Julie Becker: I must create a Master Piece to Pay the Rent @MoMA PS1

JTF (just the facts): A total of 53 works made between 1993 and 2015 installed in roughly chronological order on the museum’s second floor.

The photographic works in the exhibition are:

  • 13 C-prints

In addition to the photographic works, the exhibition includes:

  • 3 mixed-media sculptures
  • 1 mixed-media installation
  • 31 framed mixed media works, the smallest 8 ½ x 11 inches (or reverse), the largest 25 x 16 inches
  • 1 work consisting of three mixed-media drawings in readymade plastic box frames
  • 1 video installation with home movie screen, player with time clock, wood shelf and bench unit, and artist’s manual
  • 1 video installation with projector screen and wood bench
  • 1 video, color and sound, 4 min, 36 sec.
  • 1 artist’s sketchbook

(Installation views below.)

Comments/Context: This survey, which comes to PS1 from the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, brings together some 50 drawings, videos, photographs, sculptures, and installations by Los Angeles-born artist Julie Becker (1972–2016). Focusing on Becker’s primary themes of dispossession and economic precarity, as well as on her pre-Internet image scavenging, the exhibition makes a persuasive argument for her work’s accessibility and pertinence in our own era.

Becker practiced an affective form of conceptualism, in which her own history as the child of peripatetic artists intersected with the cultural imaginary of postwar America and the physical, economic, and sociological landscape of 1990s Los Angeles. Her works frequently take the form of dreamlike interiors rendered either at full size or in miniature. In these inward looking (in all senses of the word) pieces, globalization, the AIDS crisis, and the lingering effects of the 1991 recession are unseen but nevertheless destabilizing forces.

The show opens with a group of works made when Becker was still a student at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts. “Interior Corners” (1993) is a series of closely cropped photographs of corners of rooms, most of the images showing two walls covered with vaguely vintage-looking wallpaper and a triangle of floor covered in contrasting carpeting. Some of the pictures are of real spaces, while others are of models built by the artist. Adding to the confusion, a sculpture on a nearby stand presents these rooms in miniature, some based on the photographs, others likely their original subjects. Stocked with dollhouse-scale objects and lit with full-sized reading lamps, they look like mockups for film sets.

A year later, Becker—now in graduate school—embarked on what would be her most ambitious project—the installation Researchers, Residents, a Place to Rest (1993–96). Comprising three zones, the piece is entered through though the first zone: a room equipped with a real desk, sofa, and table stacked with magazines. But although the plastic nameplate on the desk reads “waiting room,” several alternative nameplates—including “psychiatrist” and “entertainment agency” are arrayed on the floor nearby, suggesting that the space might be more limber than it first appears.

Hanging on the wall of the waiting room is a drawing purportedly showing two floors of the Overlook, the haunted hotel in the 1980 film The Shining (and in Stephen King’s novel of the same name). Entering the larger space beyond the waiting room, one comes upon fully realized models of the same, which more closely resemble floors in a single-room-occupancy hotel than a luxury resort. These seem to be occupied by a variety of tenants. One of those inhabitants appears to be the artist herself, judging from tiny versions of her work hanging in one of the rooms. Other rooms contain such items as a scaled-down ouija board, typewriter, and sleeping bag; as in dreams, these spaces, though physically connected by hallways, seem not to belong to the same worlds.

Two alcoves within this zone each contain a huddle of real cardboard refrigerator boxes. One box is being used as a bed, perhaps by a homeless person, perhaps by a child playing house. Miniatures of these, too, appear in the models.

The last zone is a workshop, or studio, containing research materials for the work. This includes the journals, written by Becker, of two of the piece’s “residents”: Danny Torrance, the endangered young protagonist of The Shining, and the little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel in Kay Thompson’s children’s book Eloise, as well as files 12 more residents, their descriptions based on a popular personality test. Resident #7, for example, gets great satisfaction from being impulsive, while Resident #4 is a champion of the downtrodden and oppressed. Regarding Resident #8, “They never seem to lose their sense of wonder. They often exhibit this in a ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ fashion—switching from reality to fantasy and back again. With few exceptions, it is they who readily develop imaginary playmates with their own reflection. Often inanimate objects come to life.”

Rounding out this group of early pieces is Becker’s video Transformation and Seduction (1993/2000), in which clips from the 1967 Disney movie The Gnome-Mobile are set to a reading from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Despair (1936). In Nabokov’s book, a man meets his double in the woods and plots to murder him. In the video, the character’s musings on creativity become the inner voice of the film’s young female star. (An early version of the piece, in which Becker’s father does the voiceover, was lost. She later remade it using a different reader.)

In another instance of scrambled signals, a nearby installation, Suburban Legend (1999) offers viewers the opportunity to watch the Wizard of Oz synced to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. According to urban stoner legend, the album was made as an alternative soundtrack to the classic movie; an artist’s manual provides notable coincidences, as when the lyrics “. . . long you live and high you fly” are sung at the moment when the Wicked Witch stands on top of the house with her flying broom.

Becker would find a real–life counterpart to the unsettled fictional spaces of the “Interior Corners” works and Researcher, Residents when, in 1999, she moved into a dilapidated bungalow formerly occupied by a man who had died of AIDS and now owned by a local bank. Given a reduced rent in return for clearing out the previous tenant’s possessions, Becker instead used the house and its contents as the start of a new body of work, unfinished at her death, titled The Whole.

Consisting of—among other elements—photographs of the house’s ’70s-era interior, a group of related drawings (one features a quote from the Lifetime channel that reads, “I wanna live in a House with beautiful flowers and a lot of safety”), a sculpture of the curb in front of the bank, and a film of the artist lowering a model of the bank into a hole cut in a closet floor, the piece is another instance of haunting—though this time the revenant seems to be Becker herself.

At times, Becker’s work recalls that made by artists of the generation prior to hers, including Jennifer Bolande’s conflations of sculpture and photography, Mike Kelley’s architectural models, and James Casebere’s set-up photographs. But it can also be seen as a link to the disorienting environments made by her contemporary Samara Golden, the reworkings of cultural phenomena by much younger artists like Bunny Rogers, and the manipulations of photographic space by photographers Sara Cwynar, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and others.

“Some people think my work is like a homemade CD ROM,” Becker once told an interviewer, “Because of its nonlinearity, with various entering and exiting points.” Powered by repetition and substitution, her work, though analog, anticipates how images and data now circulate and recombine on the internet, while her focus on matters of belonging and not belonging, safety and danger, wealth and want, seem more timely than ever.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Julie Becker is represented by Greene Naftali in New York (here). Her photographs have little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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