In 1960, Joan Baez recorded “Girl of Constant Sorrow,” her gender-bending version of the traditional folk tune. The song’s plaintive refrain plays on a loop at low volume among the pictures in Anja Niemi’s most recent series, She Could Have Been a Cowboy (2018), on view through June 22. Niemi turns could have been into can still be, using the tools of stagecraft and costuming common to narrative self-portrait photographers from Cindy Sherman to Genevieve Gaignard. The soundtrack is a perfect fit for the images, in which the Norwegian artist embodies opposing states – wistful captive and free spirit.
One version of the self embodied by Niemi wears a form-fitting pink lace dress and poses dolefully in various rooms of a grand, faded beauty of a home. Her imagined counterpart, dressed in chaps, fringed shirt, gloves, boots, and hat, appears in various guises, including astride a horse, under the wide western sky. As both characters, Niemi wears a luxuriant blonde wig that largely hides her features; for all their exquisite emphasis on texture and detail, these pictures visualize roles, rather than individuals.
Most of the photographs open out to us, tableau-style, with their stars, center-stage. The feminized version bathes in an elaborate raised tub; the other, bound more by Hollywood tropes than gender specificity, tips backward into scrub and red-rock rubble as if struck by a bullet. The most affecting work in the series is the most intimate, a grid of 36 shots tracking the domestic rhythm of a day in the life of “The Girl of Constant Sorrow.” Every image is taken from the same spot, facing into a spare, but elegant bedroom furnished with antiques, its ceiling painted with foliate flourishes. A painting of the holy family hangs above the headboard, underlining the presence and power of internalized strictures. The storyboard begins with Niemi under the covers and follows her as she wakes, puts on her pink dress and stockings, and leaves. The made bed occupies one actor-less frame, and then the cycle begins again, and the very same images repeat. Niemi’s meticulous art direction generally leaves little space for emotional engagement, but this sequence is quietly searing, bringing to mind Chantal Akerman’s devastating 1975 film documenting the routinized existence of the fictional, but emblematic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Several of Niemi’s earlier series, going back to 2013, were represented in the gallery’s front room – excerpted stills from a career-long investigation of alter egos and doubles. With performative panache and a palette tuned to the vintage, Niemi assumes the persona of a toy soldier here, a starlet there. The theatrics are tight, sometimes to the point of airless perfection, but her role-playing can also be quietly provocative. In Short Stories (2016), available as a small book, she portrays seven different women, each through a sequence of portraits and evidential still-lifes that look like they derive from a detective’s dossier. More is left out than spelled out, and the gaps are refreshing.