"Y'all on the death diet!" That's how Dick Gregory opened a performance at Stanfordin 1967. He was talking about the perils of “soul food” — how fried chicken, pork ribs and the like — sends people to early graves; but he just as easily could have been excoriating lots of other ruinous habits. Which is why, when I toured Hershman Lesson’s current show — about plastic surgery, sugar and iPhones — Gregory’s remark came rushing back at me.
His warning is of a piece with what Hershman Leeson, the esteemed feminist, new media artist and, more recently, skeptical participant in the virtual life, has been saying for years about the effects of manufactured desire on women. Her art focuses on its psychic and bodily impacts and on the forces that keep it in place. The strongest works in this show will leave you nodding (or recoiling) in complicit recognition.
While it’s instructive to revisit sugar’s history, expecting the presentation of such facts to alter behavior is like asking people to abandon their homes because natives once occupied the land underneath them. Still, it’s worth noting two details in the photo called Family Portrait into which the artist inserts, with perfect perspectival accuracy, a fake mirrored reflection of the group and a mock “before” and “after” weight loss shot, done in the style of Richard Avedon. The latter injects a note of sly satire, reminding us of the gap between knowledge and behavior.
The series on iPhones issues a more direct appeal. Like sugar, that little buzz in your pocket each time a new email or text message arrives, triggers nerve impulses that scientists have linked to the same feeling of well-being we get from hugs. Small wonder we’re addicted. Yet for all the love smart phones dispense they also exact a price by fomenting the illusion that you can be everywhere all at once. Using photos of the devices into which she inserts images of her face — fractured as if struck by lightning or broken glass — Hershman mines that nugget of implausibility for all it’s worth, reducing a complex issue to splitting headache – which seems about right.