It’s easy to compare Genevieve Gaignard’s photographic portraits to artists like Cindy Sherman, but once you walk into Smell the Roses, Gaignard’s immersive three-part installation at CAAM, the experience is very different; she invites you to walk into her portraits. With small-scale furniture and mini appliances fit for a tiny home, Gaignard creates wildly complex backdrops that guide viewers on an emotional journey into identity and loss. These environments act as background for the multi-faceted characters that she inhabits in a series of self-portraits that use humor as a psychological salve. With campy titles like “Basic Cable and Chill”, “Red State, Blue Plate” and “Vanilla Ice”, Gaignard playfully pokes fun at her characters without diminishing who they are as individuals.
The interplay between the portraits and the physical installations is important. The characters on the wall invite you into their physical space to briefly imagine their lives. In the exhibit there are two replicas of homes that pay tribute to the artist’s multicultural background: A yellow New Orleans style shotgun house with pink shutters reveal a 1970’s living room with velvet flocked wallpaper in canary yellow. Of course, no velvet wall is complete without a matching couch; this part of the installation personally transported me to a house near Oakland, CA circa 1975 where my Grandmother had a white velvet couch with jade green round velour chairs that spun around, automatically transforming my Grandma’s family room into a dizzying playground for her grandchildren…
On the other side of the couch Gaignard stocked a small kitchen with groceries for a fish fry and a savory pan of jambalaya. Across from the NOLA house sits a weatherboard clad New England style home which opens into a pale pink bedroom and bathroom filled with cabbage patch dolls, wall posters, vintage magazines and an intricately decorated vanity. This space serves as both an introduction and memorial to Gaignard’s 8 ½ year old niece who passed away tragically in a fire. When a loved one passes away, a piece of you goes away with them and that void is transformative. This sense of transformation takes place among the many characters inhabiting the walls of Gaigard’s exhibit, and that link between transformation and death is repeated in the third section of the show.
One side of the space features a mixed media installation of a shooting target practice sheet that’s riddled with red gun shots. Surrounding the target’s subject are images of vibrantly colored roses adorning the subject’s silhouette. Across from this work is a video installation that plays the audio recording of a police scanner during an arrest that segues to a video of Gaignard in drag performing a rendition of Diana Ross’ “Missing You”. This version of the song is dedicated to the scores of unarmed black men that lost their lives to police violence in 2016.
For me the most poignant piece of this section was a small porcelain figure sitting on a low shelf on a wall adjoining the shooting target piece and the video installation. Resting on the bookshelf among classics written by black writers including Malcolm X, Alex Haley and James Baldwin and a photograph of two police officers is a small porcelain figurine of a blond girl in a blue dress.
Her back is turned to the viewer, and despite the other works in the room that elicit a stream of powerful emotions, the figurine’s wistful gaze is directed squarely at herself in a mirror, oblivious to the tragedy, loss and sadness that surrounds her. The title for the vignette is “We are only as blind as we want to be.” The placement of this one small object delivered a powerful message that encapsulates how divergent and bifurcated our views on current events have become. Gaignard’s use of objects and the specific power she imbued to them in their placement allows room for nuanced interpretation among them without diluting the overarching theme for the show. After seeing Gaigard’s show the second time, I left the space dizzy– just like those days with me spinning around in my Grandmother’s chair so many years ago.
Smell the Roses closes Sunday February 19th at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.