Pop-Up Patriarchy: "WORLD LEADERS" exhibition by Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen
The University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities’ pop-up exhibition WORLD LEADERS showcases the work of photographer Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen. She has an MFA in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a BA in social science and history of art from the University of Michigan. Currently based in Los Angeles, Von Habsburg-Lothringen has curated projects at Los Angeles Museum of Art, Detroit Design Festival, the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead, and Cranbrook Museum of Art.
The exhibit consists of one large photograph, printed on a vinyl banner, and hung on the back wall of the common room, adjacent to three small, framed still-life photographs of presumably designer clothing. The exhibition announcement states that Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s newest series, Conditions, “continues to examine the position of the woman in neo-liberal society as both object and agent. It reflects on the slippage between aspiration and desperation in the face of the vanishing American Dream.”
The site-specific installation “explores disparate geographical and emotional landscapes, and the ever-shifting identities of women within American society.” With a total of four works on display, the pop-up offers a look at some of Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s newest works. The large size of the photographic print that consumes the majority of the common room is a typical scale for Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s work. On her website, Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s previous exhibitions and gallery shows are archived, illustrating her frequent use of juxtaposition in image size within a single space, particularly in the series Conditions.
Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s photographic works engage viewers with concepts such as “American notions of aspiration, systems of power, and the new image economy.” (I wonder, is it a new economy, or just an altered, intensified economy?) She takes a research-based, systematic approach to her work, and has created, and continues to develop, a stock photography database of her own work from which to pull images. The process by which Von Habsburg-Lothringen creates this work already reflects the methodologies of the “image economy” that she seeks to critique. Within a single work, she pulls from her own archive and collages images of glamour, fashion, and anachronous items/surroundings/objects that create a surreal landscape, rendering the images strange and often unsettling.
Arts curator Amanda Krugliak writes that Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s “alluring images confront us with our own built-in biases about our bodies, our sexuality, the prescriptions of femininity, and ultimately our judgments. Beyond the flat ‘Colorform’ cutouts, ready to wear, the photographs expose the odiousness beneath the glamour.” Krugliak also suggests that Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s work is an investigation into the history of patriarchy, which is “embroiled in fabrication, truth and lies, inundated with images of women in a cyclical state of contextualization.” Then, she asks “for better? Or for worse?” Many artists deal with this uneasy line between appropriation and critique. Do the images take on a new meaning in a different context, or simply reinforce the ideas that they seek to critique?
In the large-scale work on display for the Institute of Humanities, Skin suits and saddle shoes makes a mamma want to rage, a female figure collaged into the image multiple times seems to move across the frame from the right to the left, with her back facing the audience. Von Habsburg-Lothringen has combined three images to form the background, over which various figures and objects lie. In the top left corner, a hand holds a knife in front of a large white house. Directly beneath is a cropped-in image of the female figure’s waist. Her electric-colored two-piece floral jumpsuit, the same worn in the full-body cutouts, frames her waist, which she squeezes between her hands, causing her skin to gather in a way inconsistent with glamorous fashion photography that the image obviously references.
The female subject’s face is never shown in the various cutouts that comprise the final image, commenting on the objectification of women’s bodies, particularly in fashion photography and clothing advertisements. But Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s inclusion of anachronous objects and images, such as the kitchen knife taken out of context, the skin is shown in a way that does not connote beauty, and the awkward movements of the figure throughout the frame, bring to mind the referent while suggesting that it is absurd.
The three small pieces in the space hang above the piano, each a still-life style photograph of articles of clothing piled up in various appealing Pantone-colors. On the left, a pile of cool-toned clothes is represented as a pile floating in a pastel-blue background. In the center, a pile of red clothing similarly floats on a red backdrop and, finally, on the right, pastel-pinks and whites float on a pink backdrop.
Each image has formal contrast within the mounds of crumpled clothing, a pattern here, a dark or light color there, but the amorphous shapes are reminiscent of a dirty pile of laundry (these are probably pictures of expensive, dirty piles of laundry). Though the figure is absent, these images are meditations on consumer culture, and, like her other works, defy the typical glamour associated with fashion photography by taking the beautiful objects and showing them as discarded piles, essentially resembling trash.
Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.
"WORLD LEADERS" by Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen is at the Institute of the Humanities, 202 S. Thayer, through Nov. 30. The exhibition is free and open to the public 9 am-5 pm weekdays. The exhibition is an installment in the ongoing Institute for the Humanities' Year of Archives and Futures, which is part of the celebration of the U-M Bicentennial.