Music

Bones’ Beat: Kalup Linzy’s If It Don’t Fit at the Studio Museum

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31-year-old Kalup Linzy hit his professional stride–New York group shows a few months out of grad school, inclusion in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s moment-defining 2005 group show Frequency–at the exact moment that a two-part technological innovation made good on its promise. First came consumer-grade digital video equipment and the high-powered yet intuitive Final Cut editing software, tools that allowed a whole new crowd of underfinanced, green artists to attempt video art. Then came YouTube, a democratic forum for this art’s global distribution that was appropriately weightless and unbound by any viewing rules or requirements. The pairing of new tools and new channels for exhibition cleared an entirely new space for video art to exist, and the space heralded the rebirth of the medium. Sounds heavy, I know.

Linzy is back at the Studio Museum for If It Don’t Fit, the first solo survey of his work and a chance to examine his young practice in detail. The artist’s work comes in two forms: serial dramas that painstakingly resemble soap operas in tone, length and narrative, and three- or four-minute music videos. His visual vocabulary comes resolutely from small screens: the cornered, fixed-camera feel of workmanlike daytime television, and the domestic, casual boxiness of home video. The vibe isn’t exactly claustrophobic, but it is cramped. Audio is tinny and mixed matter-of-factly, with a burbling music track sold on cheap synthesizer swells and overdubbed vocal tracks. The work’s themes are in the realm of life’s daily dramas, not life and death: parallel storylines in 2003’s Conversations wit de Churen II: All My Churen involve a cross-dressing college student’s road to acceptance as an ‘entertainer’ by his mother (“that’s not what I call an entertainer, that’s what I call foolish”, she says unequivocally) and his sister’s simultaneous deep mourning over the sudden death of a friend who turns out, in a fourth act twist, to have been her pet dog. The stories are mild and mellow to follow, with stakes as low and ongoing as the soaps they lovingly emulate. The music videos, visual accompaniment to Linzy’s original compositions, concern the cycles of young loves ups and downs–the eternal platitudes of pop. Edge of My Couch (2008), is a cheapo carbon copy of Otis Redding’s Dock of The Bay, with the older tune’s expansive existentialism replaced by the amusingly basic short-term sentiments of boredom and disappointment over a no-show boyfriend.

Linzy is as versatile a performer as his characters are clichéd. He plays any number of parts simultaneously, from unjudgmental grandma to cross-dressing teen to lazy thug to hysterical girl, and has the ability–and a restless desire–to confound one’s expectations of any one of these characters. The alcoholic agony aunt at the center of Keys to Our Heart (2008) responds to a heartbroken friend’s declaration that she is going to stop being a bitch with an indignant riposte: “Then who’s going to help me self-destruct?” Linzy takes enormous pride in the cliché-trumping power of pure candor. Asshole, a 2008 music clip with a one-word chorus you’ll sing all day, starts as a simple curse at an ex-lover. By the third verse a different asshole, the singer’s own, is being blamed, for being too “stingy” and fucking things up. It is an astonishing admonition, and I’ve never heard a song quite like it.

I can’t help but contrast Linzy’s approach with 2006’s Sip My Ocean at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the last monster video survey I saw, and which resembled nothing so much as19th-Century French history painting: cumbersome, amped up and camped up as far as it could possibly go. This was art that sought to overwhelm the competition. The idea being that if video went big enough, either in scale or emotion, it might entreat the viewer into sticking around and seeing the work through. But there are only so many available viewer responses to Bill Viola chucking buckets of water on people at 200 frames per second or Doug Aitken chucking a 50-foot-tall Sutherland or Swinton on an urban façade at dusk. Video work at this booming register often cannot help getting simpler and meaning less the longer you spend time with it. There is no place, in other words, for it to go and grow.

But Linzy exploits the potential of rapid production and mass dissemination offered by our new age: the idea of going viral, of exploding and finding a place everywhere. He employs a superstar’s narcissism as he puts himself in the center of the frame, but unguarded sincerity and thoughfulness tempers each scene. This flavor of art, combining simply and clearly telegraphed emotion with incessant otherness and surprise (sentiments as alien to each other as soap opera and contemporary art) has the ability to lodge itself in the psyche. It hooks. This is work that urgently threatens to infect our beloved daily moving-picture world while becoming more nuanced and more liberating, both worshipping and roundly rejecting televisual rhetoric en route to making more sense in more ways to more people. We couldn’t be further from the unilateral drama and intensity of video as it was made for darkened rooms and museum atriums. Work like this is built to grow in the real world.-Bones

Kalup Linzy’s If It Don’t Fit is up at the Studio Museum until June 28th. A hearty, illuminating show of the SMH’s personal collection fills the main space. Check out the Uptown Juice Bar for sustenance after Linzy’s 3-hour program of videos, west on 125th Street, and consider a visit to the Maysles Institute, mentioned in the end-of-year Bones column.

Next week, Bones weighs in on Younger Than Jesus at the New Museum, a group show of 50 artists from 25 countries who are all under 33-years-of-age. As of yesterday, when this show opened, there is only one game in town.