Pretend Magicians – The San Francisco Examiner

“It’s hard to do humorous work and be taken seriously,” San Francisco-based photographer Lindsey White said in a 2017 interview for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The only way to survive is to crack a joke and laugh at something.” White has long used humor in his work to address serious themes. In his solo exhibition “How to Get on Cable Television” at Casemore Kirkeby, White directs his attention – and ours – to genre dynamics and issues of exclusivity in professional stand-up comedy and magic, two worlds that often do not collide.

The exhibit includes White gelatin silver prints made from photographic negatives from the archives of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan. The original photographer, Irving Desfor, photographed vaudevillians from the 1940s to the 1970s, in addition to being a magician himself. In many cases, White altered the prints with gouache paint, a process reminiscent of scouting, the traditional brush-and-ink method of retouching film photographs. Through his sleight of hand altering these images, White magnifies social dynamics that might otherwise go unnoticed.

“Volunteer,” 2021, for example, shows a female audience member having something inserted into her bra by a magician, while another woman stands watching. White painted the subjects’ clothes with bright colors and outlined their eyes, giving all three of them a goofy, pop-eyed appearance. The piece draws attention to a power dynamic in which male magicians often perform with female assistants or volunteers serving as props. “Credits and Cop-Outs,” 2021, shows an auditorium from which White has removed male audiences with shades of gray paint. The result of this visual trick is twofold: with only women, the audience is sparse; but the writing also highlights their presence.

“Volunteer” by Lindsey White is an image modified from the archives of the American Museum of Magic. (Courtesy of Casemore Kirkeby)

White first went to the archives of the American Museum of Magic with the intention of finding photographs of pioneering female magicians, but it turned out that there weren’t many. “Fan Girl Dreams”, 2021, is a collage of images she found of female performers. White wrote the words “Ladies’ Night” in gold glitter in the center of the composition. The piece functions as a revisionist historical document, imagining a showcase of all-female performances.

White’s own stature in the Bay Area art scene is no joke: Her work has been collected by SFMOMA, she’s a co-founder of Curatorial Experience will be brown and influenced countless students as a professor and director of the photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2015, White’s work was featured in an anthology aptly titled “Photography is Magic.”

White’s current exhibition is about the magical and manipulative nature of performance and visual art. Many of the people in the photos may be recognizable to magic fans, but not to the average viewer. The experience of watching White’s work is similar to watching a magic show: how did they do that? Why don’t I understand?

A Peanut Gallery of eight tiny resin squirrels, all titled “Naysayers,” 2021, perch at intervals throughout the gallery, holding up signs printed with judgmental statements, such as “Lack of content” and “How old is does she? White says the source of these voices are his personal insecurities as well as the things people have said to him; the goal here is to get ahead and satirize the critics, while nodding to the tradition of self-mockery in stand-up comedy

“Pardon Me, Please/Stop Looking at Me”, 2021, an ambitious sculpture in the center of the gallery, addresses the anxieties of performance and the fear of taking up too much space. The piece, which features 15 silver buckets, each written to spell the title phrases, was inspired by a TV memory from White’s childhood: a game guest children played on “The Bozo Show,” in which the clown awarded prizes for ping- pong balls thrown into buckets. Instead of ping pong balls, White’s buckets catch ropes suspended from the ceiling, painted in black and white stripes to simulate rain, an illusion only fully apparent when the piece is photographed. The text on the buckets, based on a White sign found in the archives of the American Museum of Magic, speaks of the difficulty associated with showing interest in a space from which one is excluded and the discomfort of the spotlight once that it is achieved.

The magical world may have excluded women historically, but White’s work creates a magic (and visual vindication) of its own. One of the similarities between comedy, magic, and art is that they all create liminal spaces. White uses humor to explore these spaces. As an artist, she’s kind of a performer, and the pieces she makes are her stuff. And just like a magic show, I pondered “How to Access Cable TV” for several days, impressed and excited by what I had seen. After all, photography is magic.


How to Access Cable TV

Or: Casemore Kirkeby, Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., #102, SF

When: 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday; closes October 31


Brian L. Hartfield