What Was Unseen: On Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up”
By Yael FriedmanMay 11, 2023
The art world almost never gets a fair showing on the big screen or the small one. Few filmmakers and showrunners endeavor to portray the art world as it is or might be. Instead, they harness its worst foibles as shorthand for commentary about wealth, power, and mercenary dealmaking, all for a cathartic laugh directed at shallow fools who mistake a fire extinguisher in a gallery for a work of art. In the last few years, these depictions seem to have reached new heights of sneering satire, invigorated by the current crop of eat-the-rich cultural output. It is far easier—savvier, hipper, cooler—to use art as a vehicle for humor and self-deprecation than to engage with it seriously and risk unintended satire. It is perhaps difficult to depict a world that sincerely believes in art for art’s sake, and believes that it’s for everyone.
In the 2020 spoof Painter, a mysterious narrator tells us: “When art is hot, there’s nothing hotter, nothing on this earth. It’s such a personal, subjective thing, but maybe because it is so elitist, so unaccessible, that when the right people all agree that someone is talented, they go mad. They go white blind.” Our breathless narrator, Joanne (Betsy Randle), turns out to be a wealthy older woman who has plucked the obscure and questionably talented Aldis (Eric Ladin) from Los Angeles’s emerging artist grind. She is the patroness/lottery-ticket figure that artists and gallerists supposedly always wait for, and yet, in these tales, the bargain always turns Faustian. She wants to own him and smite his enemies, literally. The even more bombastically one-note Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) opens on Art Basel Miami Beach, ground zero for art’s most conspicuous consumption. Art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives a millionaire’s life of luxury in Los Angeles—an art critic! Essentially The Menu for the art world, the film includes a star-studded cast that did their best with the histrionic material at hand.
Other movies do it better, and funnier. The cleverer sendups reflect the added value of mining the art world for social critique—a rich vein of hypocrisy. In 2022’s films Triangle of Sadness and The Menu, the wealthy are mostly unapologetic and shameless, without any ostensibly noble intentions. The Square (2017), Ruben Östlund’s stab at the rich and ridiculous prior to Triangle of Sadness, contrasts a museum’s moral high-mindedness, and its engagement with themes of poverty, with the callous actions of its staff and patrons in their own lives.
And with the most recent Candyman (2021), directed by Nia DaCosta, the main character, artist Anthony McCoy, lives in the historical shadow (both real and fictional) of the razed Cabrini–Green projects in Chicago. When Anthony pitches his work to a white dealer for an upcoming show, the dealer says, “I want the great Black hope of the Chicago art scene of tomorrow.” When Anthony tells him he’s thinking of doing something about Bronzeville, where Anthony grew up, the dealer replies, “Yeah, South Side is kinda played.” That is when Anthony seizes on the idea of doing something related to the Candyman and Cabrini–Green. The dealer lights up. Anthony’s piece is titled “Say His Name.”
Even in work from the most capable hands like these, which also includes Joey Soloway’s true artists’ romp/inside joke I Love Dick (2017), the art itself is secondary at best. We can only connect with this rarified world through parody. From Beverly Hills Cop (1984) to Junebug (2005) to Sex and the City (1998–2004), and even this year’s Beef, the art serves as a ready-made metaphor for class and character, a means to juxtapose values or to compare accessible, populist art (read: movies and television) to whatever a painting or sculpture is.
There is good reason for art to have permanently entered the cultural lexicon in this way. As Anna Delvey/Sorokin’s grifts have reminded us, defrauding people by dangling art in front of them—a promise of instant cachet, taste, the ultimate status symbol/investment vehicle—is frightfully easy. Individuals who would normally conduct months of due diligence for other assets of similar value suddenly lose their senses. When I was researching for an article about art fraud many years ago, a wealthy and famous collector admitted to having fallen for a few fakes. Unfortunately, I was still an unseasoned reporter and failed to mention that my piece was not just about collecting. When he and his publicist found out that it was about fraud, they were irate. The truth is, the people who can afford six- or seven-figure price tags for art rarely know why the art costs so much. It is hard to fault film and television for feasting on this folly. It is hard, as an audience, not to luxuriate in the schadenfreude.
However, apart from some exceptional biopics, including Basquiat (1996) and Pollock (2000), the power of art itself, the process of creating it, and the three-dimensional people that inhabit this world remain absent. The easiest to depict, the most low-hanging fruit, is found where artists, curators, and the market converge in the worst possible way.
Kelly Reichardt’s new film finally provides that context, that soul, and she may be the only filmmaker working today who has the desire and ability to achieve it. As in her previous films, such as Night Moves (2013) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), Reichardt breathes life into figures and worlds usually relegated to abstraction.
In Night Moves, three aspiring eco-terrorists in Oregon, played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard, hatch a plot to blow up a dam. Reichardt’s emphasis on building tension and plot keeps the audience from looking at these three as exemplars of radical environmentalism, or of any ideology. They are three individuals, their fates permanently and painfully entwined by a plan gone awry. There is never a lot of dialogue in her films, just enough and with just the right cinematography and actors. Similarly, in Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams, who carries several of Reichardt’s films with a quiet intensity, makes one of society’s most invisible people unforgettable as we are swept up in this young drifter’s plight.
Able to recover recognizable people out of the archetypes and tropes that bind them, Reichardt is even able to rescue Portland from Portlandia (many of her films are set there). She brings these specifically cinematic virtues and gifts to the Portland art scene in Showing Up. In this world, the more ridiculous aspects of artists, gallery openings, and petty territorialism remain, and are used well—the movie is very funny—but don’t form the core of the film. Lizzy is a weary artist working as a receptionist at the local art school, grudgingly dealing with the artists and art students by day, tending to her intricate clay sculptures by night. She has precious time to prepare for her upcoming show. Her landlord Jo, played to self-centered, charismatic perfection by Hong Chau, is a more successful artist, with two shows coming up; she has time to be whimsical and set up a tire swing in their yard but not to fix Lizzy’s hot water. As Lizzy works towards her show, Reichardt spends a lot of time with her as she molds and carves her clay figures—determined, serious, with a purity of purpose.
There is a lot of cynicism in the art world, with too many artists like Jo, whose aggressive charm and opportunism gain them rewards that seem unfair and unearned. But most working artists think and breathe art, whether in the studio or inside their own heads, while seeking out new experiences, new interlocutors. They teach you to see and imagine in new ways, even about themes you have spent years thinking and writing about, as I discovered covering Los Angeles–based artist Camilla Taylor. Taylor’s work ingeniously explores the figure of the impostor and the lies we tell ourselves. Her artwork is beautiful and thoughtful, its ideas only made possible through the visual imagination.
For artists, power, personality, and patronage make a difference, of course. Lizzy is awkward and introverted and has to work a full-time job to support her art practice. But she also gets in her own way, such that it is hard to tell whether the art world has worn her down or life has. From the first scene, she has so much contempt for everyone, so much repressed rage, that it seems she only finds quiet in art, and the film follows suit.
Important for the plot, and for Lizzy’s character, Portland is a center for the traditionally male-dominated field of ceramics. Lizzy’s father, Bill (Judd Hirsch) is a renowned Portland potter and is very self-absorbed and self-important, not aging gracefully out of entitled lechery. Because Lizzy also works in clay, and because she grew up in an art family, Reichardt explores Lizzy’s personality, her family’s dynamics, and the oppressive nature of gender roles through her relationship to art and to the art world. Finally, art is not presented as mysterious and impenetrable, not a racket or a scam. Like Night Moves and Wendy and Lucy, the tropes melt away, while the story and people remain.
Reichardt, not unlike her protagonist, maintains her focus on the art, providing the viewer with that meditative reprieve of experiencing (good) art in person. At Lizzy’s show, we watch people looking at her art, joining us as we do the same. Throughout the film, we are invited to see how Jo, Lizzy, and most of the characters sincerely engage with the art they are making, looking at, surrounded by. Some of the conversations consist of comical art-speak, but most do not. It helps that in this art scene and art school, and in Portland more than other places, craft is still highly valued, not a poor cousin to other art forms. It is easier to build a serious film about cultural production when there are universally recognizable objects and processes to anchor it, such as pottery-making and weaving. These depictions also form a beautiful bridge to more conceptual art forms, an organic exploration of the world in which they coexist and speak to one another.
All of the pieces in the movie were created by local artists, including Lizzy’s clay figures, made by Cynthia Lahti. They are a perfect vehicle for Lizzy’s inner life—intricate and fragile, adding to the simmering tension, the fear that she and her work are one and the same, are in danger of being broken, whether by flying pigeons, household pets, or narcissistic parents. However, at the same time, Lizzy’s sculptures reclaim this often-male craft, allowing her to work with her natural inheritance while making it something completely her own.
We know Lizzy through her art, the decisions she makes as she finishes the sculptures, painting them in vibrant colors to create a teeming world that she cannot otherwise access. Oregon’s state motto is “alis volat propriis” (“she flies with her own wings”). On the nose, maybe, but Lizzy earns her autonomy through her art, defined by moments of peace and flights of the imagination.
With the intimate and claustrophobic world that Lizzy inhabits, Reichardt gives us as sincere a look inside the studio and gallery as we are likely to get from the silver screen. For Portlanders, it is also an insider’s portrait of the art and craft and history of their city. But even if the audience does not recognize the galleries or artists discussed in the film or credited at the end, the space Lizzy and Jo occupy and eventually bond over feels true and surprisingly fresh, reflecting the true community that can spring from communities like it.
Along with filling such a gaping hole in cinema, Kelly Reichardt reminds us why we need a true and nuanced portrait of artmaking in the first place. We need art, we need new ways of seeing and expressing, and we need a constant engagement with the world that no other medium can provide in the same way—as both a highly individual and collective experience. While art cannot quite be divorced from its commodification, the motivation to make art and the experience of engaging with it make for good storytelling; together, they present a way to examine important aspects of being human and being in the world. Art charts our course and helps remake it by showing us things we otherwise cannot see.
Yael Friedman is a writer based in New York. Her reviews and essays about art, culture, cities, and sports have appeared in The Economist, Bloomberg, The Forward, Haaretz, The Daily Beast, Urban Omnibus, Galaxy Brain, and elsewhere.
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