“(the repetitive picking of one’s own skin; excoriation)”
- Chris Kraus, What I Couldn’t Write, 2016
The ghost of Julie Becker inhabits a curious but often exploited place in the myth-making tendency of contemporary art. An artist who lived and died tragically, no longer present to craft the narrative of her being, the role of making-sense through her eyes becomes transferred to others. The material artifacts of her life exist unmoored from the person that created them and so their chain of meaning, the tethers that triangulate them have grown misty and require retracing, but, importantly, allow for new tethers to be drawn between the remnants of her life and the world as it is now, through other eyes.
Becker produced a kind of fantasy in her work, better a phantasm, something similar to haunting, a kind of reconfiguring of that which is (or was, now). Her process is much like what seems to be happening in her still from Whole (projector), a light source casting its presence as lack, made real through refraction, then captured again as light.
As people, we are often reduced to parentheticals, by ourselves and others. Contained and succinct, in death especially, we must become signifiers in order to transition into that quasi-immortal territory of collective memory. Some take it upon themselves to push at these bounds, incessantly, excoriating the definitions others placed on ourselves and even those held within, closely, perhaps in the chest. Pick - pick - pick at the surface to try to get through to something else, be it red and warm or hard and dry as concrete or glass.
The picking is important, it opens portals.
The opening parenthetical from Chris Kraus, a long friend of Becker’s, feels like a succinct encapsulation of Becker’s work and perhaps her life but I should be careful not to collapse the two. At least it will act as a place to start when approaching this ghost who left traces that depicted the unending social decline that is capitalism. Becker’s Whole is a work never meant to be completed, a witty turn at the impossibility of the parenthetical encapsulation. Becker is often introduced through her tragedy: mental illness, drug addiction, suicide – these are the parentheses that embrace her life and its traces.
Coast to Coast AM radio host Art Bell was a significant figure in Becker’s life. She was a self-professed frequent caller on the late-night talk show. Night owls would call in, unscreened, and discuss the holes in the parenthesis that defined life. UFO’s, conspiracy theories, protoscience and pseudoscience, Bell created a forum for excoriation. The deceased radio host also holds the record for longest non-stop broadcast by a Disc Jockey, 115 hours and 15 minutes. He later said of the experience that “as he would go about his normal routine, such as walking to the refrigerator during a break, it was as if he was floating around in a different world, and things seemed unreal.”
Becker’s view of life in Los Angeles, and perhaps America in the 90s in general, as LA was, arguably, at the height of its cultural power, seems to come from a similar cognitive seat, floating around in a different world. Speaking with her former lover and biographer, Ralph Coon, Becker was described as articulate, smart, sweet, attractive, difficult to connect to, distanced, problematic, and seemingly uncaring. Her remove, seen through the lens of mental illness and drug addiction, could be read as coping with not only past trauma but with the state of the everyday realities of Los Angeles and what amounts to its public sphere: trash mulched palms and burning tents. A narrative that for some reason seems satisfying, as if our own traumas at the hands of society are validated through her self-destruction: Madonna Julie.
When I spoke to Ralph Coon about Julie, he described her as a “beautiful nymph”. He elaborated, “If you wear all black, sleep in a coffin and wear your menstrual blood as lipstick, you can own me.” He later sent me a picture of her from when he knew her. Brown hair falling long down past her shoulders as it slipped into dirty blonde. Slate-gray eyes—intense in their remove—arced below arrow-straight, thin eyebrows. Her lips pursed; cheeks narrowed like she could say something but won’t just quite yet. She looks out from the corner of two brick walls and wears a gray wool house sweater draped over a scarlet red dress with white polka dots. Ralph was in love with Julie. In hindsight, it was a toxic bind. They were both using but Ralph didn’t know this until later, Julie apparently hid this part of their commonality from him. Ralph came back again and again until one day he left. She never called and neither did he. They floated off into different worlds. Ralph went into recovery. Julie kept picking.
As with her life, Julie’s work Whole is often prefaced by the following: she took up residence in a bank owned apartment in exchange for cleaning out the belongings left by a victim of AIDS. The California Federal Bank tower in Echo Park dominated the view from her window and would play the central role in Whole, crowned in red lights to demarcate its rooftop helicopter pad. This would be where she made most of the work that would come to define her oeuvre.
Julie exaggerated things, Ralph later found out. The apartment she lived in wasn’t owned by the bank that figured in her work as a celled monolith bound in bungee cords. There was no victim of the AIDS crisis that some cold banking institution refused to deal with out of irrational fear. Someone had died, and their stuff was still in the apartment (owned by Melissa Koonen and later Sandra Valarto) when Julie moved in. She did sort through the belongings in exchange for a discount on the rent and ended up living there for 5-6 years.
The story Julie told, assumingly, to Chris Kraus and others, was a very believable story, one that fit with the reality we lived in the 90s and continue to live today. And in some ways, it was more true than what actually happened; a house purchased with a mortgage is owned by the bank until otherwise. America failed the many, many people devastated by the AIDS epidemic especially gay men and people of color. Julie tapped into a metanarrative.
The flow of abstract capital doesn’t care who lives and dies in an asset. But they do know that they can hire someone for less money to clean out a seized property than exchanging its value as a housing unit to an artist. In fact, they don’t even have to clean it out, it can be sold for 150% the recorded value to a speculator who will flip it for twice that and make a TV episode about the flip for people who live in rented and mortgaged units owned by banks to consume so they can fantasize about ownership and a transformation that will forever be out of reach because it cannot be achieved in 30 minutes minus commercial breaks.
Federal Building with Music (2002) contains a miniature(ish) replica of the California Federal Building outside her window. As the video begins, we see it being slowly lowered through a hole in the floor. Calling up the euphemism of the “floor falling out” from under someone or something, a bank building being slowly lowered through a purposefully cut hole seems slightly more nuanced. Though the bank, having been purchased by Citigroup, went defunct the year Becker released the project on DVD, California Federal may have stood in for the recurring bank scandals and crises throughout the 80s and 90s such as the Savings and Loan Crisis. That this hole in the floor is a perfectly cut square indicates the purposeful structure for these falls, the video is even slowed down, its interlacing becoming apparent, like a slow-motion implosion, a gentle exit. A hand written sign with an arrow reads, “Going Down”.
Becker may be joyously celebrating the demise of the bank that dominated her (world)view. Or perhaps foreshadowing the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. A lively, bouncy, if melancholic, mariachi, Banda Arkángel R-15, is used for the score of the 29-minute video. Federal Building cuts between the replica being lowered through the floor and shots of the actual building before going to a scene apparently shot on top of the building’s helipad. The camera approaches the helicopter and then we take off over the city. Bubbles float across the screen, referencing both capital bubbles and childlike joy. These contradictory euphemisms around abstract capital develop the tension of the work as it is hard to reconcile the brutalist reality of concentrated capital or the damage it can do once the floor falls out, even if it is just a “bubble bursting”.
1910 West Sunset Blvd (2000), a reproduction of the sidewalk curb in front of the California Federal Bank building is reminiscent of the child-like playfulness amidst horror of Researchers, Residents, A Place to Rest (1993-1996), her sprawling installation from the 23rd São Paolo Biennial. In 1910 West, rusty jacks and an orange soda pop cap are left on the curb. In curling cursive, “Annual Street ART Competition” is written in chalk under a flaming Tower of Babel. A lone slipper sits next to a manhole and a shiny red bicycle reflector peeks out from a drainage pipe. Dead weeds stretch out from cracks and sawed-off posts jut up from the cement. 1910 West presents a tableaux of Los Angeles’ public sphere, with its overwhelming contradictions written on its cementitious body.
In Chris Kraus’s What I Couldn’t Write (the same piece that supplied the opening parenthetical), a work of fragments originally published by CSS Bard as part of their curatorial program development, she quotes Julie as saying, “Some things in life are really harsh and troubling. And if you can find a way to be less cynical – well, all the better. Thinking, you know, can be completely suicidal. Sometimes it’s better to just zone out.”
“Zone out” is an under-appreciated turn of phrase; to zone out, meaning to leave the everyday, the zone of engagement with whatever broader system we inhabit in that moment. Julie’s desire to zone out can be found throughout her work, these same portals to exit, escape, and be freed of the violence of the everyday. Echo Park in the 90s was neglected by the city, a portal in the wealth and prosperity depicted by sound stage replications of suburban mansions that seemingly every American with 5 kids and a dog could afford: grassy lawns, two-car garage, a basement tiki bar for entertaining, all just a mortgage away.
Like wood paneling, the veneer of America hides its hollow supports. Yet, Becker found ways to play with this distortion, not only to open portals to alchemical beauty, but to indict this system of reality occlusion. In Whole (Bar) (1999), she transforms a cliche American scene, the basement tiki bar — an object she revisits in her playful collage, Untitled (“Tiki Bar”) (from the Whole Series) (2001) — complete with textured olive-green carpet, into a kind of visual gate. Deck balusters for the post with a decorative, slanted lintel form this rudimentary architectural form, like a Torii gate of Americana. The wavy corner of a mirror in the background hints at irreality, reflecting a wooden placard that reads: “If you can keep your head in all this confusion, you just don’t understand the situation.” A glowing beaker and stirrer sit on the bar next to a purple potion in a sparkling perfume bottle. Smoke floats up from the beaker as if something powerful in its invisibility has combusted forth. A handwritten note hangs from the side stating: “Mysterious Object in production TAKE 1”. Details that require unpacking abound in Becker’s photographic images on view at Del Vaz Projects, yet their composition is balanced, united.
This same visual balance is brought to her collage, Untitled (2007) wherein two vanity mirrors frame an iridescent sheet of paper sandwiched between two faux wood veneers decoratively cut. Becker seemingly points to the “astral voyager”, the spirit within, between the hollows. In Untitled (green drawing with woman holding handbag), this spirit appears as a disembodied unicorn in a state of dissolution, parts of its head, a sphere of flowers, slipping away down the paper as the outline of a woman runs towards it, holding up a handbag as if it were an offering. An outline of blue mushrooms sits atop a grassy hill, the outline of the body of an ant is erased into the grass as if it were vaporized in an atomic flash.
According to Ralph, Julie lived in “disgusting” conditions. Bugs, filth, and trash. The hallmarks of illness and addiction abounded. In some way, Julie brought into her home that which she most feared: living on the street.
The tragedy of Julie Becker seems both simple and complex. A normative narrative would ascribe a failure to her family, failure to her society, and failure to Julie. Her inability to overcome and inscribe within herself the will to overcome that we secretly and softly ascribe to the animations of each and every human soul. But we have that here too. Her work is framed as exactly this — the transmutation of tragedy into beauty, her ability to overcome the tragedy she was given, the plain sin of her being, and create a lens through which we can, from afar, see the tragedy which surrounds as beautiful. But this surely was not Becker’s goal, to transform her pain into your beauty. This work is Julie — child Julie, adult Julie — trying to find herself, to open a space for herself, to find her way out of your zone, and into her own.
- Joel Kuennen
To read the complete Against the Edge text and learn about other sites and artists included in Frieze Projects curated by Jay Ezra Nayssan and Del Vaz Projects, click here.