The automobile has long epitomized notions of capitalism as alienation—the opposite of public transit’s grimy socialism. The five oil paintings in Frieda Toranzo Jaeger’s show at Reena Spaulings (all 2017) depict interior views of cars: one looks onto the electric engine of a Formula E racing car, and the other four—alluding to a future in which cars will drive themselves—focus on passenger seats in various electric models designed for the consumer market. In an interview with Mousse, Toranzo Jaeger described electric cars as “female” machines, unlike their gas-powered counterparts, whose engine revving, she said, functions as a signifier for male sexual performance.
Three of the works include hand-embroidered sections depicting nude bodies. Had I not read the press release, I wouldn’t have known that these were lesbian sex scenes. In the foreground of Rear Passenger Entrance are what appear to be a woman’s buttocks; a single leg in pink fishnet tights stretches from the seat to the center console, though it’s unclear where the rest of its body is located or even if there is one.
The multi-panel painting Hope the Air Conditioning Is on While Facing Global Warming (part 1) stood at the gallery’s center. Calling to mind altarpieces removed from churches and presented in museums as freestanding objects, the work consists of four car-door-shaped canvases hinged together, two of them opened upward like wings. Outside the car windows we see buildings on fire beneath open blue skies, the view conjuring apocalyptic religious visions. But the car’s interior world—like that of a casino or shopping mall—seems divorced from such any sense of these threats, its hermeticism reinforced by the panels’ folding quality. The car’s dashboards, seats, and glove compartments have been painted in an exaggerated chiaroscuro. The effect of stasis and interiority recalls the central mechanics of advertising, where the desire for intimacy is partly gratified and ultimately thwarted.
“Advertising does not liberate drives,” writes Baudrillard. “Primarily, it mobilizes phantasms which block these drives.” So do these paintings. But if there is any disruption to the phantasmagoria, it comes from the literal puncturing of canvas with the needle in the works with embroidered sections. Historically relegated to domesticity and decorative arts, embroidery is a warm, tactile system of representation, and here it stands in contrast to the cold painted simulacra. It wakes you up from the stupor of the paintings, if not by queering the masculine semiotics of the automobile, then by incorporating a tradition that doesn’t pretend to have anything to do with the rest of the enterprise.