Michele Asselin / Commons

Opening reception April 6th 6-8pm

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A photographer best known for her portraiture of politicians and actors and for journalistic documentary, Michele Asselin is adept at condensing the complexity and constant movement of the human face and of people caught up in events into an allusive singular frame. Yet a recent series by the artist titled COMMONS expels the figure from the image, eliminating the interval of posing or capture that connects photographer and human subject. These images are of a wall, specifically details of ornate and peculiar wallpaper in various states of damage and decay. At first, a wall would seem to be the opposite of a face, but the inanimate subject is full of memories and moods. The wallpaper, “Decor Chinois”, designed in the 19th century and produced with 387 original woodblocks from 1832 that are classified historical monuments by the French ministry of culture, made its way to the Ingelwood pavilion through a Los Angeles showroom.  Formally, the scenes are lush and startling, characterized by tense contrasts. The motifs of plants and birds are vibrantly colored, but the white background is specked and smudged with wear and grime. The design of the wallpaper is fanciful and delicate, but it is covered with sheets of smeared plexiglass bolted on with large exposed screws that have rusted, cracking and warping the plastic. In many of the photographs, dense shadows slice across the wall, creating eerie areas of darkness that resemble slightly open doorways or a view through a boarded-up window. The play between fanciful decoration and creeping blackness gives the scenes a quality of suspense and the viewer an unsettling sense of voyeurism as if we are peering in from the shadows. Yet another incongruity lies in the imagery of the wallpaper itself, which Asselin reveals only in fragments, withholding the overall pattern. Although the motifs are those of landscape, there is nothing natural or even logical about their combination. Rendered in the style of traditional Asian ink painting, the simulation is bizarre. Grape vines hang from tropical palm trees, accompanied by improbable-looking butterflies and a comically unlovely crane. Any kind of cultured examination reveals this luxurious and exotic scene to be a nonsensical pastiche in imitation of refined antique décor. It’s “faux,” its appeal a pleasing sham. This paradox makes Asselin’s photographs of the wall yet more inscrutable because now we see that the subject has no prestige, no value. So what’s the riddle? What is somehow both fancy and cheap and is built on illusion? Los Angeles. And casinos.

Asselin photographed the recently abandoned Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, which first opened in 1994. Specifically in these works she takes the viewer inside the rather lurid and decrepit banquet room, which once overlooked a racetrack and was presumably filled with the experiences both dramatic and mundane of countless gamblers over many years. Asselin is interested in the site as having once hosted a very particular and intense social group, one of leisure and community, but also of risk, obsession, and failure. In explaining her curiosity about the Casino and its vacant spaces, the artist imagines the regular patrons making themselves at home amid the ever-fading glitz, perhaps counting the wallpaper’s butterflies as a ritual of good luck or just adding another dusting of cigarette tarnish to the room. Asselin is interested in the accumulated energy of long inhabitation, the untold times a glance rested on one of the strange flowers before returning to the cards. This is why the photographs are both beguiling and uncanny, because they’re haunted – by laughter and smoke and shock and monotony and camaraderie and compulsion. The magic of Asselin’s photographs is that one senses this crowded presence within the room’s strange, now-vanished, walls.

-Rachel Baum

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