By Max Blue
Special to The Examiner
“It’s hard to make humorous work and be taken seriously,” San Francisco-based photographer Lindsey White said in a 2017 interview for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The only way to survive is to make a joke and laugh at something.” White has long used humor in her work to get at serious themes. In her solo exhibition “How to Get on Cable Television” at Casemore Kirkeby, White directs her attention – and ours – at gender dynamics and issues of exclusivity in professional stand-up comedy and magic, two worlds that often don’t collide.
The show includes silver gelatin prints White made using photographic negatives from the archive at the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan. The original photographer, Irving Desfor, photographed vaudevillians from the 1940s though the ‘70s, in addition to being a magician himself. In many cases, White has altered the prints with gouche paint, a process that harkens back to spotting, the traditional brush-and-ink method of retouching film photographs. Through her sleight of hand alteration of these pictures, White magnifies social dynamics that might otherwise go overlooked.
“Volunteer,” 2021, for example, shows a woman audience member having something inserted into her bra by a magician, while another woman stands by watching. White has painted the subjects’ clothes with bright colors, and emphasized their eyes, giving all three a goofy, pop-eyed appearance. The piece calls attention to a power dynamic in which male magicians often perform with female assistants or volunteers who serve as props. “Credits and Cop-Outs,” 2021, shows an auditorium from which White has removed the male audience with shades of gray paint. The result of this visual trick is twofold: with only women left, the audience is sparse; but the redaction also highlights their presence.
White originally went to the American Museum of Magic archives with the intent of finding photographs of pioneering female magicians, but it turned out there weren’t many. “Fan Girl Dreams,” 2021, is a collage of the images that she did find of women performers. White has written the words “Ladies’ Night” in gold glitter in the center of the composition. The piece works as a revisionist historical document, imagining a showcase of all-women performances.
White’s own stature in the Bay Area art scene is not a joke: her work has been collected by SFMOMA, she is a co-founder of the curatorial experiment Will Brown and has influenced countless students as a professor and chair of the photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2015, White’s work was featured in an anthology titled, aptly, “Photography Is Magic.”
White’s current show is about the magical and manipulative nature of both performance and visual art. Many of the people in the pictures may be recognizable to magic fans, but not to the average viewer. The experience of looking at White’s work is similar to watching a magic show: How’d they do that? Why don’t I get it?
A peanut gallery of eight, small, resin squirrels, all titled “Naysayers,” 2021, perch at intervals throughout the gallery, holding up signs printed with judgmental statements, such as “Lacking content” and “How old is she?” White says the source of these voices are her personal insecurities as well as things people have said to her; the point here is to get ahead of and satirize the criticism, while also nodding to the tradition of self-deprecation in stand-up comedy
“Pardon Me, Please/Stop Looking at Me,” 2021, an ambitious sculpture in the center of the gallery, addresses performance anxieties and the fear of taking up too much space. The piece, which features 15 silver buckets, each lettered to spell out the title phrases, was inspired by a TV memory from White’s childhood: a game that child guests played on “The Bozo Show,” in which the clown awarded prizes for ping-pong balls tossed into buckets. Instead of ping-pong balls, White’s buckets are catching ropes dangling from the ceiling, painted in black-and-white bands to simulate rainfall, an illusion that fully comes off only when the piece is photographed. The text on the buckets, based on a sign White found in the American Museum of Magic archive, speaks to the difficulty associated with showing interest in a space one is excluded from and the discomfort of the spotlight once it is attained.
The magic world may have excluded women historically, but White’s work creates a magic (and visual vindication) of its own. One of the similarities between comedy, magic and art is that all create liminal spaces. White uses humor to explore these spaces. As an artist, she is a kind of performer, and the pieces she makes are her tricks. And just like a magic show, I puzzled over “How to Get on Cable Television” for several days, awed and excited by what I’d seen. After all, photography is magic.
IF YOU GO
How to Get on Cable Television
Where: Casemore Kirkeby, Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., #102, S.F.
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Oct. 31