Michele Asselin: Commons
there-there, Los Angeles
through May 11
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
Walls like faces show their age in unexpected ways, retaining the foundations of their original elegance and beauty even as they succumb to entropy and accumulate all the unseemly evidence of time’s passage. Also like faces, neglect is readily apparent. So perhaps it’s not so strange to consider the prospect of a portraitist depicting not faces, but edificies. In her 2016-19 series, photographer Michele Asselin offers thoughtful views of rooms that while devoid of people are filled with narrative. These are the lives of interiors perhaps, rather than the “interior lives” of people, but still they excavate narratives of social history, and touch on sensations of both nostalgia and repulsion.
Hollywood Park in Inglewood opened in 1938 as an upscale entertainment venue; its racetrack and casino were added later. It has undergone many subsequent renovations but still somehow there was this absolutely amazing wallpaper that remained installed, even when the site was sold, and everything was torn down except the casino itself, which stayed in operation until 2016 when the new one opened across the parking lot. In the meantime, these rooms though occupied had been left to rot in active disrepair, and when it officially closed, Asselin felt compelled to document the decoration situation.
The wallpaper motif is a well-known historical pattern called “Decor Chinois” produced in the 19th century; its presence at the site would have been a glitzy status symbol. It’s all flamingos and knotty vines, butterflies and blossoms, executed with an offset, eccentric line nodding to Asian classicism in a Beaux Arts idiom that stops short of full Orientalism. Its palette of frothy pinks, deep blues, and emerald greens shot through with gold certainly reach for tropes of popular luxury, as well as kitschy self-consciousness, but at the same time it belongs so thoroughly to its time and place that it’s hard to escape the feeling of stumbling on a time capsule. Telling fragments and details such as peeled sections, black bolts, crumbling wainscotting and also particularly lovely pictorial elements are helpfully culled and highlighted in the many smaller works. What they lack in the architectural ambience of the larger works, they reclaim in attending to the proliferating, evocative, empathetic detail.
The white backgrounds of the wallpaper are all smudged and stained despite being “protected” by bolted-on sheets of now-dirty plexiglass; decades of cigarette smoke and years without windex have exacted a toll. But at the same time, this scruffiness adds to the photographs’ overall painterliness — the exactitude of surface detail gives the pictures a texture, and the off-axis shadows lend a compositional derangement, that speak to the inventive potential and robust physicality of painting. In the atmospheric dimensions of light and creeping darkness, the prominent shadows look at first like impenetrable black but just like in the rooms, if you let your eyes adjust and look more closely into them, all the information remains. These shadows evoke the liminal, haunted status of the building, the very passage of time that is in many ways the series’ subject, and an unsettling feeling of trespassing.