Ellen Tuchman’s “The B-Side” — Learning to Bear Witness

by Patricia Mora

It’s clear that the unique sheen and slant of the Hollywood mythos figures large in Ellen Frances Tuchman’s imagination. When particular names arise, she might acquiesce to admitting that she knew some celebrity in passing since she grew up in the environs of LA. However, what is more accurate is that she was always an outsider, a witness to that world of extravagance. In fact, it is via her art that she gives testimony to a certain brand of American hyperbole on both an historical and personal level. She watched lives evolve — and devolve — with the arrival and departure of a cast of pivotal characters. Hence, themes of art, money, and celebrity are readily apparent among countless other tropes in her work. On the surface, it may appear as if the young iteration of this particular painter was rife with shimmer. But there’s a B-side, and the artist’s life has been spent exploring and exposing it for what it truly was and is. In other words, this is Tuchman’s “Me-Too” moment. And it is momentous.

Tuchman’s work has often been described as pretty — and while it is colorful and deliciously, even performatively, complex — that particular adjective inflicts an unintended indignity of the sort denoted by the word mignon in French. While such pronouncements were meant as praise, they fail to encompass her arts’ true agency. Tuchman’s aesthetics of outré pop motifs coupled with the dicey sides of feminine pulchritude call to mind the ways in which imagery, texture, and juxtaposition can operate and lead us to explore the frantic — and unnerving — manner in which art imitates life. Her work is searingly personal and a kind of reverie in the Romantic tradition. By that I mean she is sifting through the psychological scree of a lifetime and giving it new form that functions as a kind of magic lantern of memory, loss, and melancholia.

It becomes clear that Tuchman touches upon the queasier forms of intimacy, and the talismans that define the forlorn and stranded quality of feminine experience on the brink of love, disquietude, and despair. “Right Before My Eyes” may have a lovely “bee bop” experiential surface, but there’s an undertow of meaning that carries content that is every bit as serious as the countless feminist concerns that achieve notoriety. It may seem as if a cheerleader mentality has been meticulously enshrined in Tuchman’s work but look more carefully. These collages are all “pretty” lookers that, when examined more closely, are more vexed and vexing than merely voluptuous. One work sports a vintage “Life Savers” wrapper that may appear as a mere whisper; however, it’s a genuine plea for help. This, I might add, is only one among hundreds of similar allusions. Thus, slogans such as “Soccer Moms are the Bomb” show up alongside book titles such as “Sin Undone,” “Innocence Undone,” and, lastly, merely “Undone.” The last title, viewers can note, is penned by none other than Karin Slaughter. This is hardly incidental or accidental. It’s deft witness to the sharper edges of feminine experience.

Recurring images of vintage vinyl 45s and their labels carry poignant narratives (“Cold as Ice,” The Devil’s Woman,” and “Evil Companions”). They clearly work in conjunction with her use of “glamorous” fifties magazine covers as well as a wide array of materials gathered from every source imaginable. Thus, “On a Bender” provides a veritable trove of matchbook covers, ephemera, and all manner of allusions to a life coming undone. Add to this an ongoing vector in the form of labyrinthine bits of circular paper that intimate a coiled world from which there is no escape and you, indeed, have a “B” — or flipside — of a shiny world of baubles and enticements that has seriously gone awry. Once again, Tuchman is serving as a witness to a dystopian world we all know but, given the slimmest chance, prefer to leave unexamined.

Hence, the “B-Side” show is shining a light on the obverse world of vacuous blonds, movie stars, and the other icons of a long-gone era that manage to endure, no matter how hollow they might ring to the contemporary ear. While they never possessed huge sustenance in their heyday, Tuchman reminds us that they always pointed to an explosive “B” side. She manages to point directly to their deceptively slick Hollywood allure and make them strangely titillating via a new guise of formal arrangement and allusions that are a hybrid of sharp wit, untamed furor, and sheer aesthetic spectacle. Put another way, she remains a witness.

The riveting axis of the show is comprised of five works. Aptly, the central piece of what comprises a significant and sprawling psychological landscape is semi-opaque. It’s a peep show into emotional contours that are meant to remain veiled; we know them only via analogy and insinuation. If this were a therapist’s couch, the curtain remains drawn and the secrets are closely held. They only take flight when viewers glimpse their fluent river of imagery and infer what they can — or might — postulate in terms of malevolence or stalking and lingering pain. After all, this is the B-side, and it is a visual code that is anything but what is typically expected.

Flanking the central piece, “Witchy Woman,” are semi-circular works with the following titles: “Queen Bee,” “Black Widow,” “Ice Queen,” and “She-Devil.” The pieces can be arranged as orbs and be made to conform to the shape of a pill, a flower, or a candy wrapped in cellophane — or a bomb. Put another way, it morphs along with the psyche of each viewer as they, too, “bear witness” to its emotional pulls and punches. The work may be “pretty” but it is anything but simple. Similarly, pieces such as “Murder or a Heart Attack” and “Modern Romance,” are just as complex.

The “B-Side” treats glamour and sexuality in ways that defy typical interpretations, and therein lies the point. Tuchman’s work operates largely as triggers for viewers to concoct their own brand of narrative. The show is bold, irreverent, and an unabashed commentary on the role of women, past and present. It bears witness to pain, abrogation of dignity, and feminine allure. So, take that­ and deal with it — if you dare. Any way you cut it, it’s a long way from the facades of Tinseltown — and we’re all the better for it.