The Trap of Words

John Haber
in New York City

Matthew Brannon and Joseph Kosuth

It may sound harder than usual to enter the Whitney from 42nd Street. One must first get past a sixty-foot-long black eel.

Getting past the first trap

In practice, I would not worry about it. The vinyl silhouette covering the north window does not look all that threatening. A cartoon decal sounds like last year's trend anyway, something from an aging minivan or an overgrown tricycle. I even mistook the serpentine logo for a garter snake. Matthew Brannon's Pleasure / Guilty (Casey Kaplan gallery, 2011)

I should have known. The New York of Matthew Brannon surely would. I had entered not just the New York of eel sushi rolls, like a take-out from across the street at Grand Central Station. I had also entered a trap. And Brannon, along with a temperamental opposite in Joseph Kosuth, offers just a thread of hope for escape. Over time, Brannon's text grows more explicit, his puzzles more intricate, and his stylishness more marketable, but the trap of words is much the same.

Make no mistake about it, words have, thankfully, trapped art before. They tumbled across early modernist collage. They demanded their theoretical share, in days when philosophers in both Europe and America were having trouble finding ways of knowing apart from language. Works from the 1960s' British collective Art and Language said as much, at times with characters borrowed from the purer language of modal logic. They persevered even as the sheer scale of their work dared one to take it as image and as object as well.

More recently, political art has pointed to the suppression of language. Not coincidentally, censorship coexists in the public and political sphere with the proliferation of easily packaged symbolism. Previous reviews on this site have explored the whole issue of why politics demands art, why art takes words and not just looking, and when it suppresses them. Several more consider book art.

The artists here have something else in mind. In different ways, they look back to another moment when packaged symbols invaded art. Brannon recalls advertising with a nostalgia that would put even Pop Art to shame. Kosuth recalls installations as personally involving as Minimalism or art approaching a billboard by James Rosenquist. They do not quite slice text physically to pieces, like Simryn Gill. They do, however, allow anyone to cherish words in isolation in something of the way people used to cherish a physical book.

Brannon's stylish prints combine the promise of the good life with cryptic advice on how to live it. Like Lawrence Weiner, Kosuth draws his words from another kind of highbrow, not of good taste but of the philosophical tradition. He also remakes a gallery as a real labyrinth, the physical incarnation of a postmodern philosopher's "prison house of language."

Koans for Wall Street

Matthew Brannon's solo show at the Whitney gets off to an underwhelming start, especially as the midtown atrium stands empty, give or take stragglers from a brown-bag lunch. Even on the gallery walls, silkscreen images look like drafts for something more considered. An American Express card, scattered dots identified as Pigeons, and no particular arrangement on paper—they could be waiting for Altria's PR department to pull them together for an ad. Do not, however, give up too soon, for Brannon does just that. The eel already gives a hint of the ad's imagined audience. The coil's slender vertical has the elegant compression of modern sans-serif type, and a proper sushi lover would have recognized an eel in the first place.

Only in New York, it seems to say, or only in the Manhattan of memories, a Woody Allen movie, and advertising. The heart of the show takes care to look just slightly retro and altogether upscale, starting with its medium. Its twelve framed letterpress prints rest on three handmade, easel-like display tables. Type centers below more of those simple, flat images out of a high-stress lifestyle—a watch, an alarm clock, a comb, a toothbrush, a banana peel, or a faceless head with the mortarboard, perhaps off for the right internship. The visual style, like sushi, may owe something to a fashionable Japanese art well after Lee Ufan, Mono-ha, and Tokyo as "The New Avant-Garde." Mostly, however, it recalls the crisp layouts of glossy magazines not so very long ago.

The largest words, in italics, state the tempting or alarming title of each piece—The Men in Your Life, for one, Marketing Manners, or Pigs, Like Us. Just beneath, type in small caps strings together equally terse phrases, and I apologize how a reproduction mocks their true weight. Separated by centered periods, they dare one to relate them to the title, to each other, or to the images above.

In arrangements this cool and precise, words function not as elements in collage or abstract forms, as for Jackson Mac Low, but as text in uneasy cooperation with its imagined speaker or illustrator. It works out so much better than the prints on the walls, because Brannon has a way with words. He makes art about temptation, like Sarah Meyohas, and he tempts me to use up a review quoting him. One could call it an artist's book or conceptual art. Only the words escape both their pages and their concepts.

Matthew Brannon's Steak Dinner (photo courtesy of Friedrich Petzel gallery, collection of the artist, 2007)Some settle for easy satire, like the invitation to "Tell Her You Love Her All Over Again." The suggestions include not only stockings and champagne but "A Soft Slap on Her Bare Ass." Even here, though, one can treat the words as continuous text or competing voices aiming for the last word. Other passages could pass for a short story. As one observes, "The Novel Starts with This Idea of the Last Word." Still others cajole or threaten, like the course from "Watch Out It's a Trap" and "I'm Holding You over a Lake of Fire" to "All You Got Was Shame."

Some of the lines sound like Zen koans for Wall Street: "When You Read This I Will Be Dead · Well If Not Really Dead · Then One Day · And You Too." Between the chill of all that white space and the unstated narrators, one cannot know when Brannon is shouting or whispering. As he himself asks, "A Bit Aggressive? · Wouldn't You Say?" The relationship of art to text has grown muddy indeed, from Dada to art about the headlines or about censorship. I should not, therefore, complain if this art breathes only when it speaks.

Meta man

Four years later, Brannon conceives of Gentleman's Relish as a mystery, a play, an exercise in design, and incidentally a work of art. Of course, each of those has more than one meaning all by itself, and all of them apply. They also just happen to contradict or exclude one another, and (to confuse you further) that matters, too. I doubt that anyone will stick around long enough to solve the design or the mystery, and the solution may not even exist. In fact, that may be the point. But suppose I start at the beginning.

Brannon calls it a play in three acts, but it starts even before one enters, where the door to Act One stands open, its back to the wall. One can hardly resist reading the elegant inscription, Adults Only—and, naturally enough, congratulating oneself for deciphering it. After all, it reads backward through the glass. The hint of adult sophistication compliments both artist and viewer, and it seems to apply to everything. It looks back to a time when bars and detective offices had doors like that and drew distinctions. Its studied cool has one foot in film noir and the other in early modern design, for all its jibes at gentlemanly pleasures.

So does everything, from the smoothly colored simulated liquor bar in painted wood and foam taking up much of the first room. It all looks clean and almost abstract, like leaves filling some frames in Act Two, Powder Room. Musical instruments barely disrupt the grid of black rectangles in others, there and in the Police Station of Act Three. There is a certain irony (a word one cannot use too often here) in finding the abstract nature photography of Uta Barth right next door. Other signs serve at once as stage directions, thought balloons, and early modern sculpture—and Brannon acknowledges the collaboration with an actual designer, Carlo Brandelli. Reads one such, "subliminal."

Not that the artist is one for sublimation. If I called his 2007 show "Zen advertising," his detachment still insists on a certain danger and a certain pleasure. They come in such retro titles as jazz music. They come in a doctor's white coat, bearing the cryptic tag "my fingers in your mouth." To make a long story short, the entire play is also a detective novel, with everyone involved sexually frustrated or deviant, but no one half as sordid as it sounds. Anything else would leave physical evidence, not to mention dirt.

More frames supply plot summaries or dialogue from each act, most of it, too, out of film noir. "I'd been hired to help someone but he knew the real job was murder." It sounds like the metafiction of late Modernism. And the whole mystery may turn out to be a fiction—but I had best stop before a spoiler, especially when a spoiler would imply a point of ending. This is definitely meta territory, the land of broken frames. Remember that door leaning out from Act One?

Metafiction approaches a branch of epistemology, and this is more a matter of style. Still, Brannon pays his dues to both. "All your life," one line runs, "you think you're this person." Still, it makes sense that he belongs to the international art scene, and one could easily object. A metaman who wasn't there? Definitely, but go ahead and dig for dirt.

The prison house and the pantheon

Bill Bryson called his best-seller A Short History of Nearly Everything, but these days history can grow alarmingly short. In one Sunday's book reviews, The Times noted that the book has "cloned its own glossy illustrated edition with specially commissioned etchings by Warhol, Picasso, and Raphael." I wish I had sat in with the four of them when they worked out the deal. Nights at the Cedar Bar with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning have nothing on this one.

Whatever the reviewer had in mind, what critics have termed the "originality of the avant-garde" went out years ago, and Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso helped see it to the door. The change has in no way diminished an artist's status—or art's ability to add luster to an already glossy commercial culture. One hardly knows whether to call it liberating or confining. Perhaps the same applies to Postmodern theory that has explained and, at times, celebrated the change. Take, for example, Joseph Kosuth.

Kosuth turns his normally spacious gallery into a labyrinth into which I can venture (a play of works by guests and foreigners), and that title already announces its share of conundrums. The lowercase connotes a sentence, an assertion that one might successfully prove true or false, while labyrinth and venture put one's success in doubt. They put in doubt just whose success as well, for the first-person pronoun could belong equally to an imaginary subject, the viewer, or the artist. And if the latter, it could suggest his own surrender to the work's independence or an almost masturbatory glee in creating and manipulating the engine of his own delight. The subtitle adds other voices and, perhaps, other chambers.

In practice, Kosuth's chamber symphony depends on its chambers as much as its voices, and they can seem at odds. He has converted a gallery into an actual maze, its sole guide a map that one may or may not find helpful. He has covered these walls in black, interrupted by dozens upon dozens of quotations. They run at all heights and in fonts of many sizes. To insist further on the viewer's engagement in encountering them, he leaves a few covered like precious manuscripts. He thus positions them between sculpture and performance, fine art and history, a theory of knowledge and its irreversible fragmentation, a library and a book of proverbs.

If I have to choose, I vote for the last—or maybe the book of Proverbs, with due concern for its authority. With suitably German earnestness, Kosuth keeps to the Postmodern pantheon, from Flaubert and Kafka to contemporary European philosophy. Many of the quotes invite one to attend to them as texts, open always to reinterpretation. Yet here they feel more like a particularly weighty text.

The walls present a similar ambivalence about creative and experiential freedom. As a child, I took equal delight in getting lost in a maze and in finding at last a way out. Here one becomes conscious only of one's confinement, and one realizes that much more who remains in charge. Kosuth may recognize the paradox, as Brannon surely does. He may want to reflect critically and self-critically on the limitations of authority and freedom alike. Then again, he may just have a limited idea of free play, like a clown in the Postmodern circus who cannot stop beating the other clowns with his rubbery canon.

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Matthew Brannon ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria through August 2007 and Joseph Kosuth at Sean Kelly through October 28, 2006. Brannon's return came at Casey Kaplan through December 17, 2011, not far from Uta Barth at Tanya Bonakdar through December 22.


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