Could all of Nico’s features on The Velvet Underground & Nico relate to Lana Del Rey? Not only does Nico’s narcotic robotic drone herald Lana’s own deadpan beginnings on Born to Die, but “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” feel as if they were tailor-made to be covered by our blessed hypnotic chanteuse. However, the most fitting, at least in my mind, is “I’ll Be Your Mirror” with the refrain: “I’ll be your mirror/Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.”
Of course, it’s impossible to hear those lyrics without thinking of the producer of this iconic album, Andy Warhol, who existed as the Silver Factory aluminum foil to American culture. Reflected in his perpetually worn mirrored sunglasses were America’s obsessions: consumerism, tabloid trash, death and disaster, and glitz and glamour.
Like Warhol, Lana, too, is a mirror for American dreams, “if by dreams you mean nightmares,” as she writes in her poem “LA Who Am I To Love You?” Now by mirror, this isn’t to say that Lana Del Rey is a persona. During the release of her last album Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana pushed back against veteran critic Ann Powers’ description of the singer-songwriter as “a persona as a bad girl to whom bad things are done” by tweeting: “Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.” And she’s right, though she has existed under numerous names–May Jailer, Lizzy Grant, Lana Del Rey, Sparkle Jump Rope Queen. You just have to listen to the vulnerability and openness on her new album Chemtrails Over The Country Club (don’t worry–I’ll be reviewing that soon enough, dearest fellow Del Rey denizens) to see that Lana’s yearning for simpler times as a “waitress in a white dress” or proclamation of her wildness while also living in “deep normality” aren’t a pose.
What Lana achieves as a songwriter is more complicated than simply a persona or a character. Lana has always experienced what she’s expressed emotionally in her songs–the doomed romance, the all-consuming relationships, the heartbreak, the ecstatic dancing till we die. Yet, in her songwriting, she places herself within her own symbolic landscape, one she has constructed out of the nostalgic fantasies of an Americana that may never have existed. And in so doing, she becomes an ever-changing flickering image. I mean, who is Lana Del Rey exactly? Is she the Queen of the Gas Station or the Queen of Coney Island? Is she riding with the Hell’s Angels like the road dogs do it or is she the legacy heiress lounging on the lawn contemplating God under the chemtrails? Is she the jazz singer to Jim Jones’ cult leader or was she born to be the other woman? Is she Lolita in heart-shaped glasses or is she Tammy Wynette, singing anachronistic representations of femininity, while George Jones gets arrested on the lawn? Is she California Dreamin’, a Brooklyn Baby, or is she Nebraska in a haze? Is she fucking her way to the top or is she making homemade videos in her trailer park, dreaming of collaborating with John Waters and David Lynch?
The answer is she inhabits all these roles (she’s a storyteller after all), transforming herself into an unknowable and mysterious vision for her audience–and unfortunately, also for her detractors–to project on. For those of us who are dazzled by America’s troubled and troubling mythology and its clash with reality, we see Lana as a beguiling fantasy that exists just out of our reach who engages with the broken idealism inherent in being American in the early 21st century. For a bunch of slack-jawed dead-eyed zombies who get their puritanical ideology from memes with a barely veiled misogynistic streak, she is a Karen with all the wrong political opinions who should be cast out of polite society for glamorizing abuse, asking one too many questions for the culture, or having a nuanced view of the Capitol insurrection. Radical.
And as frustrating as this can be sometimes as an avowed Lana stan, it’s also what makes her such a thrilling and enchanting artist–a mutable figure that we can never quite pin down. Luckily, I’m not the only one who thinks so, as evidenced by artist, musician, and Ramiken gallerist Mike Egan’s current exhibition Lana at Meredith Rosen Gallery.
Egan’s Lana is deceptively–and also amusingly–simple. Lana features a series of ten Polaroids of Lana Del Rey’s face warped into grotesque, humorous, and sometimes unexpectedly gorgeous forms as manipulated by the contortions of Egan’s body while wearing a concert T-shirt. As the press release explains of Egan’s process: “One evening, taking impromptu Polaroids of himself wearing the shirt, he became fascinated with the hyperreal malleability of the image of her face. As his body moved, the shirt rose and fell, warping, twisting, and blurring the pop star dramatically.” Of course, I’m such an unhinged stan myself that I can theorize about what T-shirt he used:
Lana is a highly obsessive ode to fandom that I find particularly appealing (the exhibition opened on the same day Lana released her new album Chemtrails Over The Country Club, a detail I greatly appreciate). By employing a T-shirt, Egan honors the materiality of fandom: T-shirts and other highly coveted merch that act as physical representations of the objects of our affection. Even the use of a Polaroid is a perfect tribute to Lana’s particular brand of mid-20th century romanticism.
However, if I didn’t read the press release, it would be near impossible to tell exactly what Egan’s source material was. Focused solely on her face, the Polaroids take on a painterly quality, particularly since the thread of the T-shirt creates the illusion of canvas. With the juxtaposition between the deep black of the material and the golden hue of Lana’s screened image, Lana looks, at once, like Mona Lisa in soft filters and a more feminine velvet Elvis (I mean, he is her daddy, according to “Body Electric”).
Egan is certainly aware of his art historical references, titling the works after the King of Chiaroscuro Francisco de Goya’s prints mainly from Los Caprichos (The Caprices), harkening to Lana’s endless changeability. And like their namesakes, the twists and turns of Lana’s face in Egan’s photographs take on a similar absurdist quality to the grotesqueries of Goya’s unrelenting representations of daydreams, hallucinatory nightmares, and critiques of Spanish society. In certain photographs like Chiton, Lana looks like a botched plastic surgery cautionary tale. In others such as Lo peor es pedir, she’s a sunken-cheeked, gaunt version of herself as if refracted in a funhouse mirror. And in yet others like Soplones, she is more recognizable. In all of the photographs, though, Lana’s enigmatic gaze is consistent, retaining the mystery that is such an essential part of Lana Del Rey’s charisma.
Yet it’s not just an art history lesson. There’s something about Egan’s transformation of Lana’s face that points to our digital age as well, as if Lana’s face was sent through Face Warp or some other equally bonkers app. This also resonates with Lana’s own exploration of the strange middle ground between timelessness and firmly planting herself within our contemporary era. Even the square Polaroids and their prominent framing gives the sense of an Instagram grid that has been blown apart. In contrast to social media where a lot of the ire about Lana perpetuates–controversies that appear and disappear, only to reappear again whenever convenient for certain people’s virtue signaling, her changes here are not only captured and made permanent, but celebrated.
Now, Egan is not the first artist to use Lana as a subject of fascination and fixation. She’s appeared in Tyler Dobson’s exhibition A World Without Tears at 47 Canal (which I still kick myself for missing), paintings by Douglas Bourgeois and Sam McKinniss, Pacifico Silano’s holy flag I Am Fucking Crazy, But I Am Free (which faithful readers will know I have displayed prominently in my apartment), and all of the work by U.K. artist Bradley Miller, whose singleminded devotion to the singer is an aspirational level of role model-fanaticism if you ask me. Our girl is a muse!
Egan’s Lana tangles with something different than these other representations of the singer-songwriter, however: Lana’s ever-changing image and how it can be distorted or projected upon by her own audience. Taken at its most basic level, Egan’s photographs capture the frequent shifts in Lana’s own semi-fictionalized identity as an artist and a storyteller. As she sings in “Happiness is a Butterfly,” “I was one thing, now I’m being another.”
But, Egan adds another layer to his work through his own ghostly, barely perceptible appearance in the photographs. Egan’s body is present in the photographs by implication, though we can’t exactly see it. In fact, his role in the process fades so much into the background–as the literal T-shirt-wearing background onto which her image is emblazoned–that it’s hard not to write about the work without just simply theorizing about Lana. But perhaps that’s a personal problem.
Egan, as the manipulator of Lana’s image, exists a stand-in for us, the audience, understanding, analyzing, and worshiping her through our own attachments. Make no mistake: this is a fraught relationship–between a fan and an idol and particularly between a woman star, like Lana, and a male artist or fan. Lana’s face is distorted, not by her own agency, but Egan’s. And while some may question this particular power dynamic, it’s not an outlier in fandom. Plus it’s not as if it’s one that Lana doesn’t play with herself, frequently placing herself in submissive roles that sometimes raise certain feminists’ blood pressure. For instance, she sings in “Without You,” “I can be your china doll if you want to see me fall.”
Though Lana seems to reflect the relationship between the singer and one fan, it also expresses a bigger point about Lana as the center of projection for her audience at large. For some of us, she is, as Warhol would say, Fantasy America; for others, she’s Karen Del Rey. And this power dynamic that Egan places before us is one that is often so obscured and obfuscated that her critics can’t even see their own role in her interpretation. Lana’s certainly not alone in this either. I mean, how many of our beloved idols are simply being our mirrors?