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Girl on Film 

Performance artist Michelle Handelman explores themes of escape and entrapment in her new body of work

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002
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Performer, filmmaker, and visual artist Michelle Handelman may be remembered locally for BloodSisters, an award-winning documentary about the local lesbian S/M subculture that played at over 50 film festivals. But the movie wasn't exactly a blockbuster, so the S.F. Art Institute graduate moved to New York in 1999. Since then, she's produced a stimulating body of work about feminine desire, which includes the series Cannibal Garden, a lively mix of photography, sculpture, and videos that depict Handelman, nude and crawling around, eating candy off the floor and baby-talking to the camera. Though her tactics are less attention-grabbing in "Trans>portal: New Work by Michelle Handelman," on display at the Catharine Clark Gallery, her new pieces are far from bland.

Like most performance artists, Handelman uses her body as her instrument. Citing influences from Baudelaire and absurdist theater to science-fiction films and fairy tales, she toys in her videos with themes of escape and entrapment. "I work very intuitively," she says over the telephone. "I figure out exactly what I'm saying after the fact." Despite the nebulous goal, her elaborate fantasy worlds are clear. "On a psychological level," she explains, "it's about trying to escape out of the camera, but also talking to the camera."

The video Jump, for example, is a version of the Sisyphus myth, in which Handelman flees down a long corridor until she is obscured (or as she puts it, "obliterated") by a bright light. In I Exist in a Highly Excited State of Over-Stimulation, she repeats the title -- a line from the David Cronenberg film Videodrome -- while whipping herself into a frenzy. Again, Handelman disappears on screen. "I wipe myself out," she says, "so my face becomes a blur." Similarly, Sew Me In, Sew Me Out shows Handelman, over the course of an hour, weaving a web over the lens until she's no longer visible.

While her new work is noticeably more somber than her previous celluloid trysts, Handelman's imagination still takes flight. In "The Adventures of LuckyM: AIM," a weeklong live installation at the Lab, she takes on the alter ego of a "malleable, Spider-Woman-like superhero." Inspired by the work of French artist Nikki de St. Phalle, Adventures is a two-part piece in which Handelman acts as both agent and subject. In it, she'll be filmed as she works, adding new layers of a soy-based paint onto a piece that will change over the course of the week, while videos from the previous day's painting appear on the wall behind her. The climax is a live "shootout," during which guests from the local art scene will be invited to shoot paint guns at canvases.

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Lisa Hom

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