The installation hovers between spare and forlorn; the large room is almost empty.
A few barely-there pieces hug the walls, and there’s something pointing at that big cement pillar in the middle. It’s not immediately obvious that A Place Called Lovely has been developed from the curator’s graduate thesis of a few years back, which dealt with the work of Sean Landers, Sadie Benning, and Jack Pierson. In the time since, Sima Familant has noticed affinities between their work and work by some younger artists, and she has developed this show with those affinities in mind.
The first obvious common thread is meta-Americana: basketball, movies, cartoons, expressways, signage, road trip, bus trip…appropriated, sampled, glitched.
Julie Becker’s Suburban Legend 1999 presents the Wizard of Oz (video, not film) projected onto a home movie screen, its soundtrack replaced with Dark Side of the Moon. The piece acts out the ‘70s urban myth-gag that the album would play perfectly as a psychedelic soundtrack for the film if you timed it right…harmlessly trippy back then, now less so, but it still works.
Right next door, Jack Pierson’s junk-shop assortment of letters from signs of various vintages spells out the name of Johnnie Ray. The piece refers not so much to the singer himself as to a story of his career fizzling under a cloud of rumors about his homosexuality. Pierson’s gesture is a sub rosa rhetorical device, accusing, and yet absolutely restrained. I would have thought this piece and Becker’s would somehow refute each other. In fact, their juxtaposition sets up an odd dance with mass market imagery…a strange content-as-background effect.
Opposite Johnnie Ray is Paul Pfeiffer’s Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon) 1999. A tiny projector on a tripod plays a very short video loop onto the pillar: Larry Johnson alone on the basketball court, in a paroxysm, every muscle popping, gleaming with sweat, stepping forward, shouting. It’s a segment a couple of seconds long, snapping back and stepping forward over and over forever. Larry looks great; he’s enormous; the lights are on him; there is no way to tell if he’s bursting with pride or frustration over whatever has just happened. It just doesn’t matter what happened, Francis Bacon not withstanding. Larry is perfect.
Sean Landers’s Maine, Massachusetts, Ireland, England and Greece, 1992 is as simple as an oversize diary page describing part of a road trip with his dad. There’s a doodle-diagram of the migration routes of various ancestors they talked about, and a text musing about what the dead went through to get Landers, and others like him, to their current comfortable purposelessness. His tone is more bemused than guilty, or proud.
Here’s a set of factoids:
Movies that made me cry 1996
Video Sculpture: set of 4 VHS tapes, white plastic case, gray metal stand,
20” monitor, VCR; edition of 3
The movies, and the years when Horowitz cried in front of them:
The Diary of Anne Frank, 1978
Thelma and Louise, 1991
Cape Fear (the remake), 1991
Love in the Afternoon, 1994
Every part of the piece is presented as ultra-standardized. The monitor, the rack, the row of cassettes, are all right out of any high school or college audiovisual department. The protagonist of the piece, the artist himself, is implicitly presented as one more generic unit in the kit, completely integrated with an industry of manufactured disposable emotion.
A Place Called Lovely started out as the title of a particular work in the show, Sadie Benning’s video montage with her own voice-over soliloquy recalling real or imaginary events, I don’t know which, and emblematic of pressure to conform, obey, submit. This is the only piece in the show where anger, or resentment, is unequivocal and clear, spoken out loud. The “loveliness” is a lie, and the ugliness of that lie is set firmly in the family, the home, the street. Oddly, a genuine seduction, or at least fascination, seems to swim just under the surface of the complaint. There’s no hint of masochism, but something like identity.
The other works here also seem to somehow parody themselves as artifacts of an identification-alienation effect, a telecommunication that mirrors itself back through the work into the room as a loss of faith or innocence without claiming the privileges of coming of age: the abilities to change, choose, move on. In the end, the show is less about the global suburb, a strange conflation of the society of the spectacle with America and with adolescence: hypercritical, bathed in blue TV light, struggling with the poor fit of gender and other lies, and so self-conscious…but not feeling responsible for anything. The action is always somewhere else. In these terms. I reread A Place Called Lovely as this place, the Greene Naftali Gallery: a generic interior, overlaid with multi-format but continuous mediascape, reductio ad rec room. Tamura’s work fits this effect more than perfectly, as a hyper-hybrid wall hanging for drifting past. Alex Bag and Mark Bradford come at bentness from two different angles. They both highlight frictions between appearance and experience at the point that gender identity forms. Neither goes all the way, yet.
The USA may indeed have invented the teenager and pioneered and the stretching of post-childhood closer and closer to middle age. A Place Called Lovely is the current breaking point of that hyperextension: ethical and affective limbo. Melancholy, anger and bemusement are as interchangeable as Warhol’s Double Elivis. The seamlessness itself is also a mirage. Benning has made herself responsible for being a wiser woman than her grandmother, just as Jack Pierson holds us responsible for the career prospectus of present and future gay crooners, and just as Judy Garland and Pink Floyd bracket recreational drugs.
A bit of personal teen nostalgia: I remember mishearing a pretty famous lyric in a song by The Who as “Hope I grow up before I get old.” The taint of A Place Called Lovely isn’t the place, it’s in us-we’d rather complain to the bathroom mirror than do chores, especially the ones that involve cleaning up after our parents.
The exhibition, on the other hand, is blameless, and in a way perfect. The simplicity of the installation, and of the selection, agrees absolutely with character of the individual works and with their placement, somewhere between innocent and engaged.