'Love West Coast' Is Straight Outta Misogyny

There's a weird dynamic going on in Mike Miller's exhibition “Love West Coast,” now at the DAX Gallery, with its army of semi-naked women battling for attention alongside his photos of West Coast hip-hop stars. Opening the show is a section designated to the photographer's nudes and semi-nudes: The dazzling blonde Sahara is holding an American flag, whipping and twisted around her head and shoulders, one breast exposed from beneath her overalls, the look on her face straight ahead, piercing, as sunlight explodes from behind her. There's the blissful Cait N Shannon blowing soap bubbles in a car, creating an iridescent cloud above their heads. There's also two shots of model Daisy, one leaning on the sill of a car, the shadow of a chainlink fence imprisoning her face and the exterior of the automobile; an alternative shot, Daisy N Pyper, with the model in a derivation of the first pose, the other woman driving, a Thelma to her Louise.

But for that handful of great, there's a dozen that don't even show us the entire model—just parts of her body, with a third of Miller's shots decapitating the model by the positioning of her body or obscuring her face with a whip of hair or blur of movement; making the focus her breasts, the slickness of her lips in a close-up, or the Daisy Dukes crawling up her ass.

Further emblematic of Miller's diminished view of women is three pictures that are particularly distasteful: One is the beautifully composed Jonna N Eli, with its skateboarder caught mid-ollie, jumping over the nude torso of a faceless model. He's fully clothed, of course; she's just a pair of tits hanging on a pool, head tilted back, bikini-bottomed crotch thrust toward the viewer. Equally sexist is Mary Grace, her tan skin in glorious contrast to the yellow of her bikini bottoms and the field of red flowers she's laying in. Any art in Miller's composition becomes a variation of a peep show when we see the shadow of a hand (presumably the photographer's) hovering over her right buttocks. Third is the crassly erotic Arika, the model posing in front of a big-rimmed car as if she has been washing it, but the car's doors are open and the suds are delegated to her crotch, hands disappearing in the white foam, her eyes closed as the soapy wash glides down her thighs and legs.

Despite being taken at the zenith of N.W.A's rise to musical controversy, the remaining (and more famous) photographs are questionable historical documents; they're just glorified advertising images intended to make icons out of the young musicians. Eazy-E, Arabian Prince and a post-N.W.A Ice Cube are the only members of the band pictured, but the shots are clearly myth-making in their intent. Miller's famous shot Eazy Duz It plays up the pseudo-gangsta image of the star, crouching him low, gripping a .22 in one hand and a Nada skateboard in the other, suggesting the two are pastimes on par with each other; the photo of Eazy with an American flag flying in the breeze behind him, as well as another of him counting hundred-dollar bills, are pure pop music propaganda.

Miller's best photos intensify the solitude of the musicians: Arabian Prince looking through the broken windows of a factory, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, light glinting off the shards of glass; rapper Bad Azz walking through a tunnel looking like God's Lonely Man; his cohort, Snoop, majestic and grim-faced, throwing a gang sign in another shot; MC Eiht standing in the headlights of a car; Warren G standing on a street corner, head bowed, in the photo that eventually became the cover for his album Regulate . . . G Funk Era.

There are also equally magnificent black-and-white photos of the late Tupac Shakur, rolling craps, flipping off the camera with both hands, running down the street, jumping out of the way as two friends tussle. The effect is child-like and jubilant, two things not normally associated with the artist. Equally unusual are the multiple shirtless pictures: In Tupac Graveyard, his shirt is pulled up to let the viewer soak in the abs and THUG LIFE tats, the cloth covering his mouth like a coquettish girl with a fan, his thick eyebrows and long lashes as pretty as anything in the naked model section of the show. Undercutting the sexy-bitch quality of the picture is the tombstone graffiti painted on the wall behind him, like some kind of prophetic art installation.

While curators Alex Amador, Miller and his wife, Shannon, may have thought the contrasting subject matter would show off Miller's diversity, it actually offers us the view of a photographer in decline. An argument could be made that he once had something to say, that however media-manipulated those images and however much of a masquerade the hip-hop personas might be, they represented something. But the photographic girlie show is just a wank . . . and a boring one at that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *