Bay Area artists Trevor Paglen and Desirée Holman work in very different spheres, using different methods and media, to get at different contemporary issues. But the two share an attitude, a way of getting audiences to challenge what they know to be true about themselves and the world around them.
“I’ve never crossed paths with him professionally before,” Holman, MFA ’02, said in an interview earlier this year. “But I’m a big admirer.”
Paglen and Holman, both East Bay dwellers and Berkeley graduates, did come together in February as two of the four artists honored in the prestigious biennial Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Begun in 1967, the highly coveted SECA honor is awarded to a varying number of winners each time. Some past SECA recipients have become international art stars—Barry McGee, Rigo 98, and Simon Evans, for example. Tauba Auerbach and Jordan Kantor round out this year’s rather small group in the show that runs through May 10.
Paglen is perhaps the better known of the pair, although not necessarily as an artist. He earned his B.A. in religious studies in 1996, then returned for a Ph.D. in geography, completed last year. As an experimental geographer/artist, he explores secret “black site” locations and other parts of CIA and U.S. military nether regions, through long-range photography and arduous fact finding. He has published several books (his third, Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World, was released in February) that take a journalistic approach to the same subjects as his artwork.
For the SECA show, eight years of Paglen’s work are on display, featuring four kinds of photographs. Blurry images of secret military sites, shot through long-range telescopic lenses, are shown alongside passport photos of people who kidnapped subjects for interrogation (Paglen acquired the photos through the renditioners’ hotels). There are also examples of secret military patches, and pictures of American spy satellites in orbit.
Holman, by contrast, has a more focused show at SFMOMA. Her 2007 multimedia body of work, The Magic Window, comprises a three-channel video projection and drawings (some never before shown). In The Magic Window, two famous television families meet—the Huxtables of The Cosby Show and the Conners of Roseanne. Holman combined the “seductive” modes of television production (three-camera shots, sharp editing) with bulky, sculpted masks to make a strange netherworld where the sitcom icons interact. Holman’s work, according to SFMOMA Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Alison Gass, is “a meditation on identity.”
Holman herself explains, “I was interested in the participation of fantasy on television, thinking of it as a precursor to the way we participate in multi-user online games—I was interested in what these televisual fantasies reveal about our own desires and fears.” Holman says that she added drawings to The Magic Window so that viewers didn’t approach the piece simply from the “passive” state of a television audience.
But it’s unlikely that museumgoers will feel uninvolved in the work of either artist, because both illuminate darkened corners of American life. In a joint statement, Gass and Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Apsara DiQuinzio praise the way both artists create “a contrast between the construction of self-identity and cultural identities.” Walking out onto the street after the SECA show, it’s easy to imagine looking up in the sky, scanning for one of Paglen’s spy satellites, and then catching a glimpse of a television screen—wondering, as Holman did, who exactly is inside the box.