Ribbon Around A Bomb

Femme Avant-core

Arts Bombast: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Roberta Breitmore Series

I just returned from a brilliant 5-day escape to New York City. Besides hanging out with some of my best friends in the world, eating a plethora of delicious bread-based goods, and playing “lovely assistant” on stage at the amazing/sad Coney Island Freak Show, I had the opportunity to visit MOMA for the first time in my life. For a museum-nerd like myself, it was both an awe-inspiring and totally overwhelming experience. I was able to view many of my favorite works of art that I’d never seen in person- the 1980s gallery is probably the most excellent series of rooms, ever.

But what undoubtedly moved me the most was something I found in the “New Acquisitions in Photography” exhibition: Lynn Hershman Leeson‘s Roberta Breitmore series. Although I discovered the work in a photography exhibition, it’s really performance art. In this series, Hershman adopted a constructed identity of a woman she named “Roberta Breitmore.” For four years, from 1974-1978, the artist worked, dated, wrote, shopped, went to therapy, and otherwise lived her life as “Roberta” in San Francisco.

hersh Roberta Meets Sydney at Del Coronado Hotel (San Diego), 1976,
[Roberta Meets Sydney at Del Coronado Hotel (San Diego), 1976]

If you read RAAB regularly, you know that late ’70s art, feminist art, performance art, and things going on in SF are all my jam, so when those combine into something I was previously unaware of, well… “orgasmic” is the only way to describe my response to this work.

A large part of the work is all of the “evidence” of Roberta’s existence. The series includes photographs of Roberta meeting friends, working at a temp agency, and going out on the town. There are also photographs of artifacts such as her check book, her driver’s license, her therapist’s psychiatric analysis of her, and her diary. For all intents and purposes, Roberta was “real.” Roberta lived on the corner of Baker and Jackson in a property called “Baker Acres,” which incidentally, was also the home of Manson family member Susan D. Atkins in the mid-’60s. (I feel like I may be the first person to have discovered this connection, by the way. Obscuro-research, ftw.)

hersh Diary, 1976,
[Roberta’s Diary, 1976.]

hersh Roberta's Driver's License (DF219767, SnF 1r.January 20, 1976
[Roberta’s Driver’s Liscense, 1976.]

hersh roberta check 1974
[Roberta’s check book, 1974.]

hersh roberta's room 1976
[Roberta’s room, Bakers Acres, SF, 1976.]

Her appearance was a big part of the performance- Roberta had a very distinct ’70s sense of style, visible in her clothes, make-up, and the way she did her hair and decorated her apartment. Hershman very carefully constructed Roberta’s image, as you can see in the “Roberta Construction Charts” below.

hersh construction-chart-1-large 1975
[Roberta Construction Chart #1, 1975.]

hersh roberta construction chart #2, 1975
[Roberta Construction Chart #2, 1975.]

It’s hard not to let Cindy Sherman’s work come to mind when thinking about Hershman’s project. Both artists confronted issues of identity, representation and authenticity from a modern woman’s perspective. Interestingly though, “Roberta Breitmore” predated Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills by about 3 years. That surprised me because, well, the obvious fact that Sherman is a far more recognized artist, but also because Roberta feels like a reimagination and an extension of the concepts explored in Sherman’s early work.

I wonder what it would look like to extend the work today. If I moved to the Marina and started doing yoga, would I BE a Marina-yoga-girl? Given that identity is a construct, which is fluid, am I even who I think I am?

In any case, see more Roberta-ness below, and more work from Hershman here.

hersh ad
[Want Ad, San Francisco Progress, 1974.]

hersh Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta and Irwin Meet for the First Time in Union Square Park, 1975
[Roberta and Irwin Meet for the First Time in Union Square Park, 1975.]

roberta's body language chart
[Roberta’s Body Language Chart, 1978.]

3 comments on “Arts Bombast: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Roberta Breitmore Series

  1. TommyTopHat
    July 20, 2013

    Wow. The whole thing sounds fascinating. I’d love to be able to do something like that.

  2. bamaboy_94115@sbcglobal.net
    September 15, 2013

    I was in MOMA on Friday, September 13th and saw Lynn’s photos. I’m a friend of Lynn’s here where I live in San Francisco. But, the most interesting part is that the psychiatrist that is working with Lynn/Roberta – is my ex Austin Conkey. He had an office in his house and Lynn/Roberta – came to his office for her/their sessions. I took pictures of the MOMA photos and sent them to Austin. He was very pleased to see them there. Lynn in a wonderful woman and incrediable artist. Austin has been a fantatic collaborator and supporter of the arts in San Francisco for decades. Imaging my surprise and joy to see these photos at MOMA and being able to share them with Austin. And then to see your blog. Quite a nice art week.

    • ribbonaroundabomb
      September 16, 2013

      That is fantastic! I really do wonder about all the other people who interacted with Lynn as Roberta, like people she worked with, dated, lived by… such an amazing insight and perspective to know the psychiatrist from the project!

      And yes, we totally have the best contemporary artists in San Francisco. 🙂

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