'Jessica Chastain' at UC Irvine's University Art Gallery Deconstructs the Oscar-Nominated Actress
The intimacy of psychoanalysis is in part the willingness of the patient to allow their thoughts, dreams and experiences, however unpleasant, ill-defined or unacknowledged, to be systematically examined and brought to light. While most people in analysis are there because they know something isn't working, is there ever a moment in which the symbolic light bulb goes off and the tragedy of their life is suddenly revealed to them?
I suspect these things happen only in the movies. Those receptacles of metaphor, illusion and denial show us much about ourselves, the cinematic choices we make its own form of analysis. But if you're an actor, what do your choices of roles say about you? If we follow Hegel's idea that we discover ourselves in our opposite, or his master-slave dialectic (which promises that change comes with self-awareness and consciousness), was John Wayne an impotent man striving to be more powerful by choosing to play proto-fascists? Was Charlie Chaplin exorcising a rich man's guilt by playing the little tramp?
That dream factory is an easy target, but it's also a minefield. A potent area for conceptual artists, Hollywood is part of everyone's consciousness, there's a never-ending supply of material to analyze. Conceptual artist Maura Brewer's trilogy of short films about actress Jessica Chastain uses appropriated images, sounds and music from three films the actress has starred in: Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian and Interstellar. Without giving too much away—the exhibition is short and sweet, and while it's brimming with ideas, you can be in and out of it in 40 minutes—Brewer deconstructs the movies' cinematic messages, giving us a portrait of Chastain as a female archetype, excessively depressed and expending her energies at trying to get closer to absent male figures.
It doesn't matter if it's Osama bin Laden in Pakistan; Matt Damon on the planet Mars; or her father, played by Matthew McConaughey, who is in a parallel universe. Brewer's fascinating intellect addresses Oedipal longings, loss of selfhood, and overcompensation in the workplace with a laser-sharp focus, approaching her subjects in eclectic, often brilliant ways.
I recommend leaving curator and gallery director Juli Carson's attractively organized but academic-speak-filled pamphlet in its neat, tri-folded pile at the front door. You don't need it. Instead, follow Carson's sly, intuitive layout of the exhibition, sit on the floor and watch The Surface of Mars projected on the large wall that bisects the gallery. Its feminist take on Ridley Scott's The Martian is a solid beginning argument for the rest of the exhibit. Pivot to either side, and there are TV screens showing Zero Dark Birthday and Interstellar, and while there is nothing provided to sit on except the floor, slip on the headphones and sprawl out. Each video is less than 15 minutes long and densely packed with ideas that will make you look at each film in a fresh way.
In the front and back right corners are Victorian fainting couches, chaise longues without backs that allowed women defined in that period as "hysterics" to fall onto and "faint," if their delicate constitutions demanded it. On each couch is a pair of pajamas designed with the same print as the fabric on the couch, wryly reminding us of the widespread infantilization of women that continues to this day: the annoying belief that women are "sensitive" beings, prone to ill health, impulsive and wholly incapable of controlling their feelings. Fainting spells were generally caused by women being forced to wear corsets that were so tight they prevented them from breathing properly, with Brewer taking that symbol a step further: Why wouldn't a woman seem pale, wan and diminished if the life is being squeezed out of her by an overbearing, constricted patriarchal system? With Chastain's characters all driven to be successful in male-dominated fields—covert operations, space flight and science—being out of breath or weepy would seem to be the least of her injuries.
The two ink-and-paper images, Industrial Melanism and Peppered Moth, located on the back of the dividing wall are unrecognizable, but a quick lookup of the titles suggests the vagaries of interpretation, Rorschach tests and the adaptability of women to blend into a society that refuses to let them stand out unless they hide who they truly are. In the corner, on a loop, is Shortcut, an animated film adapted from the very phallic pencil-penetrating-a-folded-sheet-of-paper explanation for wormholes in the Christopher Nolan film.
As you walk out the door, look back; the last thing you'll see, hanging next to the stack of curator pamphlets, is a pair of pajamas patterned with images of Chastain. A nod to the dream factory, as well as Brewer's obsessiveness about the actress, the stiff formality of the headshots and starched flatness of the nightclothes resembles a scarecrow warning us of the critique and the eventual empowerment to come.
"Jessica Chastain" at UC Irvine's University Art Gallery, 712 Arts Plaza, Irvine, (949) 824-9854; uag.arts.uci.edu. Open Tues.-Sat., noon–6 p.m. Through Dec. 10. Free.
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