The video playing on a postcard-sized screen shows a three-minute clip from the 1964 Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston bout. The boxers are gone, erased digitally so that only the ring and the audience remain. Yet, what appears to be ectoplasm moves across the screen, jabbing and feinting, as if the Clay-Liston images had left ghosts that are sending a shudder through the pixels. In stills from this tape, “The Long Count (I Shook Up the World),” the fighters are not detectable at all.
Absences have enormous weight in Paul Pfeiffer’s provocative new show, a look at where art is going in the digital age. Though plenty of objects are on display, and pixels have their own lush pointillism, this work is truly a gold mine for theoryheads; someone from October should turn up soon to do a piece on “The Future of Subjectivity,” for starters.
The centerpiece of the show is a large sculpture/installation: the bathtub from the Bates Motel in Psycho, reproduced at one and a half times its original size, complete with a working shower and nine surveillance cameras which approximate some of the camera angles from the movie’s infamous shower scene. The nine images—drain, showerhead, tile wall, and so on—show up like a tic-tac-toe grid on a monitor in the adjoining room.
Pfeiffer was still at work on this piece the day before the show opened, and says that only after he finished it did he realize that “it’s maybe wrong to prioritize the reference to the Psycho bathroom.” He had set out to re-create Hitchcock’s voyeuristic sequence as a kind of primal scene of modern perception. Norman Bates looks through the peephole at the Janet Leigh character, and for Pfeiffer this immediately conjures up Marcel Duchamp’s “Etant donnés,” an image of a splayed-out female nude that can only be viewed through a peephole. (The Duchamp could almost be read as a crime scene.) Then, Pfeiffer takes the title for this work, “Self-Portrait as a Fountain,” from a 1966 Bruce Nauman photo in which Nauman is squirting water out of his mouth like a human showerhead. Pfeiffer also mentions Albrecht Dürer’s “The Artist in His Studio,” a perspective study showing the artist looking through a grid at a model.
Certainly, we’ve moved some ways down the road from the Bates Motel, but then Pfeiffer is always finding art historical moments in the oddest pop-culture places. His 30-second DVD loop of basketball player Larry Johnson, one of the few bright spots in this year’s Whitney Biennial, is titled “Fragment of a Crucifixion (after Francis Bacon).” The athlete steps back and forth, fists clenched, face contorted in an exultant shriek—but Pfeiffer was less interested in body language than in drier artistic concerns like figure/ground. “In Francis Bacon’s painting you have human flesh dissolving back into paint,” while the image of Larry Johnson is “dissolving into a background,” he notes.
Pfeiffer always seems to take some dramatic moment and drain the drama out of it, but not the emotion. What he’s doing is exchanging the old emotional response for a new one. This show is filled with iconic moments from the ’60s that Pfeiffer has turned into objects for contemplation by concentrating on formal concerns, such as changing the scale or privileging the background.
Another piece, hanging in the office of the gallery, is “Death to Pigs,” a limited edition of drawings Pfeiffer commissioned from a Chinese street artist, one of those found in tourist hot spots who will render a name in letters made from birds, butterflies, and flower arabesques. It’s concrete poetry.
“Death to Pigs” were words written on the wall by members of the Charles Manson gang with the blood of their victims. Pfeiffer, born in 1966, was too young to remember the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, but he read Helter Skelter‘s account with fascination while he was a boy growing up in the Philippines. He remembers “Death to Pigs” as “one of the first images I kind of felt on a gut level was an image of death.”
In commissioning this work from a Chinese artisan, Pfeiffer says, he’s “using a process which is outside the humanist tradition. To begin with, it’s a kind of calligraphy that relates, if anything, to an Asian aesthetic, and it’s been rendered kind of nonhuman through mediation of the tourist trade. People who do this all use the same formula, so there’s a complete lack of personality in the drawings, expressive as they are. So it’s really hard to pinpoint an author in this situation.”
Digital art is a bit like visual hip-hop. Images can be sampled and remixed.
Half of Pfeiffer’s show is devoted to erased images of Marilyn Monroe. The four large works, “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” were originally studio photographs of the movie star jumping on a trampoline. Pfeiffer manipulated them on the computer, “taking pieces of the background and filling the foreground with it.” Now they look like minimalist paintings. The title refers to another work by Dürer, whom Pfeiffer calls the “granddaddy of the figure study. Whatever his subject matter, all of his works were really studies of the human figure.”
The same could be said of Pfeiffer’s pieces. The smaller erased Monroes here, “24 Landscapes,” were taken on Santa Monica Beach during the last photo session before the actress’s death in 1962. “They’re studies of the human figure through the background,” says Pfeiffer. “Each one of those shots was kind of specifically constructed to star the human figure.” Indeed, the pictures are quite eerie. Unlike the usual landscapes, they’re vertical and they resonate with emptiness. In some, the actress’s footprints are visible in the sand.
“One thing that I wrote for myself about this work, the meaning of the Marilyn pictures and the boxing match,” says Pfeiffer, “is that if you think of the creative process as a conversation between a creator and his materials, usually in the end the will of the creator is victorious over the raw material. For me, what’s interesting about digital media is that the reverse happens. The power of the medium really overwhelms the will of the creator. I feel like we’re seeing artistic productions now that are really hard to talk about because they almost defy conventional aesthetic judgement.”
Early in his career, Pfeiffer’s work related to Filipino and gay identity, but he thinks his work since then is “at least as political.” He seems to love classical aesthetics and to love breaking them down. “I was purposeful about using the male pronoun for the creator,” he says. “There is a sexual and a racial aspect to this idea of the creator being overwhelmed by the raw material.”
Pfeiffer’s show runs through January 7 at The Project, 427 W. 126th St.