an undeniable eroticism located in the limits of exchange, those woolen gray zones one enters right before or after touch, or the seducing discipline implied in watching anyone we desire undress or sleep or fuck or saunter.
Here, those daily musings are permeated with a sense of the past by being cast in reflections literally mirrored off of Majoli’s bedroom walls. Black Mirror (Pamela), to put this into context, comes from a series of paintings begun by the artist in the mid-2000s in which she asked a selection of ex-lovers to pose for her within the privacy of her home—even up to two decades after the original affair had taken place. The house, a midcentury modern built in the early 1950s and redecorated in the 1970s by a previous owner presumably fueled by some porno chic l’air du temps, was bought by Majoli with three out of four bedroom walls lined with black mirrors. Watching her daily rites—sleep, sex, dressing, et cetera—in these dark gradations, the “echoing monochromes”⁶ and their surrounding space are imbued with a subjectivity that is less reflective than drawn from pseudo-sibylline depths. The bedroom becomes a space to test the limits of interiority, and to position oneself accordingly. Then, swallowed inside this conception of depth that can be felt from in and around and out, Majoli faces the women full-frontal, in what one would assume to be a dominant position: her camera replacing the props and plastic sex toys of previous works with an even more phallic object to fuck with. Notably, within this context, “naked” is a word pertaining to emotional bareness and to be “fucked” or “touched” relative to mutual affect. Hers is a space, then, based in physical engrossment, but also one that points to the passing of time, or, conversely, to the ability to elude it in paroxysms of timeless intensity—as emotional coming, or becoming. In discussing Béraud’s Magdalene, Majoli said to me: “The temporal distance between the Belle Époque and Christ” (clad in his uniform shroud amid an otherwise decadent crowd) “suggests that passion, and the suffering it brings, knows no time.”⁷ In these images, the artist and her lovers, a past and its lingering present, are reconciled within an interior made even more intimate by public invitation, while insisting on its possibility of psychological shelter, however illusory or temporary that may be.
As evocative as the resulting paintings in the Black Mirror series are—especially paired with the monochromatic abstractionsof the room, those lithographs rivaling the complexity of all (near-) black squares in painterly history—the deeper psychological manipulations, the atmospheres of power, and the performances implied in staging such a body of work are, to a certain degree, hidden within mediumistic effects and carefully calculated compositions. They are beautifully, and intimately, resistant. Seeing the primary, photographic materials that presage the work, however, allows for these themes (or, realities, really) to transpire. As Majoli pointed out to me, the paintings were an “afterimage of the encounters” between the women, in which the perimeters of the project—that “forced” intimacy—became grounds for an image.⁸ In restaging her past in the face and body and psyche of another, in a masked self-portrait like Magdalene reflected in the face of Christ, Majoli’s photographs push self onto that which the self can’t quite grapple with internally.Maybe this is a measure of the alleged asymmetry of affection— that is, that devastating theory that love may in fact always be unrequited— though there’s an abyss that stares back, if there ever was one. Or maybe it’s about eroticizing the self in an idealized surface in order to transform a sense of inner loss into what David Eng called a “performative fantasy for the future”⁹ in regards to Dean Sameshima’s empty beds of In Between Days (Without You) (1994). Nevertheless, if there are definite ways to theorize the affects of history (or the histories of affect) etched onto the surface of Majoli’s paintings, all from Benjamin to Lacan to Kristeva to anyone else who has dealt with textual interpretations of pervasive loss and the black suns of temptation, the photographs seem to instead ask for deliverance from any theoretical fetishization. They recall a question asked by Joe Scanlan on the work of Felix Gonzales-Torres: “Whose memories, whose records, inflect his work now and will in years to come?”¹⁰
Scanlan’s text, to debrief, carries on to discuss Gonzales- Torres as possessing a type of power rooted in the projected and paradoxical idea of appearing powerless, an argument concerning primarily the mobilization of participatory, accessible models masking a dominant—and moralistic—social order. He writes: “The problem with this contemporary moral rubric… is that it institutionalizes unequal burdens of responsibility for entities of unequal means.”¹¹
Though it would be simply false to propose Majoli’s work under that particular rubric, the example does serve to cast some light on the complexity of “power” within her project and also its implications on the subject, when aestheticized or entered into a conceptual framework. This is to say, whereas the Black Mirror paintings open to a seductive poetry located somewhere between destruction and recreation, as an impenetrably quiet immersion into Majoli’s private space, the primary materials reveal a raw and psychological sadomasochism. The categories of “dominant” and “submissive” become inverted, or at least heavily confused, as the perimeters set up by Majoli seem to claim power only to denounce it, and to place it at the feet of her lovers as though asking for the burden of responsibility to be taken off her shoulders. It is an equivocation of power that eroticizes the space of difference. For all of the gestures of control enacted in the final work—the monochromatic surfaces, the “finished” quality of the paintings, the leveling of architecturally rigid abstraction with figures all rendered anonymous under certain structures of presentation—these photographs, and the decision to make them public, resign to the impossibility of “institutionalizing” power through conceptual structures, where it has previously been lost to lived experience, to inner emotions, to a history of touches. To return to Scanlan’s question, the memories, records, and inflections we see in the materials are not ones belonging to any system of thought, nor can their meaning be condensed in social hierarchies. In fact, they make no pretense of belonging to anything other than the privatized space of exchange staged by Majoli.
Yet pretension abounds in the very conception of “staged” private space: it constitutes a set of rules established by Majoli to ensure that the role playing, though based on real life in its past participle, remains one firmly rooted in artifice. Like Béraud’s Magdalene, taken out of time and placed into a societal context where everyone is playing a part, Majoli’s “set” provides the opportunity for the women to each become anonymous within the confines of fantasy: a formal restriction, a facelessness, that can be paradoxically liberating, even empowering. Majoli, for example, did not ask the women to strip, yet most did so voluntary: a self-eroticization that both masks and protects, but also provides a physical mirror for the emotional vulnerability of the project. John Giorno being stared at in his sleep by Andy Warhol (C); Lutz Bacher offering anonymity for a surrogate image. The gesture of power, and its disavowal, is reciprocal. This “staging” is particularly true of the paintings, in which the focus on reducing detail (the use of the mirrors, atmospheric light, composition) constitutes an attempt to flatten experience into an idealized surface: a literal privatization, to invert Scanlan’s ideas, of the psychological privatization necessitated to protect the women, their emotions, their sense of security in the relationship. The source materials, of course, complicate this, as the mysterious force holding the bodies in near-spiritual abeyance on canvas is suddenly released. That same psychological shelter that seemed fully possible when reified in surface effects suddenly feels precarious and unprotected, or, as Edmund Burke (via Dan Fox) put it, “All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life,”¹² are dissolved.
Fox lifts this particular quote in his recent essay “Pretentiousness” (2016) to highlight how surface ideals function to carry forth the “performances” of society, notably, in ways that are necessary for cultural progression. It is an apt analogy, in some sense, to how Majoli’s paintings “carry” the performance of their making within. What makes the photographs so striking, then, and so problematic— some of the women, after all, refused to have them released—is that they make explicit these performances of power, sexuality, of the private versus public, of love and loss, in such a way that exacerbates the idea of being seen. What was public, and mind you publicly exhibited, sold, distributed, and circulated in the form of the paintings, could be classed as out-of-sight under the auspice of painting being bound to the realm of fiction, which made impossible the very idea of factuality. Through the medium, the devices and performances in Majoli’s earlier work—the dildos, orgies, bodies piously engaged in six-ways; the masturbation, the oneiric BDSM—could be countered as false, or as fantasy, or elsewhere embodied as anecdotal histories grounded in some wholly abstract notion of “documentary.” Painterly space, that is, recast as a body double for the image conscious.
The photographs allot no such fantasy: the scratches on the mirrors, the flash of the camera, the distracting tripod and untouched bodies all draw the gaze back into broad daylight, so to speak, where being seen implies being seen for what remains in relation to another. Eye contact is only established between the women through the scrying surface, as though focusing really hard to notbreak character, the subject of past, lingering emotions all deflected in mirrored space and mired in consensual voyeurism. Self and other slowly dissolve in this third-party surface, which, one assumes, replaces painting’s gesture of concealing “fact” within an indeterminate notion of “finish”: a term here double (or triple?) teamed by impressions of climax and end, execution, la petite mort. The performances that we script to manage the morphing languages of love, eternally in transition, are played out with painstaking accuracy. It’s lived experience as a tableau vivant, or, more accurately, a pose plastique that that prods at the inner workings of desire. In any case, to return to Fox’s notion of pretense and its potential to intensify experience, Majoli’s staging gives “permission to the imagination”¹³ to indulge in an ideal version of self as seen in the prosopography of the other—an impulse quite simply, and insurmountably, in search of that miraculous thing of subjectivity. And, while touching on Bas Jan Ader allusions anyway, it should be said that Majoli’s desire to publish photographs of such private moments do risk sailing out to sea and never returning. But such is the search for self when mired in desire and anchored in the fleeting emotions of another.
Heinrich von Kleist wrote of the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich: “One wishes to cross over, but cannot.”¹⁴ This, when applied to the psychological landscape of Majoli’s bedroom, is maybe why the women resorted to using the mirror as a communication device. The murky reflection is some hazy, sublime glazing over the all-too-painful, softening that age-old blow that accompanies the realization that all things come to an end. Friedrich felt it too, only in his work, the subjects faced not the monumentality of love through looking glasses, but landscapes as tropes for loss, with stormy skies and pale moons reflecting prescient moods. To reconvene in private encounter, though, Caroline on the Stairs (an infuriatingly difficult painting to gain insight on) presents another kind of landscape, namely, the domestic interior imbued, all the same, with a sense of anticipatory loss. Caroline’s quiet ascent is marked by her unawareness of being watched, comfortably submerged as she is in the shadowy hall, golden hues making her a part of their monochrome. Produced during the couple’s honeymoon period, the painting is a product of those soft swells of new love, yet the dying light, Caroline’s impending disappearance out of the frame, and the disconsolate quietude around her also point to an absence more felt than perceived (typical Friedrich). If there’s reason to relate this to Majoli’s materials, finally, it is to note how the domestic can function as a symbolic device, from which new experiences can be perceived in relationship to the past. “Surface”, as Charles Ray (D) has said, “is an expression of anxiety,”¹⁵ and the photographs, if not the paintings, certainly make this explicit. Like peering into the ghostly, colorless wreck, a surface devoid of perceptible difference, Majoli’s materials are imbued with more ghosts than we can possibly summon, providing by extension an idea as to why the paintings were paired with monochromes in the first place. To an apperceptive public, the space, and all that is made visible within it, is an amalgam of lingering tensions between what has already surfaced and what lies beneath. And perhaps this is its most haunting aspect, the most problematic, and the most sublime: that the self, an alienated expression of interior life, remains unresolved.
Sabrina Tarasoff (1991, Jyväskylä, Finland) is a curator and writer currently transitioning from Paris to Los Angeles. Alongside running the (loosely) LA-based space Bel Ami, she is currently biding her time writing about decadence, Darren Bader, sex and Sylvia Plath (not all at the same time). In addition to Mousse, she is a regular contributor to Art Agenda, Flash Art and c-magazine, and is a Gemini, with many houses in Capricorn.