Super Rich Kids with Nothing but Fake Friends: Nadia Lee Cohen’s Dream of L.A.




This article is a preview of The LARB Quarterly, no. 35: “Isn’t It Uncanny?” Available this fall at the LARB shop.

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MY FIRST WALK through Hollywood in years is to the HELLO, My Name Is Nadia Lee Cohen exhibit at Jeffrey Deitch Los Angeles with Chloe and Paul. I’ve driven and been driven through these streets for decades, but on foot it feels like those other times weren’t real. Sunset Boulevard is blurry in its overheated July antiglory, with tourists and homeless people intersecting each other’s paths unseen as if on parallel dimensions. That day there is that distinct worn yellow-gray weariness of Los Angeles midsummer in the air; all day the old Frank Ocean “Super Rich Kids” has been rolling around in my head (“Too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar / Too many white lies and white lines / Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”). The song will play even more aggressively in my head once we get there, but just moments before, we cross the path of an androgynous white kid who is somehow taking up the entirety of a shaded sidewalk. This kid is already something — celestial and otherworldly, a cross between a ’90s Abercrombie model and an extra in a JT LeRoy picaresque — but it’s what the kid is doing that gets us. The kid is walking, much like a dog, very casually, a tortoise. The tortoise is the antithesis of a cute dog: awkwardly big, ancient-looking, with other things on its mind than us. “He’s with me,” the kid says, and it turns out the tortoise had actually been abandoned at a dog shelter. In the course of the kid’s conversation, the tortoise’s gender changes, but we are told its name is Marcel. I ask if they named it after “The Shell.” “No, just some … French guy,” the kid says. The tortoise, obviously leashless, begins crossing the intersection at alarming speed. Aren’t tortoises supposed to be slow? I want to ask the kid, but they are gone by the time I question the spectacle.

Like extras on a film lot, the scene shifts and we find ourselves around the corner at the Deitch Gallery, which is in its final weeks of being entirely overtaken by the world of Nadia Lee Cohen. When we arrive, Marcel and its owner are the main things on our minds, but that set seems to fade well into this one, the surrealities different but complementary somehow. We’re Dorothies, but Oz, not Kansas, is our home.

Cohen is not an L.A. native, but she lives here and has made her version of it. The art school kids, just like the fashion girls, have her on their mood boards, but she’s not an accessible local; you can find her more easily on Madonna’s main than, say, spot her in tagged photos at her local Erewhon. I first encountered her in 2013, when she was just 22, still a London College of Fashion student, sounding both assured and charmingly green in a write-up in New York Magazine’s “The Cut.” The piece was accompanied by photos of plasticky, mannequin-looking models that straddled the grotesque and gorgeous, overly tanned and artificially glowing with caked-on makeup, in a Technicolor Los Angeles landscape of the collective dreams and nightmares of other eras. Even then, she had this signature look.

I was raised in Los Angeles, and so it surprised me that this English-countryside–raised artist grasped West Coast excess so well. It wasn’t my L.A., but it was L.A. Maybe a California more California than actual California, it was, like so much of her body of work, a ’60s and ’70s eternal-magic-hour Americana that permanently stained the perception of this region. Cohen seemed to have picked up where some boomers had left off in their portraiture — maybe shades of Martin Parr as well as Slim Aarons, whose works Lee Cohen might admit admiring. But there’s more. She’s also part David Lynch, Harmony Korine, David LaChapelle, Petra Collins, and perhaps most on the nose: Cindy Sherman. Her influences seem so obvious that she’s almost daring you to draw the comparisons — but it’s missing the point to call her derivative. Here’s a white artist culturally appropriating a white culture not hers but in a way that dares you to question just why you assume that remove. Could we not imagine our artist as one of her characters: in a McDonald’s, smoking her aunt’s Virginia Slims, wearing sales-rack mall clothes, and meeting ill-fitting dates in dive bars? Maybe we actually should.

On the other hand, there is an outrageously glamorous pulchritude to all things Nadia Lee Cohen that dare you to call this the highest of fashion. I’ve had to admit to myself many times in this same season that out of all Cohen productions, I love nothing more than her campy, ’60s-futurist Skims ads starring a feather-haired blonde Kim Kardashian in metallic swimwear poolside with a gaggle of poodles and girlfriends. It’s like a Palm Springs universe in another galaxy inhabited by Peggy Moffit’s blonde nemeses, and when you see it in the ad, it’s a bit shocking that Kim hasn’t opted for this image all along — that’s how potent the Nadia Lee Cohen effect is here. Kim somehow — even in all this spacey desert country-house kitsch that she’s never been associated with — seems at home. And Cohen seems at home in Skims, though arguably it’s her lowest-brow fashion venture. All her brands are relentlessly stylish or else she makes them so: she’s worked with Balenciaga and Margiela, done music videos with indie-adjacent A-listers like A$AP Rocky and Tyler the Creator, and shot portraits of pop culture cool girls Charli XCX and Alexa Demie. You can imagine there is a world that just knows her in this commercial capacity rather than as a fine artist. There might even be another world, the Instagram lovestruck influencer one, that knows one of her other day jobs: Cohen the model — most recently one of the faces of Schiaparelli. After all, Cohen’s own striking physical presence — impossibly skinny, otherworldly chic, the kind of face and physique that might have once been scouted in a food court but that now can only sell couture — is something out of her own art dreams. Whereas the fashion world leans into her obvious supermodel splendor, Cohen has taken all that is pliable in her doll-like features and warped those very good looks to create anything but classical beauty.

Which brings us to the Deitch show. The most unforgettable element of HELLO, My Name Is is its central feature, which her London-based publishers (and main collaboration collective) IDEA also made into a book: a showcase of 33 characters she created out of Hollywood-grade prosthetics, costumes, and makeup that are all her. Apparently the genesis of the whole thing was her encountering an In-N-Out badge from a boy named Jesus that she got on Easter — soon she began collecting the nametags of unknown people. Cohen literally is wearing their faces and clothes and delivering their lines on television screens that all play simultaneously at the show. This is of course pure Cindy Sherman, but even more convincingly so somehow. One of them, a favorite, Jeff, sits in the first hall you enter, amidst huge mural-sized portraits of the rest of the cast of characters. Jeff is in a white suit and cowboy hat and bolero, with an Arby’s name tag, and for a second you have to second-guess if someone is wearing him as he sits with a disturbingly human ease. After all, Cohen has worn him and been him. But this Jeff is just a shell, a sculpture welcoming you to a room that features most prominently a dry cleaner’s garment conveyor rack as well as an airport conveyor belt that carries a tray of each characters’ definitive belongings or representative possessions: Marlboros, rolled-up dollar bills, a handgun, keys, cologne, a copy of Stop Aging Now!, Sun-In, Jolen creme mustache bleach, an opened carton of Jell-O, bacon, mugs, cassettes, notepads, a Bible, a vodka bottle, packets of In-N-Out condiments, a copy of Playboy. Enter the next room and there is a white breeze-block wall that also appears in her Skims ad. Another sculpture that has probably enjoyed the most Instagram play is her Carol, an overly tan wax figure who has basically melted into her plastic beach chair. The installations plus giant mural-sized photos both do the most — everything is beautiful and bizarre — and the minimum — somehow you want even more than the gallery can contain of everything that is beautiful and bizarre in the scummy, sublime, precious hell of Nadia Lee Cohen.

Maybe because I am an author, I get most lost in her June character from the wall of TV interviews. She’s a fairly plain, silvery brunette in a blown-out ’80s bob, with an uptight silk-striped blouse and gold hoops — a sitcom stepmom at best — declaring with the tedious confidence of a soap opera villain: “If I wrote a book it would be a bestseller. And that is the title, too. BEST SELLER. I always say the same thing. Buy your umbrella before it rains …”

I recognize the title immediately, as just weeks before, Cohen had used Instagram — her social media of choice, it seems — to alert L.A. fans of the fact that all around the city there would be copies of her book BEST SELLER. At first the images of her leggily lounging with the hot-pink hardcover seemed just promo for her show, but bit by bit, fans revealed finding copies of a very real book. Cohen had not only managed to make her own dreams come true with this show, but she had also made her character’s dream come true as well. It hasn’t become June’s projected bestseller yet, but the packaging has the Danielle Steel blockbuster vibe of a book expecting to be one.

Since I did not find my copy, I had to purchase my $25 copy from Dover Street Market, IDEA’s main retail home. I even read it, which, as its creator David Owen told me, would probably take me four hours and some change. (It took seven, but mainly because I kept rereading parts I liked, of which there were many.) The book is startlingly readable, not some art project that’s meant to be more collected than consumed. At some point, past the middle, I did feel it had the page-turning addictive quality of a true bestseller. There was love, romance, sex, crime, mystery, adventure, all of it. Plus, most delightful of all was the writing about writing — whereas “real” metafiction can feel stale and dusty and sometimes embarrassingly cerebral, the metafiction of BEST SELLER is mischievous, weird, and fun.

The book begins: “The hour passed her by. Does that sentence even make sense? First lines of books are important!” At so many junctures, our author riffs with similar self-consciousness on the project at hand:

Novelists create characters that become real for some people. Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and George Smiley all have addresses in London. I am sure many people think they actually existed. And yet, in comparison to their vivid reality, I am virtually non-existent. And I am real! That is why I need to write this book. To create myself. To write myself into existence (and an address in London would be nice too). I just need to stay positive. I don’t want this to be a sad book. I don’t read sad books …

Over and over, our author attempts self-definition of not just the book but the author:

Just to be clear, I had no intention of writing a novel until I started living in one! And the fact that I am the central character is, of course, unavoidable. What you have in your hands is a book that was meant to be a fairly uncommon form of literature, a journal of thoughts and ideas that became, for convenience more than any other reason, a diary of sorts. Then my life (my suddenly surreal life) rather hijacked the whole project and left me no choice but to write it up and put it all in. I have done my best to keep the first part more or less as it was intended. Then, as you know, all of a sudden, it’s the greatest story ever told! Sorry about that.

These asides are my favorites, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t ample plot. The characters even go above and beyond with June in conversation with Winona Ryder, Carrie Fisher, Nicolas Cage, and Keanu Reeves. We even meet — slight spoiler! — David Owen, the author.

It was Owen who told me he wrote the book, as “June Newton,” for Cohen, with Cohen having been involved in the book as a reader, not writer. Of course one can’t expect that artists would handle every aspect of production — why would we add writer to her overfilled roster of talents? — but it reminded me of another question that lingered in my brain. To what degree was Nadia Lee Cohen’s world her vision and to what degree her creation? Was Cohen a conceptual artist more than anything, a stylist of her hyperreality?

They seem pedestrian and somewhat forbidden questions to ask of visual art in our age. Because the book popped me back into my author psyche, the wondering may be more writerly naïveté than anything else. But it’s hard to fully ignore how much more curation matters here than construction. How many hands of assistants and outsourced professionals and factories fulfill the fantasies of artists who can afford it? Whereas the boundaries of Cohen’s vision seem infinite and endless, is this indeed an optical illusion based on the opposite? Is Nadia Lee Cohen in some ways a more limited artist of our time? Is the project here the dream and the dream alone? How far are her prosthetic people removed from the animations in her head?

Maybe the questions don’t matter. When confronted with the wall-to-wall and page-to-page of her universe, questioning her logic would be as absurd as asking that dreamy kid around the corner why they went to a dog shelter to come out with a tortoise. It would be as daft as wondering where in all this is the real Hollywood, the one of poverty and desperation and endless hustle, the real heart of L.A. that feels less shimmery and chic and more on the brink of economic and humanitarian collapse with a homeless population that’s expanding only to heartbreakingly contract more rapidly than the city can even pretend to care about.

These questions haunt me off and on, but ultimately I let myself collapse back into Cohen’s glossy bimbocore, her claustrophobic surreality potent in how it gets you. Maybe the biggest question really lies in the subject/object divide — if Cohen is her own greatest subject, then where does the real her fit in with her cast of characters? Is she just another caricature? Or is the point that we all are?

We’ve been here before, with many artists of the past, many of her obvious influences. What sets Cohen apart from her idols and mentors is her devotion to artifice and camp as absolute be-all and end-all instead of entry. Whereas a Philip-Lorca diCorcia might present a portrait of a depressed waitress in an honest but dreary hi-res, Cohen will present the same portrait but with impossible proportions, silicone and plastic, sprayed and powdered to look like a photorealistic rendition of a cartoon. Cohen is not creeping through the streets of downtown Los Angeles looking for the most camera-ready downtrodden captured among kitschy neon and urban squalor — for all we know she’s never seen it (she probably has). But her references are all pulled from cinema, pop music, and modern art — they look “true” to us only because we get her jokes. She’s treading the line between transcription and punchline; her art pretends to be found though never quite by her. This Essex farm girl was never meant to be on the Mulholland Drives and South Figueroas, and she photographs her L.A. like someone who was never built for the palm trees and filler, smog and self-tanners. The only obstacle that could threaten her imagery is everyone else’s sense of familiarity; after all, part of the delight one can take in Cohen’s world is that it’s not just you stumbling on something new — it’s you watching Cohen stumble on something she is at least pretending is new to her.

Plus, this is Cohen on Cohen, and her promotion to her own muse is something to behold. She makes that clear not only in her own participation of her imagery — most literally with HELLO, My Name Is — but also in how she wants you to see things. She isn’t presenting childlike delight exactly; she’s not projecting edgelord cynicism either. It might be just the strangeness you get if you put London and Los Angeles in a blender — the magic is both expected and not entirely obvious. You just get the same feeling you might get when ensorcelled by the cotton-candy cowboys and sugarplum-adorned ponies of artist Will Cotton’s world. While Cotton feels pleasantly unreal, Cohen emits manic hyperreal. All the other worldliness is happening in this world exactly.

If you consider L.A. the world, that is.

Deitch is by now onto its next show, and Hollywood is still, as ever, too hot and a little bit sad. In my head, the gallery belongs to Nadia Lee Cohen, which for me is the most clear marker of art’s success. We still talk about that show sometimes, still remember that day. It took us less than an hour to take it all in. We walked back to the office in the same record heat, seduced, dizzied, exhausted. We looked for him, but of course we never saw Marcel again.

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Porochista Khakpour is the author of four books. She is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a contributing editor at The Evergreen Review. She has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, BOMB, Elle, Paper, and many other publications.

 

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