a review of Paz Errazuriz's "Matrix 251"

By Matt Shapiro

Time to dance? Time to smoke?
My sister used to lend me her purple dress, black fishnets and red lipstick. My mom had a long blond wig that I was very fond of and I pierced my ears in order to wear their jewelry. Sometimes I would take my cross-dressing on the road and show up to school decked out in woman’s clothes. Mostly, because it was fun, against the rules and there’s nothing more fun than breaking arbitrary rules in ridiculous ways. One time I accidentally won the Halloween costume contest before they had a chance to send me home. I don’t want to be a woman, that actually seems like hard work, but I kind of get off on looking like one, sometimes. Being something that you’re not is fun and even more fun when petty authoritarians get angry with you doing it—in the end, people laugh, everyone has a good time and sometimes, just sometimes you’re granted new and interesting freedoms. Try it if you don’t believe me.

Despite my dabblings in transvestitism I have always considered myself an outsider to transvestite culture. I know very little, and have had minimal interaction and exposure to how transvestites behave and imagine themselves. When I saw the posters for Paz Errazuriz’s show, “Matrix 251,” I was excited. The promotional photo looked like a glimpse into the lives of the people that I would like to understand and know more about.

What's really going on?
So, I’m sad to report that Errazuriz’s photos miss the mark and the opportunity to delve into this interesting and complicated culture. We’ve all seen the public show, that’s what drag is about, but we rarely get a more human view of the scene. I am a firm believer that work should speak for itself, that art doesn’t need the help of criticism, especially contemporary work. The description placards at museums and galleries that explain what you’re looking at are ugly, disrespectful and unnecessary. If a piece of art is successful, then I’ll get it.

Walking through the show I was impressed with how well printed and composed everything was, but couldn’t help but feel frustrated at how these men/women looked like they were on display, as if the Berkeley Art Museum had added a freak attraction to their art circus. The photos said nothing beyond documenting the obvious, that these men are dressed like women. Looking for answers, I went back and started reading the clunky descriptions. By the end of the show I must have experienced every emotion connected with frustration and dismay. I didn’t cry though, because I’m a man who has occasionally dressed up as a woman.

There are so many stories to tell
The stories on the placards are actually interesting in their own right, but they still take away from the work. It’s almost as if they take over what the work is supposed to be doing, representing and catching the culture with some amount of humanity. They reverse the process in how you take in the work and inadvertently point to weaknesses in the photos. It just felt like one big missed opportunity.

The video work by Anna Maria Maiolino seems to be a part of a completely different conversation all together. The four looped videos stirred up a much more immediate response, both aesthetically and philosophically, but they too failed to get at the root of what makes drag culture so fascinating. I happened to walk in on what turned out to be the most exciting one. The camera zooms in on the overly made up lips of a drag queen and then shifts to a pair of unadorned lips and then back to the drag queen’s lips circulating a cue ball. The shift between bright red and natural lips is echoed by female voices chattering in the background.

An interesting comparison
Another of the videos follows a dark string being pulled out of a light mouth. It is another image of a mouth that fluctuates between light and dark, this time between bright white teeth and black lipstick. Although I enjoyed the videos, I found that they didn’t so much as augment the show, but point out how much this show is lacking in focus and understanding.

What gives someone the authority to document and subsequently embody a culture in art? Who has the authority to then validate the work as substantial enough to exhibit in a museum to other communities? I felt a deep amount of skepticism that this work is any sort of factual documentation about drag culture. As an artist you should always be free to do what you want, but there are natural limits: you shouldn’t be the spokesperson for a culture not your own and the role of the gallery or museum is perverted when you present such work as authentic.

Everything is Open!

©Matt Shapiro and the CCA Arts Review

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