Art can have many purposes. On canvasandcrumpets I have looked at the role art can play in confronting social issues and in encapsulating history. It can also be an outlet for exploring one’s identity. Yesterday, I witnessed Greer Lankton’s own personal discovery of self-identity in her post-humous retrospective, LOVE ME, at Participant Inc. Lankton, who passed away in 1996, was a popular artist in the East Village art scene in the 1980’s. She also happened to be transgender. Gender and sexuality play an important role in her art, as does her personal relationship with her own body. Lankston’s elaborate, often bizarre, dolls, modeled off both herself and celebrities, reveal her fascination with anatomy and the social constructs surrounding it. LOVE ME is a compilation of her dolls, photographs, drawings, and paraphernalia from her life.
LOVE ME closes on December 21st. I urge any who can to see this exhibit because it is truly a remarkable exhibit of a fascinating artist’s life. Furthermore, the primary form of Lankston’s art- dolls- is extraordinary.
Here are several images of Lankston’s dolls:
The dolls are similarly emaciated, and for the most part, nude. Their genitalia is exposed and the dolls carry themselves with distinct personalities. Many bear semblance to Lankton’s face, with the exception of the Jackie Onassis doll on the right of the second image. From my perspective as a viewer new to Lankton’s work, these dolls appear to be self-portraits embodying her feelings towards herself. In the first she positions herself wearing red heels and lipstick, confidently, even seductively, posing. In the central doll in the second image, she glares at the viewer, inviting the viewer to judge her, and silently replying that she doesn’t care what we think. Yet in the third image, the doll has been torn apart from the inside. Her organs spill out, only attached to the rest of her body by flimsy wire. Her face is skeletal and gaunt; it is a remnant of her past self. I have a difficult time understanding what this doll meant to Lankton. Her art so closely mirrored the events in her personal life that it is hard to step into her shoes as an artist. Perhaps this doll is a manifestation of confusion or even shame that she may have felt at one time towards her body. The skeletal face suggests the decay of a corpse. Maybe this doll is a reflection on death and the ever-decaying nature of the human body. I invite you to interpret differently!
Lankton also took many photographs of herself WITH these dolls. One I found particularly strange and memorable is this:
My first reaction was to think how morbid and creepy the photograph was. Yet at the same time, there is something so compelling about it that kept me staring at it. The juxtaposition of Lankton’s beautiful, grinning face with bloodied dolls creates an uncanny image that is hard to make sense of. Some of the dolls are bulbous, others are emaciated. And Lankton is nude in the middle of it, apparently in the midst of a bath. It makes one question the very nature of bodies. Why are we so disgusted by the simple portrayal of naked figures? Are they not aesthetically pleasing because they are thin, or fat, or seem to be sexually ambiguous? Lankton’s ease suggests she doesn’t care about what these bodies look like. And the viewer, put off by the grotesque scene, wonders why he or she is disgusted in the first place. Is it the sight of naked bodies that is off-putting? And if so, why is there such a social taboo against it? Furthermore, the prominent red cross on one of the dolls is jarring, considering the sexual connotations of the photograph. Lankton pokes fun at religion, and its effects on social norms, by including the symbol of the cross in her orgy of fabric bodies. It is my interpretation that Lankton used humor to confront religious homophobia.
LOVE ME features images of Lankton as well, posing for various photographers. One that I liked particularly is this one:
I found it particularly haunting, and very beautiful. One can see how she exaggerated her high cheek bones and large eyes in her self-portrait dolls.
The exhibit does not hide the darker elements of Lankton’s work. The following drawing is a painful depiction of the procedure Lankton underwent.
The bright colors are cheery, but the disjointed structure and overlapping vignettes are frantic. They create the sense of chaos and overwhelming emotion. Perspective is not important here. Table, wall, and floor all merge, reverting the image to two-dimensionality. However, the drawing is not about perspective collapsing. Nor is it a testament to poor technique. It is simply not the point. This drawing is an uncomfortable but honest portrayal of the emotion surrounding a procedure that was vital to Lankton’s identity. It almost feels as if the viewer is invading Lankton’s personal life- a wonderful opportunity provided by this exhibit, yet one that is deeply unnerving.
Lastly, I would like to show you all my favorite part of the exhibit, a mirror. I will not attempt to explain it. I believe it speaks for itself.
After leaving Participant Inc, I could not stop thinking about Greer Lankton’s life and art. I feel blessed to have stepped into her world for a short time, and seen different sides of her identity through her art. Because of this personal experience, I find her work to be some of my favorite. I hope to see other exhibits that feel as deeply personal as this. Hope you enjoyed as well, and learned something about this incredible artist!
xoxo, Chloe <3