Review /

Jason Moran / ICA Boston

Jazz musician and interdisciplinary artist Jason Moran foregrounds collaboration as integral to both music and visual artmaking in his first museum show at the ICA in Boston.

The exhibition’s sculptural assemblages, process-oriented drawings, and co-produced experimental films also propose compelling means for displaying the performing arts within institutions beyond mere audiovisual documentation. It is also a timely constituent of the performing arts gaining notoriety within Boston’s art institutions — including the Tony Conrad retrospective split between the MIT List Visual Arts Center and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard, and choreographer William Forsythe’s exhibition, also on view at the ICA.

The main gallery is filled with Moran’s “sets,” based on storied music venues of varying architectural and historical significance in jazz’s history that have since been razed. Recreated at full-scale within the museum, they house both traditional and self-playing instruments (a player piano, a jukebox), which are also at times activated by live performers. Historicizing jazz’s ephemeral sounds and spaces, the works speak to challenges facing its cultural preservation in the face of continual gentrification, marginalization, iteration, and appropriation. The longue durée of exploited black culture in jazz is alluded to in the use of wax-print fabric, characteristic of pan-African fashion textiles by way of Dutch colonialism, which frames a re-creation of the demolished jazz venue Savoy Ballroom.

The artist’s piano drawings, RUN 6 and Strutter’s Ball (both 2016), for which Moran taped paper over his piano keys and played with charcoal-coated fingers, likewise preserve a sense of ephemerality. The drawings record his musical process rather than a finished product, and suggest a potent absence, in much the same way jazz’s historic influence is here omnipotent yet continually erased. The drawings also reveal the influence of conceptualism on Moran’s own practice, as do his collaborations with artists such as Joan Jonas, Adrian Piper, Theaster Gates, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Adam Pendleton.

A standout is Moran’s collaboration with Glenn Ligon, The Death of Tom (2008), in which Ligon attempted to re-create a scene from a 1903 film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wherein white actors performed the characters in blackface. It turned out that Ligon’s film camera had not been properly loaded, and the image he produced was inadvertently ghostly and abstract. It was a welcome accident. Ligon later saw that such racist imagery is refuted through abstraction, not reiteration. Moran provided the film’s moving score, a riff on “Nobody” (1905), which was the signature theme of Bert Williams, a famed vaudeville blackface performer who was himself black. The collaboration succinctly summarizes Moran’s elegant handling of issues regarding preservation and erasure, and, moreover, his noble refusal of the primacy of an artist’s autonomy, often compromised by the effacing of influences through uncredited appropriation rather than collaboration.

by Emily Watlington

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Game State /

Analogously Hard vs. Technically Comparable

The Glaswegian artist Gregor Wright once mentioned an idea he had for a video game for the Commodore 64 called Jetpack Fantasy. The objective of the game was to earn money from mowing lawns in order to save up to pay for a jetpack. Maybe after a bunch of mowing levels, you’d have enough money for a short go on the jetpack. Mowing the lawn and riding the jetpack, however, would be virtually identical from both a mechanical and aesthetic viewpoint. The background would now be sky blue instead of grass green, but the movement inputs would remain exactly the same.

Wright had broken down two elements of game design to their most basic building blocks. First, Jetpack Fantasy asks how similar two clearly opposing facets of play — grinding and reward — can be made. While the game offers the illusion of reward, an impossible stretching of the imagination would be required to find the jetpacking any more rewarding than the mowing. The two activities have little to do with one another, but when simulated on a Commodore 64 and reduced to a few simple button inputs they become virtually indistinguishable. For one to have a higher value than the other requires the player to take a purely subjective stance.

But Jetpack Fantasy raises another very simple question with no one correct answer: What is the best way to implement an action in a game?

While jetpacking and mowing may be simulated through identical inputs when performed on a rudimentary thirty-six-year-old computer, it is safe to assume that that this bears no resemblance to the actual act of pushing a lawnmower or operating a jet-powered device on one’s back.

Assigning tasks to a player and organizing how these are implemented through player control is a fundamental challenge for the game designer. Things need to be done, and there are a great number of ways to do them. Should boring things be fun? How easy should a hard task be? How do we make this feel different from that while using the same buttons? And where do we draw the line? Should walking require a button for each foot?

Take, for example, the art of picking locks. In many sorts of games, players may find themselves confronted with a locked door, chest, or safe of some description. How one opens these locks can vary wildly from game to game, but broadly speaking it will fall into one of two categories. Sometimes it resembles the actual procedure of picking a lock or hacking a security system, a technically comparable solution in which locks may have tumblers that require gentle manipulation, computerized systems might require passwords or code breaking. Alternatively, the game designers may have you do something that in no way resembles the specific task at hand but which is also difficult or inconvenient. This could be tediously pressing one button for some length of time, leaving you vulnerable and unable to move. Or maybe it will involve a “quick time event,” requiring the player to press a sequence of buttons with split-second precision. Sometimes this will actually be a mini-game in its own right, a puzzle of some form that stands in for the act of lock picking. Beat the mini-game and open sesame.

The Yakuza games (Sega, 2005–present) excel at finding ways to faithfully simulate wonderful and bizarre pastimes on offer outside of the work of Yakuza-ing. Should you find yourself in the gym, for example, each exercise will be performed in a slightly different manner and require diligent attention: the action for a push-up is quite different from a pull-up. When bartending, each step of mixing a drink is closely approximated in the necessary player inputs. From fishing to karaoke, great attention and respect is given to each procedural element of every action.

The opposite approach is taken by the WarioWare games (Nintendo, 2003–present), in which all activities are reduced to a single button input. Each WarioWare entry is a schizophrenic collection of hundreds of micro-games, each about three seconds in length. Jump, walk, bite, scratch, run, duck, pick, and pluck are typical one-word prompts that guide players as they find themselves thrown into new scenarios. The input is almost always the same — press A — however the precise manner in which one must press A differs depending on the action. And each action — pump a tire, pick a nose, pop a balloon — occurs so quickly the player is constantly shifting attention; thus WarioWare makes a repeated gesture feel perpetually new through disorientation

A major component of the question of configuring controls is: How does the controller correspond to the body? A very rough anatomic accordance can be made with the control pad. It has a left half and a right half, a top and a bottom, and four face buttons that could be assigned to the limbs. Some 3-D fighting games apply this logic and become more fluid as a result. Understanding how each button relates to parts of the body creates a deeper connection than simply seeing moves as strings of complicated button inputs.

Thrasher Presents Skate and Destroy (Rockstar Games, 1999) was an ugly and clunky game that surprisingly managed to very accurately replicate something of the essential activity of skateboarding. The fundamental logic of how tricks are performed was transposed to the PlayStation control pad with great consideration. Released the same year, Neversoft’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skateboarding was an altogether slicker affair that was aiming for much wider appeal — which it achieved far beyond anybody’s expectations. Its success was due in part to how little it had in common with actual skateboarding, having virtually no concern for the limits of what can conceivably be performed on a skateboard. Skateboarders might see Thrasher as a superior game due to its punishing realism, steep learning curve, and strict adherence to the foundational logic of skateboard tricks which informed the control scheme. But the cartoon physics and inconceivable tricks of the Tony Hawk series proved hugely popular, and the game spawned numerous sequels and spin-offs.

Of course, many would say that these are all stylistic decisions, and that it all comes down to the type of game — unrealistic fun or a serious replica of the real world, a distinction often framed by the opposing categories of arcade vs. simulation. But this opposition is an oversimplification. The three games in the Skate series (EA Black Box, 2007–10) achieved both significant crossover appeal and the love of skateboarders by skillfully combining the accessibility of the Tony Hawk games with a control scheme akin to that of Thrasher. What is more, a mainstay among the distractions found in the Yakuza games is the ability to play classic arcade games in a perfect simulation of a SEGA arcade. Sometimes a game may benefit from being a bit of both.

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games. 

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Review /

David Reed Häusler Contemporary / Zurich

David Reed’s works seem bizarre in our present moment, but what’s here cannot be dismissed, consistently compelling a deeper return. Each of these new paintings is curious, highly singular, and often initially repelling.

In either dramatic widescreen or columnar format, all continue Reed’s practice of recording a lexicon of marks. #665 (2014–18) is the most prototypical in the show — and of Reed’s project as a whole, in which multipanel and sectioned works tackle the legacy of abstract painting. Divided into four parts, the outer two are dominated by black and white “brushstrokes” — as graphic yet not as cool as Lichtenstein’s iconic takedowns of abstract expressionism. The two central areas, above and below each other, are differing tones of thin red in slippery loops that bring to mind the spaghetti in James Rosenquist’s I Love You With My Ford (1961). The main concern is with surface: both plasticky and matte, every color and section functions on its own level. The “brushstrokes” appear almost cast in bas-relief, each sculpturally distinct.

Executed with a stencil of a stroke from Reed’s own repertoire, this gesture, repeated throughout the show, is a bipartisan success in the painterly feud between the real and the readymade. The central area possesses a visual depth that belies the way the snaking strokes have been applied. In works like #701 and #702 (both 2017–18), similarly modeled translucent layers are stacked on top of each other like graffiti on old New York subway cars. The ability to evoke comparable works is uncanny and central. One can imagine how much heavy lifting Reed has done for Christopher Wool. Yet, while I can list names and paintings reminded of and referenced, one finds nevertheless that these are idiosyncratic works in the truest sense of the word. Reed denies irony and cynicism while continuing to believe in the value of gestural abstract painting, feeding off of and wrestling with the repercussions of the generations above and around him. The result is fully digested and neither nostalgic or hostile. It’s as if Reed, for the past five decades, has been speeding down a lost highway, dreaming his own painterly definitions of composition, poetry, and aesthetic grace.

by Mitchell Anderson

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Review /

Max Hooper Schneider Jenny’s / Los Angeles

“Tryouts for the Human Race” is Max Hooper-Schneider’s second solo show at Jenny’s — and a 1979 proto-disco song by Sparks from their Giorgio Moroder era. The space is comprised of two aquariums populated by living organisms, a miniature train set, and a dollhouse, all sleek tokens for a continuing relationship of trust and fervor between the artist and his LA gallery.

The gallery’s walls, ceilings, and outlets are painted a fleshy pink color that bleeds into the complexion of anyone walking in, and gray-carpeted floors make the space feel alien. The miniature train set shares the walls’ color, sculpted in what looks like melted human flesh with to-scale human features poking through its terrain. Titled Utopia (2018), the work could suggest the future of the body, fully integrated with a transportation system and serene as a landscape. Although not referential to an existing place, the piece is reminiscent of Mike Kelley’s Chinatown Wishing Well (1999) in its homogenous build and sublimated reality. This is the first of many possible nods in the show to local and close-at-heart artists. One of the aquariums, Genesis (2018), is strongly reminiscent of Kelley’s “Memory Ware” series. The aquarium is host to tiny multicolor fish swarming alongside two massive mounds of trinkets and jewelry, many of them with pearl (real or not) finishes. The hundreds of jewelry items were carefully chosen to invoke nostalgic signs of a near-gone humanity. Cartoonish leopard prints, generic Hawaiian flowers, laminated snakeskins, and painted wooden figures are softly highlighted by touches of pink plastic, peace signs, crosses, or minuscule locks from teenage diaries. Scattered throughout are a few message pendants that spell out “discovering,” “spice,” “Mi$str$$,” “faith,” “friends,” and “HELP,” hinting at feelings no longer in effect within this ecosystem. Across the room, a white aquarium recalls Hooper-Schneider’s work as a technician for Pierre Huyghe’s 2014–15 LACMA show, with its dramatic lighting and precise composition. Many artists do skilled and unskilled work for more established ones, so why not in turn display the skills attained through hours of labor and collaboration? Titled Lady Marlene (2018), the aquarium features two mounds of marine resin–coated white vintage lingerie, with lace flowers recalling coral and draped silks forming elegant reefs. Various species of fish, crabs, and cockles crawl and swim among the newly formed ridge, with the implied hope that they might integrate into this environment. During my time in the gallery, a decorator crab escaped to carpet level, while another began eating the flesh off a plump starfish, forcing the gallerists into the roles of full-time lab technicians in order to avoid the work’s self-destruction. Even the landscape features of this Theater of Cruelty imply sentient movements of resilience, with bra straps arranged to suggest lifting shoulders and fishnet gloves pointing up above the water’s surface.

The last piece in the show, Mommy & Me (2018), is a large dollhouse partly completed in New Mexico, where Hooper-Schneider’s mother resides and where he got acquainted with a dollhouse expert who served as advisor for the project. Jenny tells me the advisor told Hooper-Schneider that “whatever you can imagine in real life exists in miniature,” suggesting unknown parallel worlds of intersecting ideas. Indeed, among hundreds of items, the partly burnt dollhouse contains multiple kinds of miniature garden lights, cinder blocks, a twice-miniaturized train set, a book titled History of the United States, an Obituary poster, and a box of Christmas decorations. Several rarefied human-scale artifacts stand out amid the abundance of appropriately sized dollhouse furnishings: a coiled phone cord ends in a curly branch, tiny limes are dried to look like pumpkins, and a miniature brain coral reef could equally pass as a human brain prop. Adding subtlety to the piece, the five rooms in the house have very distinct lighting, from the neon-lit ground-floor pet store to the warmly lit, tar-damaged Tiffany lamp store upstairs. Somehow it’s much easier to imagine reveling in the construction of such a lavish piece while living with one’s mother, where the surrounding domestic space would provide the artist with a living continuum. Film production, biology, landscape architecture, and various hobbyist practices are all parts of Hooper-Schneider’s context and schooling, and his works recognize and speak to all of these worlds, on both material and theoretical levels — in turn requiring the gallerists to get acquainted with new audiences, aquatic species, and various maintenance professionals during the course of the exhibition. Following the string of nods in the show, this last piece certainly echoes LA-based Richard Hawkins’s — who also exhibits with Jenny’s — series of haunted altered dollhouses, which get as much coverage on craft blogs and Pinterest as they do in art publications. Working with manifold interests and informed precision, Hooper-Schneider shares with Hawkins, Huyghe, and Kelley an unapologetic dedication to materializing parallel, lifelike visions of our present.

by Mona Varichon

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New Wave /

Face to Face

From an objective standpoint, the collective consensus regarding the practice of Lithuanian-born-and-based Augustas Serapinas seems to be that it can be categorized in relation to themes of empathy, anthropology, the potentialities of space, and personal histories and mythologies. To some extent, these general observations are valid; they are not factually inaccurate. Yet Serapinas is not an artist whose work thrives when recognized according to precise motives or explicit associations. Neat boxes of explanation will not do.

I came to this conclusion after conducting a cross-Atlantic FaceTime call with Serapinas: me in Texas, talking to a grainy image of him in Italy, where he was preparing an exhibition for Apalazzo Gallery in Brescia. During our conversation, I impulsively chose to ignore the series of questions that I had prepared beforehand, their rigid format feeling stilted in comparison to the artist’s engaging explanations of his intricate projects, all of which he emphasized were influenced by basic human interaction and the spaces in which they are engendered. (I might note here that some venture to draw lines between Serapinas and relational aesthetics, though that comparison is cheap and easy when weighing the full capacity of the young artist’s endeavors.)

Discarding my list of questions was a spontaneous decision that later became imperative in understanding Serapinas’s practice overall. Our exchange was not a traditional conversation in which I gained concrete facts about the artist’s technique or ideas. Instead, it was a manifestation of his work itself, at play, in real time — a clever maneuver on his part which I only recognized days later while sitting at my desk, the recording playing back on repeat, trying to comprehend the nature of our encounter. I realized that our meandering, unstructured conversation was a prime example of what Serapinas seeks to achieve: creating a space for exchange, for simple connection, and the messiness that it entails. His work is so embedded in the act of personal relations that it proves difficult to separate the delineated artistic project from everyday experiences with other people.

Augustas Serapinas, Late Autumn in Magûnai, 2018
Augustas Serapinas, Late Autumn in Magûnai, 2018. Courtest of the artist and Emalin, London.

Take, for example, a 2013 project in Poland staged at BWA WARSZAWA, in which Serapinas approached an older man living in a flat situated between two contemporary art galleries on the above and below floors. Despite complete inexperience with the Polish language, he knocked on the man’s door, managing to parse together a conversation via their shared broken Russian. The dialogue resulted in an installation in which the man’s belongings were transferred into the gallery space and arranged in the same fashion as in his home. The man was frequently in the gallery watering his plants. Serapinas marks this early installation — only the second of his career as a formal artist — as the germination of his interest in personal interactions. In recalling the project and the older Polish man, the artist stated, “I want to say that I never claimed that he and I became really good friends. It has to do with communication and mutual respect.” This firm declaration plays with the blurry boundaries established within the project overall: while the two men maintained a social distance, the short-lived overlapping of their lives was simultaneously deeply intimate; the man placed trust in Serapinas with both his objects and that which they would reveal about him, and the artist, in turn, treated this information with care.

The intangible become more prominent in recent works, as seen in Vygintas, Kirilas & Semionovas (2018), presented in the Vilnius chapter of the recent Baltic Triennial 13. Though a physical installation was indeed on view, the fundamental essence of the work lay in the human histories infused in the art object’s physical components. Comprised of used wood and other discarded materials sourced from the defunct Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania, Vygintas, Kirilas & Semionovas is, at its core, about the six thousand Lithuanians who, under Soviet command, were forced to clean up the infamous nuclear waste repository. Serapinas sidestepped the work’s potential political implications in order to explore the emotional and interpersonal impact of this trauma upon the affected individuals and their families by considering the lingering intergenerational effects. With this particular event as a framing device, larger concerns emerged: first, how to navigate psychological and emotional closure, which then influences the way in which personal and collective identity is constructed — all of which are only further expatiated within the context of family.

As such, the objects Serapinas produces for gallery spaces are rarely a final product in themselves; rather, they take on a near-symbolic status. Like a souvenir, they are the representations of human experience and interaction, through which the tangible objects we see are a result — a memento, or a scar.

by Caroline Elbaor

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Subtext /

Somebody Wants It

“Thus, one of the things that anyone’s character or personality is is a record of the highly individual histories by which the fleeting emotion of shame has instituted far more durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others.”

—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick¹

In 2016, I was asked by Flash Art to review Jill Soloway’s (lamentably short-lived) Amazon series I Love Dick. I assume that I was considered suitable for the job because, as a queer/feminist art historian, I must have watched Transparent, and such an assumption is indeed reasonable. Without thinking, I replied yes, of course, I love Soloway’s work. In fact, I had never seen Transparent, and I knew little about Soloway aside from what her work represented, at least within the thin slice of the culture industry from which I operate. I wanted to support someone who I thought was doing important things; the content of Soloway’s larger opus seemed secondary, or maybe I was just lazy. That was a little over two years ago, and I have thought about my impulsive decision at least weekly since.

Time passed and I naturally had to read Soloway’s new memoir She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, which I speedily consumed on an eleven-hour plane trip to a conference. Upon finishing, I must admit that I felt profoundly empty and could not entirely articulate why. Sure, the book fails in some ways that have been pointed out (in an unhelpful fashion, I think) elsewhere—it is at times out of touch or overly sentimental or didactic or essentialist. However, it is impossible to speak to queerness or trans-ness without falling into problematic traps, without wanting to speak for everyone at times or only for yourself at others, without failing to recognize one’s privilege, without engaging in methods that seem retrograde or antiquated. We have all embodied a politics that fails in some respects. Take, for example, Jack Halberstam’s commentary on the belatedness of queer identification: “As someone who sexually identifies as a ‘stone butch,’ I am always surprised to hear that apparently there are no stone butches anymore! People often tell me that stone butch was an identity bound to the 1950s and apparently dependent on a preliberation understanding of lesbianism or queerness.”2 Of course, one can identify however one wants, but the political question of “But should you?” often complicates the agency of those who have come to speak in proximity to (not even for) marginalized communities. Such was the case for Soloway, who has been lambasted by writers and activists like Andrea Long Chu for the decision to identify as nonbinary, though such critiques often resemble a new conservatism or policing that falls prey to the elitism and cruelty exhibited by many writers whose primary creative outlet is Twitter.

Halberstam goes on, “So what does it mean to engage in a sexual practice whose time is past?”3 And what does it mean to engage in an identity politics whose time is allegedly past? She Wants It hopes to mobilize rhetoric drawn from second-wave feminism, with all its successes and shortcomings, alongside the advances made by trans activism. Like Lena Dunham, Soloway experienced an extraordinary backlash for attempting to utilize an identity politics of an earlier moment that has been endlessly parodied in academic and popular discussions of feminism alike — the goddess, central core imagery, consciousness raising, the possibility of coalition-building based on gender. Criticisms of these methods certainly deserve to be levied — but with an ounce of foresight and empathy, for it is not queer or feminist to denigrate the well-meaning activism of others. In any case, queerness often requires problematic attachments, sometimes to ideologies with which you violently disagree or that you feel may erase you; no one can say with surety that they have never wanted something that has marginalized someone else.

None of this really surprised me, as these are debates that have been going on for some time in queer and feminist theory, so whence my discomfort with She Wants It? Upon landing in Copenhagen, I texted my boyfriend, who promptly asked what I thought of the book. All I could think to reply was, “I think Jill is very sad about something.” I know that is presumptuous to say, but shame and melancholia are often as coextensive with queerness as joyful liberation. I saw Soloway trying desperately to grapple with mistakes and complex decisions whose magnitude we cannot comprehend, because, and this is the unfortunate truth, some voices will always resonate more widely than others. Thus held universally responsible but in no way claiming to speak for anyone else, She Wants It is often a story of self-disappointment and paranoia and regret. However, Soloway does not become a melodramatic stereotype with which we can all identify. Instead, and contrary to those who attack Soloway’s essentialism, the book is so resolutely individualized as to refute any kind of projection or identification or collectivization. There lies, I think, why I found She Wants It so upsetting — its insights swirl around you like dust, but nothing ever gets in your eye, as much as you yearn for contact or community. Tears held back and not extracted. Nothing quite sticks to you. This is not a book that speaks for anyone else; it articulates only itself and allows Soloway some space from what they have come to represent in narratives of queer visual culture.

I have finally started watching Transparent, and I think my hypothesis is confirmed. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. What intrigues me is that within Soloway’s activist cinematic statement is a stream of characters who bear traces of pathos we recognize, even while remaining intensely enclosed and unrecognizable, trapped in the screen and in their own self-destructive arrogance. At the same time, however, someone might see themselves in Maura’s story, or Tammy’s (my favorite), or even She Wants It, and we have to create a politics wherein that choice, as sentimental, regressive, or abrasive as it may be, is provisionally alright.

by William J. Simmons

 

Subtext is a column exploring new and old books, art and ephemera.

 

1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity: Warhol’s Shyness/Warhol’s Whiteness,” in Jennifer Doyle, Jonathan Flatley, and José Esteban Muñoz, eds., Pop Out: Queer Warhol (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 141–2.

2. Carolyn Dinshaw, et. al., “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13, no. 2 (2007), p. 190.

3. Ibid.

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