How far would you go to support a friend going through a breakup? Would you buy them coffee? A donut? Dinner? What if you had $250 to spare? I’m not saying I do (I don’t), but if I did, I wouldn’t fork it over to Anna Marie Tendler’s new photography project “Portraits in the First House.”
Tendler, a multidisciplinary artist in her own right, is perhaps best known as the former Mrs. John Mulaney, his winsome, funny, Jewish wife about whom much of his stand-up is based. In the wake of their separation, many spoke and wrote about the seemingly “parasocial” relationship that Mulaney’s fans had developed with the comedian over the years. That relationship extends to Tendler, who fans saw as Mulaney’s muse.
Women in particular seemed to take Mulaney’s decision to leave his marriage and immediately impregnate Olivia Munn as a kind of personal betrayal, and as Tendler’s TikTok comments section will prove (“cottage core queen,” “u r literally the coolest person alive,” “your work is so gorgeous and meaningful! thank you for sharing it with us!”), she has the makings of a stan army ready to buoy any and every project.
Tendler is on tour right now with “The Other Art Fair” (as opposed to…?), a traveling art fair that features her “Portraits in the First House” series which, as far as I can determine, is a series of portraits of people sitting on a couch with a papered backdrop and old-timey lamp, possibly made by Tendler herself. The comments that populate the announcement (“I love this idea!”) and subsequent photos (“a cottagecore delight,” “[made] me feel like the ghost haunting the university’s romantic literature department” — not a real department in any major university, but let’s not get into it) would suggest this is an act of great profundity and maybe? Feminism. Yes, that’s right: a woman striking out on her own to document women looking vaguely despondent on a couch. This is business! This is enterprise! This is art! For $250, you can sit on a couch alone. For $300, you can bring a friend. I recognize that art costs money — I’ve been to a museum, actually — but this is replicable in any hotel lobby built after 2008.
The first house, as defined by Tendler’s website, is the house of the self. Okay! Well, fair enough, creative women do love a domestic metaphor. And the self-portraits that Tendler has worked on the past year have a sense of dynamism and emotion. The “Portraits in the First House,” however, are glorified headshots. The personality is all in the over-prepared outfit of the subject. This is not Portrait of a Lady on Fire; it’s school picture day. It is the quote unquote “radical selfie” — a remnant of 2015.
But Tendler’s fans are happy, so good for them. They do not see this as a waste, or a grand expense, or a tired idea. They see themselves, seductive or wistful or girlboss, as object: the one thing they want to be.