Private Languages and Mass HysteriaJohn Haber
in New York City
Catherine Sullivan and Anna Craycroft
Michael Portnoy and Rashid Johnson
Art has a broader public than ever. People wait on long lines at museums. Tour groups march through Chelsea galleries. Prices soar.
Yet most people still find modern art difficult, older art obscure, and contemporary art a fraud. The accusation sometimes comes as a left-handed compliment: art means whatever artists want it to mean. But can artists ever speak only to themselves?
Sometimes they come close, to the point that I may never put it all together. The first half of 20008 brought several shows with overlapping voices, a slippery narrative, elusive political undercurrents, and a few jokes here and there to boot. I might have been entering a conversation in the middle—between some very fast talkers. The language of art seemed to have broken down.
If that sounds hysterical, Catherine Sullivan treats video as studies in hysteria. Anna Craycroft has her own syndrome called "The Agency of the Orphan," with a textbook to match. Michael Portnoy gets dizzy, too, thanks to a certain gambling compulsion. As for Rashid Johnson, when he looks back a generation or two, he finds an African-American history that no one has written. A postscript brings Johnson up to date for 2009.
Some artists create their own myths. A select few create myths that guide entire nations. That alone need not make art difficult. However, artists may hear strange voices, and they may scorn the voices that others expect to hear. Contemporary art builds on the ideal of self-expression. Yet it also scrutinizes old myths—including the myth of titanic individuals who can escape social and political restraints.
Either way, artists do not just talk to themselves—or to lucky insiders. As philosophers put it, there is no such thing as a private language. If you thought that you had one, how would you know that you had followed its rules? Art is hard, but it is not the case that anything goes. You, too, get to judge. Just bear in mind that the art may also have judged you.
Are video art and the movies converging? Catherine Sullivan might seem like a notable exception. Even in a lavish Chelsea gallery, her actors and her medium carry on like kids with attention deficit disorder. Before one starts condescending to "hysterical women," though, she has something sophisticated in mind. I could call it a jump cut, if only her subjects would sit still for a moment.
Sullivan takes video as far from the deliberate pace and glossy surface of a Hollywood epic as she can. She borrows silent film clips of a madhouse, with a visual style as cheesy as the subject. Jack Nicholson underacts by comparison. Then she intensifies the frenetic disconnections—through multiple screens, plus material of her own. Even so, she keeps circling back to cinema, and the very scale of her work underscores its sophistication. So do her camera's deep focus, low vantage point, and full color.
One could take her as merely further evidence of a hyperactive art scene. Her latest, Triangle of Need, needs three channels for the silents, four more for her own austere movies, plus a third room for an enigmatic close-up. In one scene, a man dictates the terms of property arrangements. Not even subtitles can clarify the terms of the contract. Nearby, hands run over a period keyboard instrument, while mysterious spectators move in and out of the frame.
The scenes unfold in an early twentieth-century Florida estate and chilly, twenty-first century interiors. A slow dance allegedly belongs to a "hominid species" forced to reproduce. Yet the look of it all, like the keyboard music, belongs inescapably to an eighteenth-century costume drama. Sullivan is linking capitalism, madness, culture, and fine art with repression. One might find it a good deal easier to reread Michel Foucault on Madness and Civilization—and, dare I say it, more coherent. Then again, Sullivan might well claim greater historical accuracy, plus a sense of humor.
Anna Craycroft opens with images of children—nearly three hundred of them, covering the walls in a tight, regular array. On closer inspection, make that posters of children. At eight-by-ten inches, the ink-jet prints include names and brief descriptions, as if left on a lamppost for a lost child. Just who is pleading, however, and to whom? The artist gives height and weight in both inches and centimeters. Somehow, this cry for help has global reach.
Make that cinematic reach. Soon enough one notices names and faces from the movies, not the streets of New York. Have you seen Oliver? They include Disney cartoons along with Hollywood stills, Cinderella along with Huckleberry Finn and Jane Eyre. Some of the names appear a second or third time with different faces, no doubt from the remake, and all are orphans. One could lament their loss as one's own.
Craycroft—who appeared in 2005 in "Set and Drift" on Governor's Island—invites one to do just that. She also invites one upstairs to a private garden for meditation. One can sit on a bench, flanked the Amazing Luminous Fountains on opposite walls. Water pours like tears from the faces of two children, male and female, onto the unyielding stone pebbles. Perhaps the lament really is a child's, like the one heard back downstairs, stumbling with one finger to pick out the opening notes of "Where Is Love?" I sung that song, from the Broadway musical, again and again to myself as a boy.
Do I identify, then, with a child's lament? If so, I am experiencing "The Agency of the Orphan." As defined ever so carefully in the stairwell's wall text, right down to a pronunciation guide ('â-jən-sê uv. . .), the supposed condition involves identifying oneself with an orphan. Upstairs in the "reading room," one can read a bound scholarly essay on the phenomenon while overlooked by their Archetypes—larger pencil drawings of some of the same children. No need to hurry. The room is comforting, and most of the volume is pictures anyway, including some disconcerting choices from fine art.
The explanation ricochets through art history, the birth of the novel, popular culture, Structuralism, and psychoanalysis. "The agency of the orphan" has a suspicious resemblance to "the agency of the letter" in the writings of Jacques Lacan, the French analyst. Bereft of both parents, Craycroft argues, an orphan stands for "absolute lack," Lacan's equivalent of desire. In turn, orphans have total freedom and, in happy endings, infinite mental resources. I know I do. Craycroft calls the framed prints Headshots, like those of actors in need of work, and perhaps they do, too.
If you believe any of that, you have become part of not just of a cultural disorder, but an installation. The artist is pursuing her "private research and study endeavor," she insists, but in a suspiciously public setting. The art could illustrate the essay, or the essay could extend the frame of the art. The search for recovery could belong to the viewer, the subjects, the actors, or their "agents." An artist, too, identifies with her subject while isolating it, representing it, seeking it obsessively, and falsifying it into a role or an archetype. In the flood of images, music, water, and ideas, this artist is never going to be in Kansas anymore.
When Michael Portnoy gambles, Lady Luck shares his animal instincts. He has painted the first wall of Casino Ilinx black and blocked the passage to the right. Instead of through an open tunnel at SculptureCenter, one must enter by the basement door, as if into a private club. At unspecified times, the Center says, bouncers will usher one in—if one dares.
The barred passages and uneven lighting create an alternation of dim and harsh lights in half a dozen distinct settings, as in the night world of a casino. On the entrance wall he has affixed rabbit's feet, or so I imagine them, their white fur in sharp contrast with the black. They also appear to have left long white traces with their claws. Here even lucky charms can draw blood. They have a cousin in the squirrel perched in the very next chamber. It looks cute enough give or take the illuminated red string that traces an angular path into the tunnel, starting with the squirrel's eyes, like reflections of laser vision.
Things do not get clearer any too quickly, an unlikely omen for a work about a gambler's compulsion. A black box emits low clicking noises that I did not readily identify with tumbling dice. Scattered paraphernalia take up a nearby corner, and the longest tunnel holds only a low but insistent male voice promising the world's funniest joke and, just as archly, never delivering. Only in the very last chamber does one find the game, where the squirrel's visage reappears on mysterious Eastern European currency, like the memories that some in Germany call "ostalgie." By then one has no choice but to retrace one's steps and exit. As the song goes, luck "has a very unlady-like way of running out."
The three gambling tables lack the usual felt-cushioned walls. A geometric abstraction of white lines disrupts the surfaces of black sand and mirrors. I must take the Center's word that the bouncers, a croupier, and a "director of behavior" will teach others the rules and invite (or compel) them to play. I recognize the setting only by the dice, and these appear to have melted under the lights like Dalí's watch. Come to think of it, The Persistence of Memory would make a pretty decent title here, too. For Portnoy some compulsion appears to have persisted, like the marks of a rabbit's claws.
The term ilinx derives from Les Jeux et les Hommes, literally and threateningly "games and men," by Roger Caillois, a colleague of Georges Bataille. His 1958 book, while unfamiliar to me, reflects the varied influences of anthropology, Surrealism, and Structuralism. Portnoy and the Center duly describe the components of his installation in linguistic terms—as "endangered languages," "three-dimensional playing elements," and "architectonic morphemes." In practice, they appear closer to Surrealism or the postmodern still life than to sociology. Ilinx, meaning a game-induced vertigo or "voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind," no doubt has new resonance thanks to video games, the structured environments of American casinos, and other sites for surveillance cameras. Yet the installation remains stubbornly low-tech and barely vertiginous.
Instead of invasive public and private spaces, I thought of another Portnoy, a fictional one, and his complaints. The basement's obsessive-compulsive behavior implies an unreliable narrator with a marked resemblance to its author. His voice, as on the audio track, is male, teasing, and resistant to outsiders. Philip Roth has written better books, and SculptureCenter has had installations that I understand better. However, if an institution is going to gamble on emerging artists, it has to take risks. Les Jeux Sont Faits.
For an artist so often tagged as post-black, Rashid Johnson has an obsession with blackness and the past, and anyone who takes time with "The Dead Lecturer" will delight in the obsession. In his defense, he has latched onto real blackness but an imagined past. The work claims to describe "the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club." The Harlem Renaissance was never like this—but it could have been.
At least in theory, and Johnson mentions more than one relevant theorist. His artist's statement seeks an audience in the language of dating ads: "Must enjoy race mongering, disparate disconnected thoughts, and sunsets (really). Familiarity with the work of Sun Ra, Joseph Beuys, Rosalind Krauss, Richard Pryor, Hans Haacke, Carl Andre, and interest in spelunking the death of identity a plus." Johnson's ad sets high standards, but one may find oneself wanting to meet them. Besides, one has clues to help.
Haacke might have picked out racism with the larger-than-life gun sight that targets the installation itself or anyone who dares to approach it. Beuys might have saved through years of war the soap that Johnson has fashioned into bowls of cornmeal, dubbed The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Andre might have made the black slabs of wax and soap on the walls, or he might have left them on the floor for ill-behaved visitors to stain their shoes. Either way, Krauss might have praised them as knockoffs, and Pryor would have laughed. Sun Ra might have contributed the cape from a galactic spacesuit that hangs nearby—or the background music for club members. Club meetings seem to have neglected socializing and sports for distant galaxies and higher mathematics.
Club members all try to look their best in photographs, with names like Thurgood (as in Marshall) and Emmett (as in Till), in the broad-collared suits and sports jackets of a less ironic era. Johnson stakes his claim to history so convincingly that I could almost swear I recognized one dapper, serious-looking fellow as an actual musician. Just one young man, I am guessing the artist, plays all the others. He also manages the centerpiece of a very decentered exhibition. Its black shelves hold more yellow porridge, framed photos, some heavy-duty radio equipment, and an out-of-print encyclopedia of mathematics that intimidated me as a child. Like Sun Ra, the work stands at the nexus of civil rights, art, and space aliens.
Hey, even a post-black identity needs ancestors, the ancestors that Hank Willis Thomas is still seeking. Johnson appeared at age 24 in "Freestyle," the 2001 show at the Studio Museum that popularized the term, but as an undergraduate in Chicago he was already exhibiting. He often gives his photographs a vintage patina, even as he poses in the guise of black history. He likes the white borders of yearbooks and studio photography, the same borders that framed his nocturnal black hand in "Freestyle." Post-black here means not abandoning or confronting stereotypes, but wearing them lightly. As that classified ad adds, "a sense of humor a must."
The ad also identifies his interests as "Godard films and masturbation," presumably at least half mental. Work like this hardly cares whether one calls it eloquent or frustrating, so long as one remembers to smile. Anyone can lose patience with Johnson's spray-painted messages, such as the word RUN on a mirror here. For that matter, anyone can lose patience with Haacke, Krauss, Beuys, and Sun Ra. Sure, his first solo exhibition in New York may or may not add up, but who cares? It is not about additions so much as aspirations.
A postscript: I still have high hopes for Johnson, and I still cannot say whether he disappoints them. Not that he lacks for ambition. As ever, he alludes to at least a dozen personal and cultural histories, and he makes it as hard as ever to know which is which. "Smoke and Mirrors" again cites as influences Sun Ra, Joseph Beuys, Rosalind Krauss, Richard Pryor, Hans Haacke, Carl Andre. Theirs and other traces lie in books, photographs, and other objects on makeshift shelving. Still more cling to a black painting that fills the opposite wall.
They also look forlorn, as if the artist were struggling to hold onto his memories. The facing displays call attention to the gap between them. The occasional potted plant, too, makes the museum's small side gallery look too large for its own good. Not that his last show, "The Dead Lecturer," asked to cohere, any more than Sun Ra—although its imaginary history and a huge target connected its parts. Is he, too, in transit, or is that crusty, black expanse already a new challenge to formalism, African-American history, and the viewer? I hardly know whether to call it smoke or a mirror.
Catherine Sullivan ran at Metro Pictures through March 15, 2008, Anna Craycroft at Tracy Williams, Ltd., through April 25, Michael Portnoy at SculptureCenter through July 28, and Rashid Johnson at Nicole Klagsbrun through May 29. Johnson's "Smoke and Mirrors" ran at SculptureCenter through August 3, 2009.