Still Lives, an exhibition at Los Angeles’ Rocque Museum by feminist artist Kim Lord was to open in concert with the museum’s largest fundraiser of the year, the annual Gala. The eleven paintings in the exhibition portrayed female murder victims, including Nicole Brown Simpson and Kitty Genovese, graphically depicting the aftermath of their murders and were based on Lord’s trademark process–she photographed herself as the subject, and then painted the photographs. When done, she ritualistically destroyed a flash drive with the only copies of the photographs.
Much hinged on the Gala and exhibition. The Rocque Museum had been financially mismanaged for years and struggled to stay afloat. Lord hadn’t had an exhibition in ten years, and her last, thought commercially successful, was critically panned. Los Angeles’ elite were on hand, eager to see the artist. Yet, Lord did not show up. Maggie, a writer and editor at the museum, originally planned to skip the Gala. After all, Lord was dating her ex-boyfriend, Greg, and her feelings were still raw. Yet her roots as a journalist compelled her to ask questions, and her history with violence drew her to the mystery of Lord’s disappearance.
My absolute favorite part of Still Lives was the museum setting and the insight into the responsibilities of various departments for creating a successful exhibition. Although Maggie visits the galleries off the exhibition, most of the action takes place in the offices that the public never sees, and so offers a window into its inner workings. The vagaries of the art market also play into the plot. Furthermore, I enjoyed the range of female friendships depicted in the novel. When so many books have isolated and aloof characters or characters whose friendships strain under jealousy, it’s refreshing to have instead positive, strong relationships that, while not always smooth, survive due to mutual respect and trust.
Of course, the novel questions the fetishization of women murder victims’ bodies which is a timely and interesting theme. Most cable packages have at least two true-crime networks, and shows like Dateline and 48 Hours remain popular. Lord said her exhibition was “a tribute to the victims and as an indictment of America’s obsession with sensationalized female murders” and Still Lives itself can be viewed in the same way. But in providing a homage (and creating another victim, the missing Lord), does the book fall into the same trap of exploiting female victims? The book asks what value can be had in viewing the famously murdered faces and how best to honor them.
Enjoyable to read, Still Lives also challenges with its questions relating to women-as-subjects, women-as-victims, and even women-as-perpetrators. I recommend adding it to your “to read” list.