Loren Holland’s painting Mistress of the Darkness (2005) depicts a curvaceous, mocha-skinned woman wading through a lush, mysterious swamp. With her large gold earrings, tiny pink-striped bikini, and long manicured nails, she seems more at home in a rap video than waist-deep in a bayou. But she’s not the only thing that’s out of place. A boom box floats inexplicably nearby, and a log at her feet is strewn with cigarette butts, a half-eaten hotdog, and other street corner debris. Unfazed, the woman looks askance at the viewer; she is out of place, but oddly at ease. Beneath the water, she stretches her fingers like the claws of some swamp creature.
This conflation of sexiness and animality is one of the assumptions about African American women that Holland seeks to parody. By rendering her contradictory images in a brightly colored, storybook style, she both creates the illusion of three-dimensional space and insists on its artifice. While the scenes she depicts are clearly imaginary, they are also incredibly detailed. “Details are what make it for me,” she asserts. “I try to make an artificial reality. [The paintings] feel seamless, and feel continuous, but they’re not real. They’re off; they’re very distorted, just like the images I’m trying to represent.”
The images she’s referring to are hyper-sexualized, exotic, or menacing portrayals of young African American and Afro-Latino women that pervade popular media. By self-consciously juxtaposing objects and styles from disparate contexts-urban and backwoods, realism and fantasy-she seeks to construct complex satires that question preconceived notions about racial, class and gender identities. Richly detailed but enigmatic, the paintings invite closer inspection only to reveal a sly wit and a sense of unease or uncertainty: the realization, perhaps, that there’s more to Holland’s ingénues than their brash styling and coy poses.
A resident of Long Beach who works out of her grandfather’s garage in Compton, Holland is herself a bit of an enigma. Her youthful, casual demeanor eventually reveals an independent streak and a wide-ranging intellect. Although she always planned on becoming an artist, she emerged from Brown University in 2002 with bachelor’s degrees in both art and neuroscience. “That was one subject that I loved,” she recalls. “I kept taking it, and so it’s like, ‘Hey, I have enough credits to get a degree in this.’”
She went on to receive an MFA from Yale in 2005 and was quickly picked up by Anna Kustera gallery in New York, where she had a solo show in 2006. This month, her first one-person museum exhibition opens in the Project Room at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. It accompanies an installation by William Pope.L, whose conceptual and performance works also address issues of race and representation.
Holland’s rapid success-from graduate school to museum exhibition in two short years-may seem like good luck (or worse, an example of the art market’s fixation on youth), but the Santa Monica show was a result of her own initiative. A year ago, when she learned that Pope.L would be showing in the main gallery, she confidently approached the Museum with a proposal. “Conceptually he’s working with issues that mirror my own,” she says. “I knew I could create a fantastic project that would conceptually complement his work.”
The project she developed is a literal expansion of her paintings into three dimensions. “It’s a chance to experiment with something that I’ve really wanted to do for awhile,” she says. “But if you have to worry about things like a gallery or sales or anything like that, sometimes you feel more tentative to try.” The installation features a large-scale photographic backdrop depicting a dense, ominous forest, before which are arranged several freestanding figures that Holland has painted on paper, cut out, and affixed to foam core supports.
Titled Black Magic Woman (from the popular Santana song of the same name), the piece takes on the exotic images of African American women associated with voodoo, Santeria, and the occult. One figure is pictured raising the dead, while another tends a “witches’ garden.” Rendered with Holland’s signature blend of exquisite detail and heightened artifice, the figures are exaggerations of familiar types. “In order to get people to see how silly these misconceptions are, I use humor to make it so obvious that it’s like, ‘Why would you ever think that? It’s so absurd,’” she says. But while she seeks to implode stereotypes, she also includes elements that cast the women not just as caricatures but also as emblems of real-life situations. One figure preens at a vanity table. “She’s got her makeup in one hand and she’s got a box of cocoa powder in the other,” says Holland. “Because back in the old days before they had various makeup shades, they would just create their own from household things. They would use cinnamon or chocolate, whatever they could, and mix it into that.”
Holland feels this inventiveness has been misunderstood and distorted into the stereotype of the evil, devious voodoo priestess. “It’s actually creativity which leads to that perception,” she says, adding that the resourcefulness of African American women has often enabled them to fashion useful items with minimal means. “To the outside eye, that may look like magic, because you’ve suddenly got this thing out of nowhere,” she says. “When in reality, it’s just knowing how to use what you have and get what you need.”
This interest in the realities of African American female life pushes Holland’s paintings beyond simple satire into a more ambiguous realm. She’s concerned that she may be reinforcing stereotypes. “Paintings that I considered failed are ones where my intentions don’t come through at all,” she remarks. “They just are another image of an African woman as people expect them to look.” Yet she doesn’t feel the need to create compensatory “positive” representations either. In response to African American viewers who have charged her with portraying them in a negative light, she responds, “I’m not really offering any alternative with my work. It’s more [about] getting people to just change their views or question existing ones.”
To that end, Holland carefully orchestrates the combination of imagery she employs. “It’s always through association that media creates these images of people,” she explains. “And so what I’m doing is, by re-contextualizing them and associating them with new objects, I’m trying to get people to read them differently or put a new association on them, one that I’m intentionally putting there.”
One unexpected association is an affinity with 17th and 18th century ‘Old Master’ paintings by artists like Rubens and Goya. Although she was encouraged in school to paint in a more spontaneous mode, Holland developed a practice that more closely resembles the slower, premeditated process of traditional painting. Her ideas first take shape as writing, from which she does preliminary sketches of various pictorial elements. She then creates a series of color layouts to determine the overall composition before beginning the final, full-size painting. “Everything is very deliberate, and often things will seem random to people, but they’re really not,” she asserts. “They’re ambiguous, but very specific.”
Like the Old Masters, allegory and symbolism play a large part in Holland’s paintings, albeit updated with today’s references. “I love allegories and fables because they have multiple reads,” she says. “Every little detail can be used to direct your viewers.” Some of her symbols are straightforward: candy for sweetness, a box of Trojans for sex. Others are more ambitious. The use of garbage and debris in her images “has to do with social and cultural detritus, just wastefulness and consumerism,” she says, which is an attitude that extends to people as well. She makes a connection between the despoiling of the environment and the exploits of the “player” who uses and discards women as if they were objects. “[In] the whole player world, people seem to think they can just bounce around and do whatever,” she says. “That’s the attitude, so those are more my allegories.”
By employing traditional pictorial strategies, Holland hopes her message will reach a wider audience. “Abstract Expressionism or a lot of the conceptual movements from the ’70s are still so new to people that it’s just dismissed at first hand,” she says. “I’m really trying to reach a very large audience, and so keeping things more recognizable has been the best way to do that.”
By manipulating the symbols and styles of contemporary pop culture in irreverent and humorous ways, Holland recycles stereotypical images to push the limits of reductive thinking. Balancing her satire with an appealing humanity, her carefully-wrought paintings suggest that even amid a barrage of simplistic media images, there is always room for subversion.
“Mistress of the Darkness” 2005
Oil on paper
72″ x 42″
Photo: Courtesy the artist and Anna Kustera Gallery, New York