Review: Still Lives
Still Lives, Maria Hummel
Published June 5, 2018 Counterpoint Press
Kim Lord is an avant garde figure, feminist icon, and agent provocateur in the L.A. art scene. Her groundbreaking new exhibition Still Lives is comprised of self-portraits depicting herself as famous, murdered women—the Black Dahlia, Chandra Levy, Nicole Brown Simpson, among many others—and the works are as compelling as they are disturbing, implicating a culture that is too accustomed to violence against women.
As the city’s richest art patrons pour into the Rocque Museum’s opening night, all of the staff, including editor Maggie Richter, hope the event will be enough to save the historic institution’s flailing finances.
Except Kim Lord never shows up to her own gala
Fear mounts as the hours and days drag on and Lord remains missing. Suspicion falls upon the up-and-coming gallerist Greg Shaw Ferguson, who happens to be Maggie’s ex. A rogue’s gallery of eccentric art world figures could also have motive for the act, and as Maggie gets drawn into her own investigation of Lord’s disappearance, she’ll come to suspect all of those closest to her.
Set against a culture that too often fetishizes violence against women, Still Lives is a page-turning exodus into the art world’s hall of mirrors, and one woman’s journey into the belly of an industry flooded with money and secrets.
I was excited to see this book as a May Book of the Month selection a month before the official publication date. After my box arrived I ended up reading the book in just a couple of sitting across two days as it was compelling, and a nicely compact story at a little under 300 pages.
There's something about the air of the story and the amateur sleuth at the center of the story that it reminded me of Pessel's "Night Film." Maybe it's because in both books horror is at the center of art, and it comes with its own cultural ramifications. And there's the unraveling of a mysterious central woman.
I was captivated by the various takes on the LA experience provided by Maggie's knowledge of the history of the area, overlapping with her opinions about the various modern day neighborhoods and experiences.
I enjoyed exploring the social commentary on both the artist's and the country's macabre interest in murdered women and the way that "beautiful" women in particular seem doomed to perpetually be victims of male violence. It's a conversation that should be had more often in order to try and get to the root of it, and the use of art as a catalyst for that conversation feels like a natural platform and a potentially hypocritical one. And then there's the good ol' woman on woman hate, that has become so tired in 2018, with the newest wave of intersectional feminism doing its best to eradicate, that is still all to familiar. There are also some examples of true female support and friendship to help balance that out.
There is another sub theme in the book about the worth of art and a collector's role in making an artist that felt like it didn't get quite enough attention or explanation.
Overall, this was a page turner where I felt compelled to keep reading, even if I didn't always understand Maggie's choices or motivations. I felt like I was willing to suspend my disbelief about how she interacted with people, her sudden decisions compared to her muddled indecisiveness, in order to learn more about the central mystery.