“Y’all on the death diet!” That’s how Dick Gregory opened a performance at Stanfordin 1967. He was talking about the perils of “soul food” — how fried chicken, pork ribs and the like — sends people to early graves; but he just as easily could have been excoriating lots of other ruinous habits. Which is why, when I toured Hershman Lesson’s current show — about plastic surgery, sugar and iPhones — Gregory’s remark came rushing back at me.

His warning is of a piece with what Hershman Leeson, the esteemed feminist, new media artist and, more recently, skeptical participant in the virtual life, has been saying for years about the effects of manufactured desire on women. Her art focuses on its psychic and bodily impacts and on the forces that keep it in place. The strongest works in this show will leave you nodding (or recoiling) in complicit recognition.

For her series on plastic surgery, Hershman visited a doctor and photographed the preparatory felt-tip drawings he made on her face. They detailed what would be nipped and tucked – and to what effect. But instead of representing that information point-blank, she re-created the would-be procedure expressionistically, with swatches and daubs of paint smattered on the photographs, hinting at the immediate aftermath. She also placed snippets of the dialog between herself and the surgeon across the photos, along with her own apprehensions, rendering both in the psycho-scrawl mode of ransom notes. The results are dramatic, and not because of graphic details, which are mostly withheld, but because the pictures warn us away from the lure of fabricated beauty and its close cousin, self-loathing. The latter comes at us full-strength in I am Not Me, a picture with the words carved into the artist’s skin in the manner of self-mutilating adolescent females.

 make me look natural

Sugar — a big topic these days, what with Michael Bloomberg fighting high-fructose soft drinks — gets a somewhat didactic treatment. Hershman Leeson stages photos of overweight people eating junk food next to a list of “bullet points” linking sugar production in the Americas to the slave trade.
While it’s instructive to revisit sugar’s history, expecting the presentation of such facts to alter behavior is like asking people to abandon their homes because natives once occupied the land underneath them. Still, it’s worth noting two details in the photo called Family Portrait into which the artist inserts, with perfect perspectival accuracy, a fake mirrored reflection of the group and a mock “before” and “after” weight loss shot, done in the style of Richard Avedon. The latter injects a note of sly satire, reminding us of the gap between knowledge and behavior.

The series on iPhones issues a more direct appeal. Like sugar, that little buzz in your pocket each time a new email or text message arrives, triggers nerve impulses that scientists have linked to the same feeling of well-being we get from hugs. Small wonder we’re addicted. Yet for all the love smart phones dispense they also exact a price by fomenting the illusion that you can be everywhere all at once. Using photos of the devices into which she inserts images of her face — fractured as if struck by lightning or broken glass — Hershman mines that nugget of implausibility for all it’s worth, reducing a complex issue to splitting headache – which seems about right.
Anyone who’s half awake can see the point at which these addictions converge. Love, hunger, instant gratification and immortality are what our consumer culture uses to seduce even the smartest among us into irrational, self-defeating behavior. That is the territory Hershman Leesen has been navigating all along and will likely continue traveling as long as the conditions she describes persist.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, “Present” Tense” @ Gallery Paule Anglim through April 6, 2013.

Note: This exhibition overlaps with SFMOMA’s presentation, starting March 30, of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s AI-based interactive website, Agent Ruby (1999-2002). It’s an online chat room. Included will be printed archives of past “conversations” as well as a kiosk allowing interaction. Ruby’s machine-generated responses are disarmingly clever and eerily human, but not always completely so. Point that out and Ruby issues a convincing pledge to do better, which in turn sets up a shifting internal dialog between credulity and doubt. Warning: This game of matching wits against a machine can be addictive.

Link to the online review here!