Critiqueus Interruptus


“Andrea Fraser is a whore”: That’s how a fellow critic responded when I told him I was writing on Fraser’s current show. As evidence he cited “Untitled,” Fraser’s one-hour silent video shown in 2004 in which she has what she called “just regular sex” with an art collector who reportedly paid $20,000, “not for sex,” according to the artist, but “to make an artwork.” The collector, collaborator, co-star, John, or whatever you want to call him, was a sturdy white man in his early forties. Fraser—who in recent years has regularly appeared nearly or completely naked in her work—is this cute, nerdy looking librarian-type above the neck but some ultra-worked-out Super Theory Woman below the shoulders.

The sex in “Untitled” is stilted but sweet. After sitting and talking, he awkwardly touches her, she kisses him, then initiates most of what follows. After mutual oral sex they have intercourse in several positions. He apparently ejaculates inside her (which seems pretty intimate to me). Defending “Untitled” to my angry critic acquaintance, I talked about women taking control, Baudelaire’s idea of the artist as prostitute, institutional critique art that risks being vulnerable, reality TV, and reminded him that men like Chris Burden and Vito Acconci did illegal and sexual things in their work and no one ever called them “whores.” He wasn’t swayed. Fraser had evidently crossed some sort of ethical-aesthetic gender-specific line.

Which brings us to her current, succinct exhibition of seven color photographs based on pictures made more than 20 years ago and one excellent new 12-minute videotape. This outing does three things well. First, it shows this leading light of so-called institutional critique smartly stepping back from the line she crossed with “Untitled” and avoiding anything overtly sensationalistic. Second, it traces Fraser’s knotty trajectory from being an appropriation artist who, however competent, veered too close to tropes already in use by artists like Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Martha Rosler, and Adrian Piper, to becoming an intermittently singular maker of something abberant, deeper, and complicated. Finally, it demonstrates Fraser’s nimble melding of theory, weirdness, and psychoanalysis with autobiography, performance, and her own batty sensibility.

The seven photos are all new. All, however, are derived from slide projections she originally made in 1984. Each medium-sized picture is a kind of Frankensteinian combination of two or three images overlaid to make something jarring but oddly familiar. We see amalgams of some of our favorite painterly things from different artistic eras, a De Kooning or Pollock projected over a Titian or Raphael. Thus we get images of women by men redeployed by a woman in love with but skeptical of these pictures. In one photo you see a Titian “Madonna and Child” with the sexual drawing of one of De Kooning’s wild busty “Women” over it. The Christ child appears to reach out for these two huge De Kooning orbs, while De Kooning’s “Woman” drawing makes Titian’s Madonna turn into a sort of whore. There’s that word again. Whatever, it’s porn for theory mavens and theory for art lovers. Remarkably, these pictures are pretty good—although as lovely as they are, they’re still too literal.

Her new video, “A Visit to the Vatican,” on the other hand brings us back into the thick of Fraser’s strangeness. We see her with the thronging crowds walking through the Vatican Museum on her way to the Sistine Chapel. The action is as sweet and stilted as “Untitled,” and its money-shot is just as buried. The soundtrack is the museum’s Acoustiguide. To strains of baroque music, a guide commands Fraser where to look and reminds her to “be pious.” Fraser dutifully tries to comply, which sets up a wonderful ironic Bondage & Domination call-and-response. As Fraser makes her way from gallery to gallery, she’s led through various gift shops and bookstores. Meanwhile, tour guides from every country constantly signal to their charges. It all turns into a religious Disneyland. I won’t spoil the Sistine Chapel-ending except to say that not only does it capture some of the magic of this room, it shows how much Fraser respects and adores art. In her own uncanny way she is always asking, “What do we want from art?”

This questioning, vulnerability, strangeness, and love distinguish Fraser from most so-called “Institutional Critique” artists. By now, and despite the fact that every work of art is a critique or theory about the way art should look or be displayed, the “institutional critique” mode is so in vogue that one has to wonder how any artist can purport to critique institutions that are so utterly enamored of the very critique the art is making. Criteria should be applied to this kind of art, like whether this work makes serious inquiries that are not grounded in belly-button-gazing, too many pre-approved aesthetic orthodoxies, insider-to-insider insularity, or above-it-all pretenses of being “outside the market” while exhibiting within a gallery or institution. Examining the mechanisms of the system is important. Artists, however, shouldn’t just be content to bite the hand that feeds them. More artists might consider critiquing the power structure the way Hogarth did—with style, wit, ferocity, guile, doggedness, and a knife that cuts in many directions. These are the things that give Fraser’s art its edge.

Unraveled Tapestry

Eve Sussman loses the thread of a masterpiece

Two videos made waves in June 2004. Andrea Fraser’s one-hour tape of her having sex with a collector and Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcazar, a dreamy 10-minute reenactment of the events leading up to Diego Velázquez’s towering masterpiece Las Meninas, took the art world by storm as part of that year’s otherwise only OK Whitney Biennial.

Sussman had been around the art world for years, but 89 Seconds deservedly made her an overnight sensation. Now she’s back with a massively ambitious new work, The Rape of the Sabine Women (screening at the IFC Center during the Armory Show). Like 89 Seconds, Rape takes a famous painting as a starting point, here Jacques-Louis David’s crystalline neo-classic 1799 canvas of the same name (although the film looks more like Poussin’s more turbulent version). While
89 Seconds was elaborate, mysterious, captivating, and avoided the gimmicky hokeyness that usually surrounds re-staging famous paintings, Rape is an over-the-top, over-produced 80-minute hodgepodge that borders on portentousness, cliché, and artiness.

Sussman, a control-freak’s control-freak, essentially made four or five different films, all of them promising. The last 12-minute segment is ravishing, although quite reminiscent of
89 Seconds. Together, Rape is an unraveled tapestry of influences, effects, and high-styling. Sussman’s amazing feel for texture, sound, color, slo-mo, and blocking is present. Her sense of scale, timing, and mystery, however, are eclipsed by overblown schmaltziness. With a cast of as many as 800, Rape was shot in fantastic-looking locations and features men in black suits and women in A-line shifts. There’s a lot of pensive looking around, standing about, and struggling, and enough telegraphed angst to fill five high-school productions of
Our Town. Unfortunately there’s also a lot of unprocessed references to and borrowings from Bill Viola, Matthew Barney, Sharon Lockhart, Stanley Kubrick, New Wave Cinema, Shirin Neshat, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone. Sussman is talented. Rape is merely a failed experiment, albeit an insanely expensive-looking one. She just needs to regain the concentration, internal scale, and exquisite enigma of 89 Seconds and steer clear of this kind of directionless spectacle.