Although I have preferred, for the past two years, to write free-standing reviews of single gallery exhibitions, the mixture of offerings in New York at present suggests a more synthetic approach. So, I’ve elected to discuss a cross-section of exhibitions, and a few thoughts on the axis about which they spin.
The first observation is that each of the six shows listed above is founded on a displacement: its apparent subject and its material embodiment have a “fictional” relationship (things are not quite what they purport to be), and the proposal of each specific fiction emerges as the true subject. This is pursued with different strategies, and those strategies position the rupture at different points in the experience of the work.
The most familiar among these is found at SUNDAY, in “Slow Photography”. The paintings presented by the three artists here use photographic source material in the construction of the image. All the works are, at heart, unproblematic photo-realism. The “fiction” injected into the image by depending on a photo of the subject (an oceanside view, a hotel in Islamabad, a geyser) is so completely internalized by now that it’s hardly remarkable, except to note the irony that painting has turned to photography for legitimacy. The saving grace here is Lauren Warner, whose paintings achieve a plasticity that exploits our visual recognition of the tropes of photo-realism: by juxtaposing traditional depiction with the expertly airbrushed mist of the geysers, a punchy and exhilarating visual moment seizes these paintings.
Familiarity of a different sort is found at Tauba Auerbach’s exhibition at Deitch. The theme joining the disparate bodies of work here is supposedly “liminality”, claiming that the works capture the state between forms. An image of folded paper is writ large on canvas, but buried beneath a pattern of Ben-Day dots; analog TV static is photographed and printed at large-scale as an image in its own right: things that “aren’t” are presented as if they “are”. However, the exhibition is crippled by the obvious fact that these works have all been made better, recently, by other artists: Cheyney Thompson’s flattened paper paintings from Kreps in 2006, or Heather Cook at Foxy Productions right now; the big organ pales in comparison to David Byrne’s from last year; the “action at a distance” sculpture is overwrought compared to Beth Campbell’s mobile at Kate Werble; the language of co-opted scientific concepts is warmed over and generic; and so forth. Auerbach’s work with typography is fun and inventive, but her work within traditional fine art idioms is significantly less so.
Lisa Oppenheim’s show at Harris Lieberman includes a group of black-and-white photographs produced by re-photographing plates out of an old art catalog. It so happens that the artworks depicted on these plates have been lost. By layering positive and negative versions of the same image, Oppenheim plays with a visual cancellation that mimics the historical loss of the object. It is only by mis-registering these layers that a contrasty, shallow shadow of the image appears. A double-projection film in the back gallery is composed of progressively-degrading xeroxes of images from the original trip to the moon: literal distance is buried beneath the flawed replications of imprecise technology. The “displacement” at play here is the illustration that the object behind photographic depiction is permanently fugitive, and that the melancholic loss suggested by this is, ultimately, exquisite and liberating. Oppenheim is an artist engaged with very current ideas about the expanded field of photography; however, that some of her projects don’t quite transcend the literal descriptions of her tactics, or seem imbalanced by their dependence on a backstory, demonstrates the difficulty of being sufficiently thoughtful and visual at the same time.
This delicate dance is achieved with greater aplomb by Sara Greenberger Rafferty at Rachel Uffner. Images of comedians have been printed on an inkjet printer; those prints physically manipulated by moisture; the resulting images re-photographed; and finally made as c-prints and framed. The finished works bear a grotesque violence that forks down two paths, parallel and unlikely: sophisticated thinking about the reception in the present of found, historical images, inflected by the physical urge to make them understandable within the contours of the present, but ultimately returned to the safety of a pristine printed surface; followed then by a sociological reading into the depictions of comics and their props, bearing in mind the violence to social order that good comedy always trades in. These layers cohere in the works with striking efficiency. And yet the directness that is so palpable in comedy is held at a distance in these photos: how do we account for the emotional punch and the clinical gaze simultaneously, either in comedy or art?
The greatest displacement, and most fictional fiction, is Donelle Woolford at Wallspace. One gets the feeling, while looking at the quasi-Cubist wood-scrap assemblages, that despite their appealing material and visual presence, these works in themselves are not operating on the same conceptual precipice that Wallspace usually offers. They’re nice enough, but something’s afoot. That “something” is eventually teased out into the open with a little research, and a query: if biography and identity inevitably alter one’s reception of an art object, why not just invent the biography in order to generate a desired effect? Woolford, African-American female, seems “allowed” to engage with Cubism from a certain post-colonial angle. The story of her growth as an artist and her intellectual history seemingly confers validity on such a project. But when we realize that Woolford doesn’t exist–at least in the conventional sense!–the shortcuts we took in granting her permission for certain investigations blow up in our face. The trail of deceptions (and Cubist references) points back to Picasso’s famous dictum about art being a lie that reveals the truth. But, like a chain of chemical reactions, what truth will halt the collapse of each subsequent, underlying premise that art, in some way, “contains” meaning?
If the Woolford show goes to the greatest lengths to locate its animating fiction outside the work itself, Alejandro Cesarco’s two films at Murray Guy go just as far to articulate these themes within the work, as its own explicit subject. Each film is a somber meditation on the difficulty of accurately constructing, and faithfully communicating, the details of subjective experience into legible history. In the film made with his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, a text describing the challenge of balancing testimony against the historical record is voiced by the elderly man; that the text was written by Cesarco for the occasion sends the claims spiraling into a nebulous place that seems both tragic and necessary. The other film in the show, elegaic in its delivery of five sequences connected to youthful passions, has as its centerpiece a monologue about the nature of literary tragedy. It is the only text in either film which is actually spoken by the actor on-screen, rather than voiced-over. When the actor delivers the claim that tragedy is the enactment of a fatally flawed interpretation (due to the indecipherable quality of a message passing between characters on incommensurable epistemic grounds), then perhaps we’ve arrived at a moment that states as directly as possible what all this displacement has been about all along.
The “tragedy” then (considering tragedy as a literary construct) is that all the claims coursing through contemporary art at this moment end up as cloistered hermeneutics. The proliferation of intentional displacements– as a consequence of strategic distancing — reflects that these slippages have been deeply internalized by artists and audiences alike. The fact of this displacement is already integrated into the fabric of our engagement with art, a situation made clear by the observation that the act of deploying these strategies is no longer enough to signify an adequately acute awareness as an artist. It can be done well, and less well. The stakes, for artist and audience alike, are whether art’s fictions can be re-assembled, its distances elided, first for the individual and then into consensus, and whether the violent passage from first-person to third-person will reward the risk and leave us in touch with the continually displacing present.