Still Life, an exhibition by Eduard Montpelier-Lin
At the Metropolitan Museum of New Art, until 4th April.
Reviewed by T. L. Postle
If you walked into the “Still Life,” the new exhibition by Montpelier-Lin, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that you had taken a wrong turn into Madame Tussaud’s. After all, the initial sight would be similar: a group of figures, posed with an uncanny verisimilitude to a real person. One might think that imitation is the artform.
However, after further examination, some distinctions begin to emerge: unlike the figures of Madame Tussaud’s, the people depicted in “Still Life” are not Hollywood celebrities. There is no Brad Pitt here with a multimillion-dollar smile. Instead, the subjects in “Still Life” are all beautiful, vibrant women in their twenties and thirties, in the prime of their lives. You may feel a sense of nagging familiarity, like seeing a childhood friend after a decades-long separation.
And then you may realize that the subjects of this exhibition are the Lost Girls.
I do not have column space to describe the tangled history and internet folklore surrounding the Lost Girls, but since this exhibition is inextricably linked with that history, here is a summary.
Each of the Lost Girls, young American women, all of differing backgrounds, went missing without a trace. They are presumed to have been abducted.
Certainly, many women disappear every day, but what sets the Lost Girls apart are the fabric squares, meticulously cut from the clothing they were wearing at the time of their disappearance, mailed to the police in a nondescript white envelope. Attempts to trace the origin of the envelopes have so far proven fruitless.
For eighteen months, the Lost Girls captured the imagination of the public by occupying the center of a Venn diagram of picturesque victims, criminal intrigue, and gruesome implication. Hobbyist internet detectives joined forces, intent on finding some ‘mastermind’ behind it all, and a flurry of true crime podcasts were created. There have been layered conspiracy theories, social media protests (#wearelostgirls), frame-by-frame analyses of grainy footage of varying authenticity, and fifteen minutes of fame for those with even a tenuous relationship to the Lost Girls.
At this point, I must break a reviewer’s impartiality—my own daughter, Rose, is one of the Lost Girls. Nine months ago, she went to a friend’s apartment for dinner. She decided to walk back home, but she never arrived. My editor thought this assignment would be too much, but I assured her the opposite. How often does a father in my situation get to see his daughter—even in facsimile—again? [Ed: I did consider it too much! But Montpelier-Lin himself insisted on Mr. Postle as a reviewer, despite his unusual subjectivity.]
But I am not being subjective when I say “Still Life” is a masterwork. Each of the Lost Girls have the flawless formal musculature that hearkens back to classic Greek sculpture, and yet, their skin has exceptional vitality. Every pore seems to breathe. You can glimpse the blue map of veins beneath the skin, the hint of laugh lines near the eyes. You are drawn into the illusion that they might begin walking around the exhibition, that they may be alive, somehow encased here, in stasis, for us to enjoy.
Montpelier-Lin was immaculately dressed: a three-piece suit in midnight blue with a cherry red pocket square. He carried a beautiful cane with a metal hawk carved into its handle—a present from the Vietnamese-American sculptor, Du The. The hawk, Montpelier-Lin told me, was refashioned from the metal of landmines.
Montpelier-Lin is the son of CelCo CEO Erica Lin and influential sculptor Remy Montpelier, both of whom were murdered when Montpelier-Lin was just eighteen years old. On their way home from a late dinner with friends, there was an altercation with someone that Montpelier-Lin has referred to, in various interviews over the years, as “a vigilante” and “a rupturer.” Both of his parents died of gunshot wounds to the heart. The assailant was never found. The crime remains unsolved.
Soon after, Montpelier-Lin enrolled in an elite boarding school in Switzerland. By all accounts, he was at the extremes of intelligence and introversion, with an inherited passion for science—especially chemistry—and the arts.
His arts debut came at the age of thirty with his entry of “Destroyer” into the Montalto Sculpture Exhibition, where it was awarded the highest honors. Like “Still Life,” “Destroyer” depicted the human body. However, this body is bound in a dark, fine material, like a mummy wrapped in an obsidian spiderweb. It is assumed to be the memory of his parents’ assailant writ into tactility. The longer you watch, it almost seems the figure is moving, straining against the material that binds it—and you realize the figure may not be the aggressor but a reflection of Montpelier-Lin himself. The overall effect is technically brilliant and courageously disconcerting, albeit reflective of a younger person’s animus and emotional palette.
Over the last four decades, Montpelier-Lin has journeyed into abstraction (“Satellite 1–36”), mechanical sculpture (“Torture Rack etc.”), and large-scale works that rivaled Christo (“Fortress of Solitude”). Now he has returned full-circle to figure sculpting. In “Still Life,” we can see lifelong themes coming together, transmuted through experience, technique, and what Montpelier-Lin admitted is a near-obsessive level of detail. (He claims to have watched one of the thirty-second video clips for eight hours straight.)
There are twelve Lost Girls in all, and they are presented in the order of their disappearance. In the first room, we are plunged into darkness, the faint whiff of detritus sours the air, and a streetlight glares down at the figure of Mackenzie Bloom, who peers into her handbag. She is caught mid-stride, her yellow dress taut around her legs, minus a square of fabric. Her expression is hidden from us by her dark hair, which hangs over her head.
In the second room, we emerge into the illusion of sunlight, the smell of saltwater. A projector plays a loop of waves crashing on a shoreline. Standing at the railing is aspiring actress Shannon Del Valle, a shimmering designer jacket hanging off her shoulders (minus one square of leather), one hand clamping a large white sunhat to her head, fashionably large sunglasses nestled on elegant cheekbones.
The exactness of these details is breathtaking. There are traces of lipstick on the teeth of Jaya Devi. A glint of orthodontics peek from behind Catherine Park’s lips. And Rose, my daughter, wears a band-aid on her finger from an accident with a kitchen knife—a curious detail not present in any public reportage.
The technicality of the craft and the tangled history cloaks the artwork with another sense—of displacement. We are reminded that the Lost Girls are out of time, that they are here as exhibition: we have all the time in the world to view them at our pleasure. We are forced, in the end, to wonder what it is about this work and these girls that we find so compelling that we would pay to come and see them.
Montpelier-Lin described his inspiration for the artworks as a recapturing: “There are so many contradictions inherent in these girls—that they should be so young and full of life, and, like Peter Pan, will remain so. I cannot help but wonder if I’ve done some disservice to them in rendering them this way. To capture something so ephemeral is also to destroy it, and yet, I found I couldn’t not do it.”
On the night of the preview, Montpelier-Lin accompanied me through the exhibition. In the last room, we came upon the sculpture of my daughter, Rose.
She looked more beautiful than I remembered. Unlike the others, she is not in situ. A single spotlight shines down on her. She stands there, in brown cardigan and jeans as if caught in mid-conversation, arms by her side. Montpelier-Lin has captured the blush in her cheekbones and the golden shade of her hair. A once-inch square has been cut from above her heart. The red of her T-shirt underneath the square seemed to me a flag, but a flag of what nation, I could not say. Perhaps the nation of the Lost Girls—population twelve.
I cried at the sight, but I did not know if it was from the joy of seeing her or the sadness of knowing I would likely never see her again. And that even though this facsimile of my daughter was stuck, forever there, I was not—I was still free. Montpelier-Lin watched me as if I were another of his exhibits, another artwork that he had created.
As I walked towards the exit, the lights in the gallery began to fade, and I heard a sound like an exhalation. As I turned back to look at this facsimile of Rose, I could have sworn that her eyes met mine with a coded message that I couldn’t understand. I glanced at that band-aid on her finger, and I knew that I would return to try and decode that message again.