I have been exploring these questions for quite some time. Recently, I took up the story of my great uncle, Michael Romanoff, one of the 20th century’s most beloved impostors. In 1932, The New Yorker published a profile of him, and that was well before he became truly famous. In an essay I wrote about him last year, I recounted this unlikely tale of a two-bit hustler who posed as a descendant of the tsar and became an original member of the Rat Pack in 1940s Los Angeles and proprietor of one of Hollywood’s most storied institutions (his eponymous restaurant).
Most strikingly, Romanoff was often unmasked and yet still adored and embraced. He did not leave a trail of rejection and schadenfreude in his wake, unlike the parade of villains today. What set him apart? And when does one become an impostor rather than one who is merely trying to execute a vision they have for their life? When does the gap between aspiration and reality become too large? And is the aspiration not merely part of the intense pressure to live one’s most “authentic” life, to achieve self-actualization?
In his 1996 essay about Anatole Broyard, who famously passed as white and went to great lengths to hide his life as a Black man, Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes about this idea of “authenticity” and self-actualization:
To pass is to sin against authenticity, and “authenticity” is among the founding lies of the modern age. The philosopher Charles Taylor summarizes its ideology thus: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s life. But this notion gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.”
The work of Los Angeles–based artist Camilla Taylor provides a radical and visually stunning examination of these questions. Taylor has created a new lens for exploring ambition and identity, and the capacity and need for self-deception. Her sculptures and prints often feel like gothic incarnations of our subconscious attempts to make ourselves fit in the world. In fact, Taylor devoted an exhibit to exploring this kaleidoscope of subconscious motivation and intentional deception: titled Your Words in My Mouth, this spectacular show at Los Angeles’s Track 16 Gallery ran from September 12 to October 17, 2020, unfortunately during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. Hopefully she is able to reprise it for the broader audience it deserves.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Joseph Beuys, the German artist who helped found the Fluxus movement, was an inspiration for the show. His self-mythology and persona have been so integral to his art and identity that, like Romanoff, the truth seems almost beside the point. If you embrace the art, you seem to have to embrace the man as he chooses to be. During World War II, Beuys served with the Luftwaffe and survived a plane crash in the Crimea. For many years, he told of his amazing rescue by nomadic Tatars who nursed him back to health by wrapping his broken body in felt and fat. Beuys drew heavily on these elements in his sculptures.
This romantic foundation also served him well as he forged a path as artist and shaman, politician and provocateur. In reality, Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1941, and was saved by fellow German soldiers when he crashed. He convalesced not by candlelight, tended to by Tatars, but in a military hospital. Of course, many who served in the German army in World War II went to great lengths to hide their past, but Beuys chose to completely recreate his, finding an origin story that could imbue the rest of his life with other malleable properties.
As Taylor explained in her talk about the exhibit:
[Beuys] started this series for me in many ways because I’ve always enjoyed his work but it only became really strikingly interesting to me when I learned his backstory […] and [how he] used those objects throughout his career as metaphors for being saved, for comfort. […] But all that’s a lie. […] All of his sculptures are consistent attempts at trying to rewrite his real history and so much more fascinating to me because of that. There are all these little deceptions of himself and of us.
As with Beuys, the liars and impostors Taylor trained her eyes on for the show were not motivated by money or power. Some of them, like Romanoff, cultivated identities that suited them more than the reality they were dealt. Their motivations lie more in recognition and attention, or a desire to disconnect from a traumatic past.
Taylor dubs a portion of the exhibit “The Wall of Literal Liars,” represented in six ten-by-eight-inch black-and-white ink portraits on paper. Most of the subjects look squarely at the viewer, their eyes clear, their identities solid, self-possessed, strongly outlined and defined on the canvas. They seem defiant, unwilling to be contained by their medium. Taylor explained that “[t]hey’re all inked in this way like they’re emerging from the ink, like they’re making their own realities with their stories.”
Along with Beuys, the portraits encompass several notable impostors, such as James Hogue, who posed as a 16-year-old when he was 25, enrolling in high school in Palo Alto. He quickly became an unprecedented track star and even won a scholarship to Princeton before being exposed and incarcerated for fraud. The series also includes Darius McCollum, who posed as a New York City subway operator and bus driver, living out his lifelong obsession with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The creepiest of the lot is perhaps Frédéric Pierre Bourdin, a Frenchman who impersonated missing children, including a 13-year-old Texas boy, preying on a family desperate to believe what their eyes and ears clearly told them was not true.
These portraits, which overlook the rest of the exhibit and give it a foundation, include a self-portrait of Taylor herself, meant to remind of us of our own various degrees of self-deception, the narratives we weave as we grow and adapt and become ourselves.
The other sections of Taylor’s exhibit are more metaphorical explorations of the paths taken towards self-deception, or self-definition. In an exhibit track entitled “One to the Other,” Taylor assembled 120 tiny ceramic chairs in a vitrine. She explained that she came from a large family, where a single gathering would require almost a game of musical chairs, each member of the family grabbing whatever seats were available. As she described it:
No one is comfortable and no one gets to choose — none of these chairs are doing what they’re intended to do. [They] are in many ways these temporary roles that you take on — [the chair] informs who you are in that moment. Sometimes it’s functional like an office chair or a dining room chair. But sometimes it’s performative, like a chair you’re sitting in when you are interviewing for a job or a student’s chair, where you’re performing this temporary version of yourself at that time period.
The key to peeling back the layers of deception is understanding how impostors and other con artists transform themselves incrementally. Anna Sorokin’s first steps towards her alter ego Anna Delvey began by wanting to fit in and show up the other girls in her new German school after she arrived from Russia; Michael Romanoff as an orphan was literally taught to charm wealthy adults so they would want to help him. Their delusions of grandeur may have been pathological, but they started small, and their attempts to belong are not dissimilar to our own small measures of deception to project confidence, to suspend enough disbelief in order to accomplish a task or pursue our dreams.
In several sets of sculptures, Taylor gives form to this process of the stories we tell ourselves. In the track “Speaking in Unison, Telling Their Own Lies,” Taylor arranged 17 heads, made from black ceramic glaze, in a circle, with a thread joining them, crossing over itself as it travels from mouth to mouth. Each head is slightly different from the rest, just as the thread that joins them is different in each mouth, changing ever so slightly as it wends its way. The heads are sitting atop a table covered in a cloth that Taylor has printed with a pattern of mock orange flower, which in some traditions signifies falsity. Taylor explained that she also used the tablecloth as a “reiteration of the domestic space,” to show “that to deceive is something that we do all the time […] basically how we build our homes and ourselves.”
The domestic sphere, and the intimacy of how we arrange and rearrange our inner lives, makes up much of the rest of the show. In another series of prints, Taylor takes up the role of chairs again, their functions and our completing of those functions. Here again she uses her personal experience to make this metaphor concrete. The prints are of Shaker chairs. As Taylor explains it, when she was growing up, her parents collected Shaker furniture, “or that is what they liked to tell people.” In reality, they would buy sets of unfinished Shaker furniture that ended up staying in the garage, rotting and forgotten, which would also undermine any practical use they could have had.
In another set of sculptures, Taylor continues to explore the ways in which our actual domestic habitats shape our conceptions of ourselves. In “Many Times Over,” a hanging sculpture is a conjoined, 12-sided reiteration of the same house. Like the mouths holding the thread, each house is slightly different, representing, as Taylor explains, a “phenomenon that’s really common — that you dream that you are in a house that you grew up in, but something has changed about this house.” The piece speaks to memory more broadly, visiting and revisiting an event or a place that, even for the most stern and sober rememberers, can’t help but change over time.
The home is one of the best symbols for this phenomenon of memory shifting ever so slightly, our constant shaping of ourselves as we move further away in time or space. As Taylor describes it:
The house in the dream, the mind making a physical space that it occupies — how does traveling through this space manifest itself each time we change our version of ourselves — new versions of ourselves. […] All these different versions of the original, there is no such thing as the true self. They’re all as true as each other.
An even more idealized home (or self), one that can never be occupied or realized, is the dollhouse, which appears in several sketches. Dollhouses also expose what normally remains hidden to a mere visitor — the second floor. The second floor in any home represents the ultimate domestic sphere, reserved for those who live there. The staircase in this instance also symbolizes the mystery and vague identity beyond. According to Taylor, “stairs indicate that a second story exists — this indication that something is being kept from you, withholding — the crack in the story, the detail that gives it away.” Taylor highlights this notion of the stairs that lead to nowhere, or to nowhere you can see. She does so through a set of three-dimensional, freestanding staircases, which represent the deceit itself, the implication that something is being hidden, the possibility that nothing lies beyond at all.
Taylor’s work evinces an understanding of the deceptions of selfhood with a clarity that attests to her brilliant imagination. Key to understanding impostors is being able to visualize our particular point on the continuum they occupy, that we all occupy. Until Taylor’s work, I could conjure the idea in abstraction, or by means of specific individuals, but her work gives it its own shape, its own set of universal symbols and metaphors.
Though we may want to distance ourselves from the impostors and the frauds, we are all on that seesaw of fronting and forgetting, of pursuing a life of worth and meaning while staying close to a comfortable core. And that core itself may be a chimera, one we chase or slip in and out of — but all part of the whole, nonetheless.
Featured image and linked installation images courtesy of Track 16 Gallery.