There’s a new psycho-social space, mainly American, that increasing numbers of artists are probing. Painter Charlene von Heyl has put it this way: “While almost everything in the outer world feels messed-up our inner lives aren’t altogether messed-up.” This paradoxical disconnect is neither a state of denial nor one of enlightenment. It is extremely palpable, however, and may help explain why so many Americans are taking prescribed psychoactive drugs when, really, they’re only having reasonable reactions to the echo chamber of information and images that reduces everything to a squalid pseudo-narrative of garbage. Whatever’s happened, Robert Rauschenberg’s famous “gap between art and life” has turned into a new vividly dissonant gap between inner and outer life.
Despite what’s happening in the outside world, in our studios or in front of artworks we experience moments of genuine stillness, intensity, and meaningfulness—places on the edge of language that the world can’t strip away. These aren’t just imaginary flights of fancy or retreats into aestheticism. In this imperfect realm we experience the undeniable, elemental truth that sometimes, just by making or looking at art, we might discern the full range of human possibilities. This can sometimes make us cringe—see, for example, how Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character inhabits this new no-man’s-zone between what we’re thinking and what we’re feeling.
Into this breach comes a group show organized by curator and aesthetic clairvoyant Clarissa Dalrymple, who, according to the gallery, has been “contracted for two years to suggest artists and curate exhibitions.” I’ve known Dalrymple off and on for 20 years. With her eagle eye, quick wit, wild ways, and bohemianism, she’s as close as New York has come in decades to having a sort of combination Gertrude Stein/Oscar Wilde/Keith Richards/Florine Stettheimer.
Not surprisingly, considering Dalrymple’s knack for spotting new art, her five-artist show is drawn from recent graduates of two super-hip grad schools—Yale and UCLA. The subtext of her exhibition is the above-mentioned disconnect. The exhibition is nicely obdurate and anti-object. Unfortunately, it’s also a bit generic-looking. Your first impression might be, “More art by boys in black and silver.” Indeed, Kianja Strobert, the one woman on hand, is very good, but she also works mainly in black and silver. Still, the show feels more than prescient. While Strobert is good and her Yale counterparts, Jay Heikes and Chris Moukarbel, aren’t bad, it is the two UCLA artists, Jeffrey Wells and Joe Deutch, who make this show worth thinking about.
Deutch, 28, still attends UCLA. Whether he likes it or not, he’ll probably always be known as the student who brought a gun to Chris Burden’s class and reportedly fired it, causing Burden to eventually quit. His very male, melodramatic, but nevertheless riveting and unnerving 20 minute video The Wandering Philanthropist displays an almost obscene enjoyment of violence and eroticism. We see Deutch in various risky situations: Standing in the ocean fully clothed being swamped by waves, setting fires in corridors, running for his life from flames, or almost being hit by a car. At two points he dons a Bosch-like bird mask. It’s weirdly mythic, as well as hypnotic, and self-lacerating—a merciless ballet of anger, annihilation, tenderness, and vulnerability.
Bataille wrote about “creation by means of loss.” Nietzsche said that “What is beautiful has a fly in its ointment.” Deutch creates not by loss but by calamity and convulsion; he makes ointment from flies. The video’s muffled, rumbling soundtrack is like listening simultaneously to the biorhythms of the death drive and the life force. Deutch takes Burden’s performances of transgression and puts them through a kind of structuralist Michael Snow meat grinder. His feats of near self-immolation bring us to a schizy place where cynicism and idealism, purity and destruction, order and chaos, and ferocity and love intermingle.
The best piece in the show is Wells’s nearly invisible, initially annoying, intermittently boring Video to Accompany Staring at a White Wall. Where Deutsch is a troubadour-escape -artist-poet-barbarian, Wells is an explorer of the invisible inflections of life. His eight-minute video of a white wall projected onto a white wall is a kind of animated Fantastic Voyage into subjective vision, physiognomy, and phenomenology. Give your eyes time to adjust and an amazing world opens up—a world that’s already going on inside you anyway. Wells renders the barely discernible flashes of light, the halos, floaters, foggy glows, afterimages, and glitches that make up your vision—the oracular anomalies and overlooked phantoms you see in ways other than with the lenses of your eyes.
Wells’s Video is James Turrell and Robert Irwin by way of the experimental filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Jordan Belson, along with science, magic, and biology. This video delves into the schism between inside and outside. You watch yourself watching things you’ve always seen but haven’t seen projected before (it’s a metaphysical version of Borat). You see and experience the excess of life, the libidinal charge that being alive is. Wells portrays a boundless, decentered way of seeing. He brings you to the edge of emptiness and fullness, where you’re treated to something built-in and ineffable in each of us.
Mindy Shapero claims her work is “narrative-based.” If so, that narrative is so hermetic you can’t access it. What’s plainly out in the open, however, is the retinal blast of color and texture she packs into much of what does. Shapero is another in a long, seemingly endless line of dot-meisters. As Donald Kuspit quoted Jennifer Bartlett saying, “When in doubt, dot.” Shapero makes wholes by accumulating thousands of parts. She’s part of a postmodern tradition of combining post-impressionism, abstract expressionism, surrealism, pop, and minimalism. Fortunately, she has a strong streak of high priestess.
For her New York debut, Shapero offers, among other works, four large drawings. Each is a rudimentary mask or face cobbled together from thousands of painted strokes or bits of painted paper. The titles are annoyingly long and directive. One begins “Ghosthead guide that will bring you to the Ghostland god, you can only visualize the guide when you have entered a Monsterhead, and you first have to be . . .” Well, you get the picture. Yet Shapero’s tactility and visual intensity give these mixed-media drawings a mesmerizing jolt. They become totemic spirits watching us as we move through the exhibition. This saves the work from Shapero’s overdetermined narrative. That her work connects to Lucas Samaras, Atsuko Tanaka, and Yayoi Kusama isn’t bad either.
She also relates to Jim Lambie. This is notable in five large sculptures on hand. Constructed from paper and other materials, one is a large pile of what looks like striped spaghetti; another is a black burr or boulder atop three stilt-like poles; a third is a rainbow-colored stratified pyramid with little clumps on it. However they’re supposed to fit into Shapero’s narrative, the good part is that the sculptures are like matter organizing itself into other life-forms or states of ecstatic consciousness.
These analogues to life coupled with her amazing feel for color and materials save Shapero from being just another fun visionary. They allow her work to probe deeper recesses. All she has to do is get more ambitious and stop trying to lead us around with her titles.