Bones’ Beat: Vacuous Sprites Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch at Elizabeth Dee Gallery


The now-crashing, frothy tide of praise for 27-year-old video artist Ryan Trecartin began in earnest at the start of the 2007 art season, when New York Times critic (and as-of-Monday Pulitzer prizewinner) Holland Cotter apparently returned from the artist’s New York solo debut at Elizabeth Dee Gallery an entirely changed man. Cotter delivered the sort of paroxysmal prose that will snap a reader’s spine straight in its Friday chair, a knockout dose of unequivocal, steamrollering enthusiasm that could not stop itself from finding more and more aesthetic territory for the anointed artist to conquer. To wit: the critic claimed Trecartin’s skill with face makeup to be superior contemporary painting than actual painting. This was an unforgettably outrageous, colorful, monumental assertion. The show was, all told, ‘The best thing that could have happened to the New York fall art season.’ And no one voiced any objection. Unchecked Trecartin mania abided. Last week The New Yorker proclaimed the artist the ‘star’ of Younger Than Jesus via poet/codger Peter Schjeldahl, a man I respect enormously and the last person I’d expect to come out with such faith in such a young artist. The editors even rewarded the lad with an absolutely cherry illustration. I am bowled over by these responses.

The artist’s lineage can be readily plotted. Trecartin first found his feet at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, a remarkable community for art school extremism in the late ’90s thanks to the loose legislation of bonkers crook mayor Buddy Cianci, who allowed weirdo seditionary warehouse culture to thrive on the city’s fringes. The Fort Thunder space became a symbol for this movement, as a spiritual home for 2002 Whitney Biennial participants Forcefield (among dozens of artists and musicians) and as a limitless universe in itself. It was this climate of freedom that preceded Ryan Trecartin’s years at RISD, and in the spirit of its imaginative legacy, the artist built characters and sets, costumes and environments, from the get-go. His is unapologetically weird work, obedient only to its own logic. It is psychedelic in color, texture and tone. It is cultishly familial and entirely self-contained.

And the artist’s taming of the present times is educated and smart. The speed and malleability of Internet-era practice has given Trecartin a space to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to do it. What once might have been in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, sufficiently tucked out of the way to not trouble the pigs, is now limitlessly large and limitlessly lawless.

And the artist’s critical popularity is understandable. To those non-native to the Internet–let’s say folk over 40–its power and some of the things it can do are mind-blowing. In other words, there are things that Holland Cotter finds thrilling about Ryan Trecartin’s work that are no big deal to people who have spent daily hours living online for a decade or more. These things include: plasticity of identity, humor that is all punchlines, all shorthand, advanced attention deficit, and the way digital looks, sounds and feels compared to analog. I can think of no more complete embodiment of this aesthetic, this lifestyle, than Trecartin. The work is extreme in ways that have not been articulated in the art world before, and certain people are overcome by it, and certain people cannot tolerate it. His work starts to give me a rugged headache after about two minutes, like a violent allergy. Yet I can picture a Times critic staggering out of the gallery after watching it for over an hour and a half, eyeballs spinning with visions of new worlds, and joy, and column inches filling themselves like magic.

I visited Dee Gallery to see Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s latest collaborative sculptures this week and, while there, my distaste for this artist finally, concretely, took shape. The Internet’s rules do not apply to sculpture, and certain tricks and tropes won’t work in the physical world. Trecartin and Fitch purposely pay no mind to materials, and pay no mind to placement. They prefer to do everything, all at once. It is full-blown kitchen-sink work– it is not a surprise that there are three cans of red bull floating in The Aboutthing (in the air), the massive installation featuring a giant aboveground swimming pool in the front gallery. There are three hefty floor fans at the front of the gallery. They are not spinning, and in instances like this one’s usually forced to wonder if someone forgot to turn on the work that morning. Here, I realized with a smile that nearly broke into laughter, it doesn’t even matter. The work is the same with or without it. This art is not built on anything solid and, at the risk of sounding particular, it is not possible to make sculpture that means anything without an appreciation–or at the very least an acknowledgement–of foundation.

Digital existence has allowed Trecartin the status of vacuous sprite, and the gaseous sort of hover that he has adopted points, powerfully, to the way that subsequent generations will negotiate their identity in the world. This accounts for the blanket of buzz smothering the artist, and I get it. Look at these sculptures, though, and realize that there is no reason, whatsoever, to assume that Trecartin’s chosen forms adds up to content. Stripped of seductive digital psychedelia, the briefest of looks into this artist’s work reveals willful vagueness, carelessness and even disrespect for art’s obligation to somehow earn extra meaning among all the things that aren’t art in the world. This rubber-moulded breast or penis will do the same thing it is doing here, or there, in green, or purple, alone, or serially. So why does it need to exist at all?-Bones

Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch are up at Elizabeth Dee Gallery, on the 11th Avenue corner of 20th Street, until May 16th. Readers would do well to visit the X Initiative, a one-year non-profit space in progress on 22nd Street that Dee, an upstanding recent art world figure, helped establish. X is currently showing Derek Jarman’s super-8 films, powerfully poetic work that is pretty much the polar opposite of Ryan Trecartin’s.

Next week, Bones visits the Brooklyn Museum to escape the heat in Chelsea for a moment. Gustave Caillebotte’s precise take on aristo Impressionism and an exhibition of Coptic and Pagan art from Egypt are expected to offer simpler, straighter pleasures and much-needed historical perspective.

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