Lets Hear it for the P!

Rediscovering the importance of nudity

Photo by Rebecca SchoenkopfLaguna Beach's seven-degrees is a snazzy venue and snazzier business concept. It uses a human zoo of artists as a draw for big-bucks private parties, and knows how to present underground chic while being about as underground as Newport Coast.

Which is how we came to see Alison Stankiewicz's shadowbox performance piece there on Thursday, June 5. Most people hid their smirks in bottomless glasses of cabernet. But me? I had already made myself at home on a comfy red-orange beanbag chair in the roomy, futuristic gallery, and partaken of some feta-cheese quiche and cabernet; I was feeling big, if not optimistic, about Stankiewicz's piece. So what if she's a UC Irvine student. Better that than Orange Coast College, right? Stankiewicz would most likely have something to say, and if not, it would be quite easy to fill in the blanks for her. Performance art is like that.

Most people in the large room (where Elaine Cardenas' human installation was still running; we'll get to that later) dutifully filed outside to watch Stankiewicz. A nude shadow behind a large screen (you could tell she was nekkid because her breasts were all pointy and pert like Madonna's when she slinks behind the screen in the Express Yourself video, and also because I was standing upstairs at seven-degrees' entranceway, where I could see through a gap in the tarp), Stankiewicz approached the screen, becoming gigantic, and then retreated from the screen, becoming small like a child. There wasn't much in the way of choreography beside a few plaintive outstretched arms, and it probably would have been more evocative if Stankiewicz had dance or mime training. As it was, I wanted to make shadow puppets. Look! It's an eagle!

There was no telling how long the performance would last, but the precedents were not promising: inside, Cardenas had made two unfortunate models hold a painful pose for an hour, during which I went to Richard Macdonald Galleries and laughed at his bronze ballerinas with their monkey faces, ate some cheese, admired some very lovely pieces, and then laughed at some Red Skelton-like clown sculptures and came back and Cardenas' models were still there. Stankiewicz, too, could be in it for the long haul, so I went inside and got another glass of wine (and Cardenas' models were still there) and when I returned, Stankiewicz was in front of the screen, bathing herself in the clear night air with a basin and a large sponge. She was really nude.

Now, I've seen this performance before. The first time was in New York's East Village, at the Unconscious Collective open-mic night (as hosted by Faceboy). That time, a lesbian girl, nude to the waist, checked herself for breast cancer (the mundane intimacy of it was harrowing: Would there be a lump? There would not), brushed her teeth, and then spat toothpaste at the audience. It was fun!

This time, Stankiewicz was all the way nude, and she looked very much like a naughty Titian or Tintoretto with her undeniably alabaster skin; she didn't spit anything. It was a pretty tableau, if an art-school discovery that must necessarily be made by, like, every art student in the history of the world. You know, like girl art students must necessarily become enthralled, Judy Chicago-style, with the punani as the seat of empowerment. Let's hear it for the P!

Fretting that Stankiewicz might be short on Concepts for her pretty piece, I made up a few on the spot.

*Ritual cleansing. As Rose Ghavami, in her piece Zenophobialistic, was currently sitting prettily on a futon in the very front gallery, hiding herself under a head scarf and handing to visitors cards from the Iraq's Most Wanted deck (I got Amir Rashid Muhammad Al-Ubaydi), the ritual cleansing motif would seem most obvious. With orthodox Judaism's and many Native Americans' insistence on ritual cleansing after (and/or solitary confinement during) menses, a shot at public ritual cleansing would both satirize those who hold women as inferior (and in Christianity as bearers of Original Sin) and make a powerful stand for nudeness.

*Another religious allusion, this time to Hindi and Taoist evocations of water as life force. The master does not fight the tide, etc., etc. Also, Jesus' water-to-wine party trick, and, you know, baptism. Yup, water's pretty holy everywhere, which should be pretty obvious since we'd die without it. This allusion to water-as-life would be borne out nicely by simultaneously seeing Stankiewicz's supple, womanly frame as another producer/gestater of life. Yay for women!

In her artist's statement, Stankiewicz argues that her piece is about the modern-day "maiden, mother, crone" and the social implications and expectations thereof, the interpersonal complications coupled with their social indications and the hierarchy therein, and the ideas of the woman as daughter, mother, muse, lover and wife and the balance of those roles.

See, that's a really good concept for a performance art piece, and Stankiewicz clearly didn't need my help at all. And I could see the part about maiden and crone in the way she got bigger and smaller behind her screen. But where exactly did everything else she was talking about come in? Aw, it doesn't matter. Performance art never addresses the stuff it says it's gonna.

At the end of her piece, Stankiewicz managed to pull off the completely unexpected. She walked nude down seven-degrees' long, cobblestoned drive, got in her car, and—nude—left.

If Stankiewicz doesn't make it in her chosen field, she should apply to write for Saturday Night Liveor Steven Spielberg (who's been bogging himself down with those bookend old folks crying in graveyards) posthaste. A satisfying ending is a rare and precious thing.

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