Eleanor Antin’s Classical Frieze

Last Monday I had the pleasure of walking through art, literary, and cinematic histories with Eleanor Antin. The pioneering feminist artist was at the museum to install Classical Frieze, a video documenting three photographic series that occupied roughly eight years of her artistic output since 2000, as well as a sampling of those photographs. The occasion of Pompeii and the Roman Villa prompted discussions between the Contemporary Art curators and Antin about the prospect of showing selections from her forays into Roman history. Ironically, as Antin recounted to Artforum’s Brian Sholis back in 2008, it turns out that her path to Pompeii began on her southbound journey home from LACMA about ten years ago:

One day after my retrospective exhibition at LACMA in 1999, I was driving the scenic route down to La Jolla, and looking down at the town glittering in the sun, I suddenly had a vision that La Jolla was Pompeii. Pompeii was a very wealthy town, too; it was the place where rich people went in the summer to escape mosquito-plagued Rome. It was the place to which older senators retired if they survived Roman politics. People living there enjoyed the affluent life while on the verge of annihilation. You don’t even need to consider our current political situation to see a connection: The cliffs are eroding, we’re on a major fault line, the wildfires get worse and worse, there are water shortages. California is overbuilt and disintegrating. So we don’t have a volcano, but it could be just as bad.

Eleanor Antin, "The Golden Death," from the series "The Last Days of Pompeii," 2001

Eleanor Antin, "The Golden Death," from the series "The Last Days of Pompeii," 2001

Antin considers the photographs from the three related series (Last Days of Pompeii, Roman Allegories, and Helen’s Odyssey) “still movies,” as each involve the entire apparatus of a studio production and often replicate the bathos of Hollywood’s own historical epics, but with a much more sardonic bite. The video is a document of the involved choreography perfectly illustrating how (in art historian Amelia Jones’ words) Antin “engages the past by flirting with the fake.” You can see Antin describe these “still movies” in her own words in this scene from Art21, about Helen’s Odyssey:

In fact, Antin’s flirty engagement with the past goes back to her earliest series, The Angels of Mercy (1977), a meditation on the theatrical underpinnings of so-called documentary photography in which she cast herself and friends in a historical time swap supposedly set on the battlegrounds of the Crimean War. But as generally is the case in Antin’s oeuvre, there are multiple adaptations of style and genre at work. So to go back to that origin story for the Roman trilogy, you can imagine Antin driving through a landscape of postmodern architectural variations on the neo-classical in that blinding La Jolla sunshine and immediately making the mental leap to the decadence of Thomas Couture and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, not to mention that of Gore Vidal and Federico Fellini. And yet summoning all of these performative excesses together, Antin still manages to find wit and warmth amidst her evocation of our times (as modern day Romans) “living the good life on the verge of annihilation.”

Rita Gonzalez, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art

4 Responses to Eleanor Antin’s Classical Frieze

  1. Talk about badly done scenes of oh so witty decadence! White folks are weird. What does thia have to do with art? Makes Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters seem classy. Some people need to get a life, instead of hanging around waiting for disaster so as to not feel so bored, as you life is so uneventful and detached from humanity. That’s decadence. And look at it in the mirror, you dont need to portray your little pageants of aburdity to see that.

    Creative art is and always has been threee things. Defining humanity, exploring nature, and searching for god. What does this have to do with any of that? Its illustration of silly ideas born from boredom. Entertainment for the hopelessly spoiled and irrelevant. What a waste.

    It is time to put aside childish things.

    art collegia delenda est

  2. Maja says:

    And where did you exactly get the ideas that art has always been three things? Could you please reveal your source? I think the photos are very funny. And quite appropriate too. Especially to the lifestyle of plastic and wealthy LA. For egocentric reasons I surely hope the volcano doesn’t strike while I’m still living here.

  3. Art has always been about one thing, the whole. Who We are, where do We come from, where are We going? The words of Gauguin, and the facets of art. Mind, body and soul. Philosophy, science, and theology. Defining who we are, exploring nature, serching for god. All are one. If you leave out one, you are an artistic cripple. If two, you are a fool. Which leaves us with contempt art. Context, conceptual, self absorbed rantings of children, whose feelings and self expression, therapy, are all. Art is dead.

    Actually, it was. In decadent times, art becomes illustrative of those who want to possess, control, prosaic for ones own purpose. In healthy times, and when fundamental change comes, one must seek the basics, through poetry, music. The melody of line, the harmony of color, the rhythm of structure. And so find Purpose. For without that, art is nothing but entertainment for the wealthy. Which is eactly what is shown above, And terribly executed I might add, so all the rich feel they can particpate and be artists, it makes them feel better about themselves. And so, the Age of Excess dies. In a depression brought about by these very patrons of the arts, whose vanity, selfishness, and greed brought this about.

    As Obama said, it is time to put aide childish thimgs, for those who never grow up, and refuse to leave Neverland because they can afford to, are dangerous. Decadent. And destroy art for their own absrudist amsuement. As with the Age of the Salon, these same powers took over. Now, true artists must rebel and start from scratch, from learning our common past, building on what was, as Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Klee did. The above is not art, it is the fulfillment of Dali’s dream of one, HIS being the one, to the exclusion of all else. And so it is.

    art collegia delenda est

  4. Anonymous says:

    Have you read anything about the artist? She has made a pretty wonderful connection of things in her past to create these pieces. She gathers her art from her past love of Ancient Greece and Rome (hence the backdrops), Salon style photography[hence the collaboration of community style and feminine based concentration(along with her feminist views adding to the mix)] while trying to add humor to the photo(hence the vanity, “selfishness, and greed” of the new world characters and your “badly done scenes” ). She has made a collage of history in these photos. Though you as an art critic might not see it. Eleanor is an artist in her own right. Because this isnt the typical type of art you love, doesnt mean that someone doesnt love it for its humor, style, and collaboration of different historical periods. She could very well be the beginning of a whole new style of artist. Of course I have always been under the impression art was about how the art itself opens up the mind into learning,admiring,and portraying how wonderful different styles (other than the ones we like) can influence us, our worlds, and our love for growing as a human race. Thats what separates us from the infants we try to raise. If you allow them to only eat,play,wear, what they like, they will have a much more difficult time learning to appreciate the acquired tastes of the fruits of the world instead of the chocolates that they like. Hope this is a little helpful in your understanding of the humor that Eleanor is trying to portray. She is actually a very interesting artist who deserves a little bit of research and exploration.

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