In “Hold It Against Me: The Veronica Compton Archive,” Nina Schwanse effectively blurred the lines between artist and subject as well as between fact and fiction by stepping into the shoes of the eponymous convicted criminal. The show, Schwanse’s first solo at this artist cooperative in the burgeoning St. Claude arts district, presented drawings, paintings, texts, photographs and a video as if they had been created by Compton. Locally, Schwanse is best known for her campy videos Civil Realness: Grant vs. Lee (2011) and Babe-Rental.com (2010-11), in which, outfitted in big wigs and garish makeup, she embodies over-the-top characters as well as historical figures. Her works prompt comparisons to those of Alex Bag, Laurel Nakadate and Tamy Ben-Tor.
Compton was incarcerated in 1981 for attempted murder—a crime she conceived to raise doubt about the guilt of the imprisoned serial killer Kenneth Bianchi. Dubbed the “Hillside Strangler,” Bianchi, along with his cousin Angelo Buono, raped and killed 10 young women in Los Angeles between 1977 and 1978. Compton sent her play about a female serial killer, titled The Mutilated Cutter, to Bianchi, and they became friends. She smuggled a rubber glove containing Bianchi’s semen out of the prison, and then tried to strangle a woman in order to plant the fluid on her body. The woman escaped Compton’s assault.
The installation elaborated a chronology of Compton’s experiences with Bianchi (some manufactured and some factual). Large color photographs hung on the walls among grids of mixed-medium drawings of Bianchi’s victims as well as pages from Schwanse’s version of Compton’s play and supposed letters between Bianchi and Compton (inspired by correspondence published in Jennifer Furio’s Letters from Prison: Voices of Women Murderers, 2001). The photographs, which are scratched and faded to look timeworn, capture Schwanse dressed as Compton in a white slip, with flowing raven hair. Also on view were small paintings of lifeless women’s bodies in vibrant green fields, based on actual paintings made by Compton prior to her relationship with Bianchi. An enlarged postcard that features the hotel in Bellingham, Wash., where Compton’s attempted murder took place was on display, as was a video of Schwanse (as Compton) in an orange prison jumpsuit repeatedly singing, “Just you and I, together forever.”
The faux archive poses challenging questions about authorship and historicity; Schwanse relied heavily on hearsay in her effort to piece together Compton’s little-known history. According to Schwanse, she was not trying to create “an accurate biographical portrait of Compton but rather a psychological scrapbook of her passionate and violent collision with Bianchi.” In doing so, Schwanse courts real-world danger, considering that Compton was released from prison in 2003.
“Hold It Against Me” was a significant move for the artist. Emphasizing her ongoing interest in female personae, both complicated and clichéd, she took an impersonation further than she has previously, while playing with the possibilities of defying the divide between reality and fiction.