In a shallow windowed storefront in London’s Piccadilly Circus underground station, a whirl of clothes are flying in a continuous loop behind a dressing screen, as if an unseen cartoon character were rampaging through a wardrobe. Painted on each of the screen’s five panels are neo-classical arrangements decorated with ribbons, palm fronds, and other seemingly incongruous items: American Express cards, a matchbook from the five-star Marrakech hotel La Mamounia, the New York County Supreme Court building. Look closely at the clothes flapping through the spotlight and you might notice that one of them is a snakeskin-print dress, another a standard-issue khaki prison-uniform shirt.
Four Courtroom Outfits of Anna Delvey, a tribute to the so-called SoHo Grifter, real name Anna Sorokin (a Russian woman who scammed friends and hotels and a bank out of tens of thousands of dollars, pretending to be a German heiress), by the 30-year-old American artist Cynthia Talmadge, is currently on view at Soft Opening, an experimental gallery space that has shown artwork in the Underground station since last year. The kinetic installation, which shares a crowded corridor with a watch-repair shop and a locksmith, paints a picture of how life’s most vulnerable and private moments become public when you’re infamous, doubly so when you’re being processed through the bizarre theater that is the American judicial system.
I spoke to Talmadge about the piece just after she’d finished installing it, which involved working late into the night fitting a fan-like robot (created with the help of fellow artist Alex Dodge) with clothes she’d sourced to match Delvey’s well-documented looks. Back in New York, where she was born and still works, she reflected on people’s immediate reactions to the piece, both in person and on social media. “People see the humor in it really quickly. I think that’s the five-second read,” she said. “And then I hope that there’s a slower read in there about the pathos.”
Anna Delvey, the so-called SoHo Grifter, a Russian woman who scammed friends and hotels and a bank out of tens of thousands of dollars.
Other subjects of Talmadge’s work have included the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, which she rendered in a series of pointillist paintings, the dorm rooms of drug-rehabilitation centers and psychiatric facilities, and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a part of whose cover she reproduced in excruciating detail out of colored sand. Her still lifes are cluttered with symbols of privilege that don’t scream wealth but communicate it subtly to those who live in its orbit: crumpled prescription bags from the Upper East Side pharmacy Zitomer, or a toppled Pellegrino bottle at the base of a trellis hung with a spent balloon. Looking at her work feels like zooming in on both the beauty and grossness of exclusivity, then turning the whole concept upside down and vigorously shaking it up until it starts to fall apart.
Talmadge, who studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, says that when The Cut’s article on Delvey came out last spring, at least 10 people sent her the link, including multiple strangers on Instagram. “I’m really interested in the way we portray female villains in our society,” she says. The most compelling stories, according to Talmadge, are those in which the grain of emotional truth is buried deep under layers of presentation and media scrutiny: “What happens when she’s totally alone with herself? Is there anything there?”
“I’m really interested in the way we portray female villains in our society.”
Talmadge also name-checked her fascination with other sensationalized celebrity court appearances—especially Lindsay Lohan’s 2010 probation-violation hearing, during which the actress was photographed crying with “fuck u” painted on her middle fingernail and, later, court sketches showed her being led out in handcuffs and Christian Louboutin heels—while pointing out the insanity of our collective obsession with them: “It’s the epitome of luxury and privilege to be able to obsess over your courtroom outfit and to have other people obsess over it,” Talmadge says. “It seems like it provides some kind of access into their state of mind. Whether or not it does, I’m not sure.”
Talmadge’s piece reflects our larger cultural fascination with women who have gone horribly off course in search of power. We obsess on the sheer inconceivability of the situation, rendering the players less than human in the process. In our eyes, they’re avatars, collections of materialistic urges and comical delusions of grandeur—like frantic cartoon characters. Instead, Talmadge’s gilded screen cuts to the core, hiding “Delvey” out of sight, forcing the viewer to imagine what might be going on back there. —Andrea Whittle