The picture of…..: Portraiture and representation in the Marxhausen Collection of Contemporary Art at Concordia Univ., October 11-November 19, 2015.

Note: This essay published in the Marxhausen Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition, The Picture of, Concordia Univ., October, 2015; all works of art (except Picture of Dorian Gray)  in Marxhausen Collection, Concordia Univ., Seward, NE; installation shots taken by me, on the run, after opening, October 11, 2015; some works covered in more detail in follow-up essay on installation.

In the 1945 movie version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the evil painting was created by Ivan Albright, an up and coming Chicago magic realist who, with this work, became a household word. I start my tour of portraiture or representations of self in the Marxhausen Collection at Concordia University with a small work by Albright, because Albright meditated, through the agency of Oscar Wilde having created a spiritual criss-cross relationship between Dorian and Basil’s painting of him (if only the picture could grow old, and I stay young forever), on the odd relationship he had with portraiture too. Albright was trained under his father as an old time (i.e. Renaissance) German realist painter, and believed that a picture had a direct even magic connection to the person being depicted. For him, the goal of the portrait was to capture the sitter’s soul. His problem was, how to capture the soul in a realist art that had long since disavowed that goal? His personal struggle was part of a larger cultural one too. The contest of modern art in terms of portraiture was to wrest the power over content or approval of the portrait from the patron or sitter as prototype, to the artist, whose power was henceforth more important. While in 1810, a patron felt free to dictate terms to the artist, by 1910, however the likeness came out, one was thrilled to have been represented by Picasso and the sitter just said thank you. This transfer of power was reinforced by a retreat of Western art from soul to psychology, and to the psychology of sitter as captured only by the genius of the artist. But Albright did not subscribe to the modernist creed of the work of art as independent agent, a mere expression of the artist’s view of the sitter. He still believed that portraiture was a way to get at something in or behind the sitter. Therefore, he was, fundamentally, an anti-modernist, or a premodernist, for him, the reality was in the sitter, it was the job of the artist to capture that something and transfer it to the portrait, and then convey the capture of the spirit to the viewer. Albright’s job as an artist was to get to that soul, and bring it forward into portraiture. He therefore had to mark “soul” in the sitter, in some way. Living in a time when in art this spiritual reality seemed closed off to him, he was forced to adopt an end-around stratagem whereby after turning away from his impossible goal, he found a compensating locale for it in another field or adjacent culture in modern life, and then imported that look to instill negatively, as it were (I mean as in a photograph), the soul of the person, rendered in the vocabulary of the counterreality he had created, into a representation of the person. Turning away from the impossibility of painting as an art capturing soul itself, his experience as a medic in World War I, exposing him to decaying bodies, lead to a lifelong interest in the cadaveresque look of such bodies as a metaphor for the tortured relationship of soul to body in a soulless era. He ended up with a style which conducted spirit into the sitter but had such intrusive power that it caused depicted physical reality to appear to decay. Albright’s decayed look is a visual counterpart to prostration, veiling or masking in the presence of a god force believed to be too powerful for the viewer to gaze upon (therefore, a cult device but with an intercessionary inflection). The little example collected by the Marxhausen, Self Portrait—Division Street (1947), is a print of Albright’s typical production in the 1940s, it shows pretty succinctly the nature of his struggle, and his strange solution to the problem of capturing a person’s soul—in this case his own–through portraiture.

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The picture of……refers to the condition of a portrait being a contested terrain between spirit in and representation of self in modern and contemporary art; the of…..implies that as the name and then the image of the sitter was erased, a number of indirect and open-ended strategies were retained by artists to keep a memory of the image. Too often we pass by portraits flatly, without considering if we have just seen an icon, a relic, a mark, a mirror, a two-way mirror, a mask, a trophy, an effigy, an avatar, a scarecrow, a jugate, or any other of the many ways in which human beings engage in what I will call “selfplay.” The Picture of….enlists agency theory to implore viewers to look at the third dimension of portraiture in the modern era.

I have arranged portraits in The picture of…… in a series of one-on-one conversations, sometimes agreeing with each other, sometimes not, to demonstrate how the trajectory of the relationship between the viewer, artist, sitter and reality behind the sitter altered, like the foldings of a screen, from picture to picture over the course of the struggle by modernist and postmodernist artists to capture self in representations of self in art. My pairing of occultly related pieces is an attempt to restore three dimensions to this viewing. For example, it might seem highly strange that I place next to Ivan Albright a picture by Lucio Fontana, a nice little slash (albeit etched version) work from the 1960s. Conceto Spaziale. A. (1968). Standard reading of Fontana is that he was a pure abstractionist of the zero degree group who believed not only in the independence of the painting as an object with its own reality, but that its only reality was the surface and support itself, a place with no “degree” of atmosphere, a place of zero degrees. In fact, most of the zero degree artists chose to minimalize their art into the simplest of gestures to demonstrate that in the microspace between the application of the gesture and the surface, there did in fact still open up an irreducible micro vestige of fictive space and even a hint of the abhorred referential reality behind. Fontana was believed to slash at his paintings to deconstruct in a dematerialized way the paint stroke, any other implication of his art was overlooked. He became famous, and created a body of work breathtaking in its formal economy. But in 2005 in an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery we all found out that all along Fontana was a closeted seeker after the world behind that slash, he wanted to go through that slash and down the wormhole into a dream state that he likely imagined as a resituation of the foreclosed reality behind in a micro-expanded fictive space inside the zero degree he had created. The exhibition recreated gallery after gallery of installations in which Fontana lead you physically at life size through wall-size slashes and in the dark you encountered the entoptic creatures that lived in that magic, nightvision space. Fontana was a modernist who sought an end-around way to get back to the realist mission of capturing the reality behind or spiritual reality in art. He was, though he came up with a totally different strategy, a brother in spiritual art with Albright (and Albright had a fairly high reputation among the European postwar L’Art Brut artists–when Dubuffet came to New York, he only wanted to meet Duchamp and Albright). Together, Albright and Fontana also highlight from the first the struggle in modern and contemporary art, between secular art and vestiges of a desire for spiritual or faith-based art.

Spiritual is a tough word, in discussion of contemporary art (even, though less so, in modern art). Use that word, and pretty soon the painter is doing up tarot cards and illustrating wispy goddesses—and not at all in the art world. But what it really means, in agency theory, is that painting is related to spirituality in a way that parallels how works of pre-art, or art before the era when art was released from subservience to religious cult, were related to the god of the cult. In the original formula, likely devised in ancient Egypt, when worshippers congregated around the image of the god in statue form to through its agency offer the god food or say prayers, they believed that the cult spirit came forward from some imagined place behind the tomb or temple into the statue, to possess it, so that the worshippers felt, during their period of worship, that they were in the presence of the god. It was this movement that defined a statue as a cult statue. In subsequent Middle East and Western culture, however, this “idolatry” became suspect, and the image of the god was proscribed and chased out of most religious practice. Christianity in its early form abolished all imagery of the god, and both Judaism and Islam in the Middle Eastern-Western tradition enforced severe prohibition against images of all kinds. Early medieval Christianity was repeatedly racked by wars over images, between iconophiles (or iconodules), those who believed that images are needed to draw more people to religion and spirit, and iconoclasts, who argued that images lead one astray. (The iconoclastic battles, however, also gave us a whole slew of other, if negative, magic cultic actions surrounding the representations of self). The Greek Orthodox Church, in the tenth century, in the wake of a civil war over this issue, gradually worked out a compromise formation by which the Greek Icon was allowed to represent God in a schematic way, as a kind of holy relic of God himself. Modelled on the mandylion or the veronica, the actual cult figure, Jesus, for example, could be represented by an indirect impression of himself on earth, in the form of an acheiropoetoi (not made by human hands) “work of art.” That indirect image, a miracle face resulting from Jesus wiping sweat off his own face, could be the basis for a representation of him hereafter, it was a likeness relic. Relic taking was then extended to any number of the onionskins that saints shed when leading life, their bodies, their head, their limbs, their clothing, any object they might have touched, any representation of an effect of their body, a mark, a scratch, a wound, any relic was thereafter admissible as an indirect image of selfhood. In the relic was that there was no depletion of agency from the original to the copy in it, having touched the original it was, by the logic of traditional magic, the original. As a result of this accommodation to reality, in addition to cult images, or representations of the self, the economy of representation also developed a whole vocabulary of relics. The GrecoRoman tradition of offering trophies, consisting of strange representations of the defeated by means of their armor, in thanksgiving for military victories, added to the economy. That trophies were then brought as relics to shrines to thank gods for victories, making them into votive images, deepened their relationship to the original image. Each time another iconoclastic battle raged, it only resulted in a shift from direct to indirect representational means. As a result, it can be argued that in the modern period we continue to represent the self in a host of distributed ways proceedings from actual images, to relics, trophies, votives and other means. How you stand on the issue of icons (the art world is by and large iconoclastic, the culture at large ridiculously iconodule) it all comes down to calibrating your emotions to a tolerable level of distance from the original in the representation. We continue today to see iconoclastic hygiene as a source of debate in both the field of religion and in mainstream secular culture, and of course when the two cultures clash.

My general impression is that the same sort of prohibition that happened in premodern religious life against imagery has happened to portraits in the modern era. Portraits as an art form are oddly suspect, straight on representation of the self has attracted to it an air of antiqueness and out-of-dateness. As the art world progressed in the postwar years away from any attachment to realism, portraiture as the sole harbor of faith in the drive by art to capture the thing behind the work of art in life in modern life faded into the past. Abstract expressionism, pop art, media art, minimalism and conceptualism, the straight portrait was disparaged as a realist relic. Artists who still sought through paint to capture the surface of life or the character of a sitter were considered retro. The whole notion of a work of art being linked to life in a way that did not address how mediation interfered with that assumption became suspect. In other words, the ethos of “straight” photography but also portraiture gave way to the notion of construction. The work of art was to be about the construction of reality in the artist’s mind.

Curators at Concordia Univ. stepped into this problematic nexus, by assembling the core of the Markhausen Collection of Art. Connected to a religious college, it is clear that he assembled the collection, with many quirky choices that one might well concede are dated, with a goal of straddling the modernist cult of painting and the traditional culture of faith and representation in the context of religion. While in the culture at large the two cultures separated out from each other almost entirely, he sought in the body of contemporary art–with bursts of attempting this rapprochement in the 1940s and again in the 1980s, where the two peaks of its collecting of portraiture appear to exist–to see how or if the cult image could be acceptable in the context of contemporary art, defined as contemporary art with some indirect reference to religious themes. The fact that Concordia is a Lutheran College also figures in, and that he steered a compromise course with regard to representing figures would follow in the footsteps of Luther himself, who saved imagery for Lutheranism, against the extreme iconoclastic proscriptions of Calvin, by allowing for an image in a marginal way to “illustrate” the moral lesson linked to a line of scripture.

The second problem is that between 1940 and 1980 as the progress of contemporary art became increasingly, and, finally, entirely, secular, religion dropped out of contemporary art, and separated off entirely into its own specialized world of “church art,” most of which is very far indeed from acceptable as contemporary art. Against this background, I see in the collecting drive of the Marxhausen collection a strong, genuine determination to collect contemporary art with accommodation of some residual religious themes, accepting limitations on the presentation of those themes. The result of this curious overlap is that the Markhausen collection has a fairly good selection of a number of works of art informed by indirect strategies adapted by artists in the modern and postmodern periods to represent the self. This visual vocabulary imitates the same series of strategies developed in historical culture to accommodate worship of a cult image from afar, conceding to a visual distance based on an agreed-upon limitation of the representation of God in an imagistic way. This means that with regard to modern art, I can talk of marks, effects, relics, souvenirs and trophies as indirect representations of self.

I have set up the show as two ongoing encounters with the portrait in the context of the nexus between religion and contemporary art in recent times. In the first gallery, the modern period (pre-1980); in the second, the postmodern period (post-1980).

In the first gallery, the artists in the collection sought some contact with the reality behind, but modern art forced them to adopt indirect postures. Some artists exploit the vocabulary of bodily marks, some physical, others not, there is a good deal of shadow play in indirectly representing the self (Levine to Lindner), also smudges and even scratches (Tapies).

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It appears from some work that modern artists thought representing self through reduction of it to bodily effects enhanced expression (the ‘figurative expressionist” work in the show has aged the worst, however). There are a number of relic-taking strategies evident, the self represented by a thing, an object, an abstract keepsake, a memory. There is only one instance of personal effect-taking used negatively to do voodoo on a memory (School Days (1969, Jasper Johns).

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The self is also represented in trophy form, as a representation as an emblem of victory (Curry)

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or defeat (Scholder), which can be somewhat uncomfortable.

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Artists who wanted to be more overtly religious, devised indirect mediated way of representing Jesus (Roualt, painting expressionistically framed in the medium of stained glass), or Jimenez (art as votive painting). It is interesting that modern art felt free to distort images of Jesus, and depict him in personal ways: the modern artist being the modern artist, even if he or she was a good Christian, subordinated Jesus to the artist’s subjectivity. In images like Dali’s St John of the Cross, ,and then even in the lovely white-framed blue abstract painting filled with crucifixes, Go Ye Therefore, by Richard Cammerer

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mimicking the strategy of early Christians by representing Christ only in code there is a tendency to create what I call “Jeez Louises,” which I define as, in contrast to iconoclastic desecration of images of Jesus, visual strategies devised to depict a personal Jesus by marking him in this way or that, the distortion or marking then personalizing him (these could be construed as inherited from the extreme meditational votive devices imaging forth relic worship in medieval times, as, for example, the tradition of visualizing the arma Christi). In the case of Richard Nelson, clearly a religious image, the personal is stamped right on his skin, in the form of strange sigils, as if the artist is internalizing the marks of the lashes and the spear as sins by which he afflicted the image of the model of moral living he failed to live up to. Though to include Jesus in an exhibition of contemporary art might seem a bit retro, you would be surprised how very common Jeez Louises are in contemporary art practice today.

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The pop artists devised a new type of icon, the media representation of the self. They also deconstructed the icon, by engaging in a good deal of iconoclasm against icons in the media (little of that here). In the 60s too, some artists saw that the self could be represented in deadpan documentary/bureaucratic form (Close) to comment on a civilization where the self is all but lost. If the self could be represented by media image, it could also exist by tokens or objects, but in the manner of the way “properties”, physical objects that refer back to the self, placed next to the self, are used in movies.

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Some pop-oriented artists seemed to want to make a statement about modern man’s materialism by representing selves as objects, or even as robots. It is still today common (though the parlance if all 60s) to say in conversation that a man “objectifies” a woman if he thinks of her in a partial way overly focused on her body, the bigger picture indicates that modern artists generally “objectified” all representations of the self.

When we come to the 1980s, a great change occurs, still little understood. It was all covered under the general rubric of Neoexpressionism, and, believe me (I was there), the return to figurative imagery, and to representations of the self in an apparently non-object-oriented, non-indirect, non-mediated and non-documentary way was met by minimalists and Pop Art theorists alike as a terrible regression to the bad old days of the presumptions of realist or expressionistic art. But what the critics failed to see is that the generation after 1950 was the first age group to come of age after a critical mass of media culture had been obtained (roughly, 1963), ensuring that all people would live thereafter more inside their head than any of the modernist generations (the last modernist generation, meaning they grew up on dualist modernist notions, was the classic Baby Boomers, now all north of 70 years old). For now on, art was located inside the head, what you saw on canvas, or even in the gallery, was not in any way a struggle in objective external reality to represent the self in the world, or a struggle to express yourself by getting what was inside you outside you, but images popping up inside the mind and staying in the mind and simply recorded by artist as amanuensis, and witnessed by the viewer, externally in a work of art. This internalization of cognition stirred up a whole new class of representations of figures of inner selves, called “avatars.” They are not classic portraits, self-portraits or even expressionistic portraits, but figural and facial representations of states of mind, even internal demons, inside the head. A second class of these internal figuring-forths relating to nerves and body part anxiety I call homunculi, which happen to be a very popular form of address at present. In discussing avatars, I use the word “figurative” not to discuss “the figure” as in a life class, or engage in a jejune debate between “figurative” and “abstract” art, but as a “figure of speech” of an internal state of mind. The figurative imagination used to be the primary means by which mankind managed its inner demons, modernism expelled or demonized it. But perhaps it returns. We all know what avatars look like, because Munch’s The Scream is not a portrait, but a figurative representation of the ‘scream’ of panic that Munch said he felt rise up and call out in his mind.

Jean Michel Basquiat painted nothing other, for his entire short career, than the demons he feared and the icons he aspired to as they tormented him or danced in victory in his mind—the collection has an excellent example, Untitled (1982). A blue head emerges as the “avatar of the day” to guide him or direct him as he negotiates a work that is otherwise like a diary of mind.

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The case of Francesco Clemente is very interesting, here, too, and I. (1982), a woodcut, is an excellent, “classic 1980s” Clemente. It is more or less a self-representation, but really a representation of the self of the artist looking as it were into a mirror and then seeing rise up on his own face a demon of some other concern that then worries him. I hailed Clemente as early as 1982 in a show I saw on its opening day at Sperone Westwater on Greene Street as a master seer of “physiogonomies”, or faces seen in textured surfaces. All “avatars” more or less rise up as a result of nervous excitation as physiognomies. Physiognomic perception is hardwired into the fight-flight mechanism of the human brain so that we see the bear in the bush even if it is not there, because to see it and it not be there is much safer for us as a species than to not see it and it be there—it is an evolutionary nervous precautionary alarm system built into us. To see faces in things was the ne plus ultra, I felt, of a new class of wholly-subjective postmodern art, where the world was nothing but a reflection without of the world within, not so much a fantasy world as a milieu of internal fiction made real. In that first show, Clemente presented all sorts of chunks of stucco mounted on walls and then saw in them faces and drew them in place in perfect figure-ground relation to the object, and the perfection of his seeing and his placement thrilled me. I might have peered into just such a drawing, imagining myself as him looking into a bathroom mirror, and freaking out to see that face of his tortured self rise up. I did not realize how deeply his art ushered me as an acolyte as it were into the new dream world of the 1980s until in the gallery I turned around and–since this was shortly after the famous New York Magazine cover story that made Mary Boone and the whole Soho scene famous, and he was in it–I recognized him, there was Clemente himself in the flesh! I suspect he knew I got it, because I remember he looked at me intently, I looked at him, then I looked back at the work, then back again to him, and I realized that I had been caught like a fly in a spider web in an entirely internal narcissistic nexus between artist and avatar in order to see with more insight and depth the power of the demon in that drawing.

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One can also see avatar strategies of representation of self in Donald Baechler, a major artist of the time, in Richard Boseman (Rapids, 1987), the falling man being a familiar avatar of suicide ideation

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in Jane Quick to See Smith, who perhaps sensed the similarity between postmodern and traditional Native American spirituality (a totem is more often than not an avatar), and others.

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The second gallery seeks to make the point that while modern art distanced itself from the representation of self by means of indirect relic strategies in the material-physical-mediated world, postmodern art left behind that materialist economy altogether and reestablished a new internal self-cult milieu in the context of which avatars arise, ever since. Once, portraiture sought to capture in painting the spirit or soul of a physical person sitting before the artist, the cult image. In the modern period, that goal was rejected in favor of art in-itself, in the context of which only indirect means to represent selves through the agency of artistic genius were allowed. By the time we get to Clemente, the cutting edge of representation is to capture the demons in the self as informed by the example of artist-as-person.

Which brings me back to Ivan Albright: there is a second way in which The Picture of Dorian Gray was a haunted truth-telling picture for him. Not only did it embody in it the internal struggle of a spiritual artist to represent spirit within the restrictions of modernist portraiture, but it was the only work of art that he gleefully worked on in collaboration with his younger identical twin brother, Malvin. Yes, Ivan Albright became “famous” famous, as a LIFE magazine spread of 1946 shows, by that Picture of Dorian Gray, and as one half of the “Albright Twins.”

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Apparently, Ivan and Malvin had a terrific time working together on both the original version of the portrait of Dorian as young and beautiful (though this was not used in the movie), and as Dorian as old and corrupted. They really played it up for the press, the twin sensation of the season, working on the movie studio lot in Hollywood. But it is also true that that painting was a turning point for them as twin artists, for after that Ivan rode it to fame, while Malvin was overshadowed (pic, Albright Twins, Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), at Art Institute of Chicago)

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Their twin episode culminated when they showed together at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1950, but the critics loved Ivan and dismissed Malvin. The younger twin subsequently lost interest in his art, and eventually just stopped painting. So, it could be conjectured, of their Dorian Gray moment, that Malvin poured his own soul in an act of extreme self-sacrificing collaboration, in the bliss of the twin state, into that picture, but then lost his individual soul in it. As a younger twin, he faded away, a fate which provides a classic “twin study” of the power or danger of relationships in general. Looking into the Albrights’ case, I asked, was there anything I could find out that struck me as constructive twin behavior, a strategy by which, had he better understood it, he might have maintained his position? and which, if discovered, might serve all persons as helpful in negotiating relations in life? There was one. Ivan and Malvin in the late 1940s were in a few shows together, and they liked it that with the name Albright their name usually always came first in the list of artists printed on brochures. But then as a joke Malvin changed his name to a fictional one, Zissly, so that on those lists of artists in the show while Ivan was first, he’d be last. Then, when he found out that other Z names came after him, he altered the name again to Zsissly, to be sure to come last. Why did he do this? Alpha and omega: anyone who has spent any time in the presence of twins in their pure natural state (without having been singletoned to an awareness that they can’t behave like that) will know that it is alpha and omega when they are together, it is all A to Z, there is no one else in the world. Twin studies seek answers as to the proportion of influence of genes versus environment in life, but the truth of twinning is in the relationship. That is, it is the space between, the relation between the two ‘individuals’ that is more important than the separate individuality (and comfort with dependency, demonized by singletons, is a distinguishing twin trait). Exploring this strategy, I wondered, was there any strategy of self-representation by which singletons might signal their willingness to use doubling up with others as a strategy to strengthen their position in the world, was there a device in art that spelled out the dynamics of relationship. There was one, and in fact, it is quite well known. The jugate form of representation of self places a profile of the self in close alignment with other selves, to signal to the viewer that the person in front has strong back up and a deep relationship with the figure behind. The device originated in Roman coinage where the Emperor was depicted in jugate relationship with a god, or with a fellow regent or other arrangement of ruling. But there is also a very rich class of portraiture in which the self is depicted in relation with others (American Gothic anyone?). And, now, can anyone pick out the peculiar bias of the selection I have made from the Marxhausen Collection? there are, as far as I can see, only two examples of artists in the modern period making use of jugate strategies to communicate that their strength derives from their relationship to others and not from within. Emelio Amero’s Where? (1948), where a family, in art deco monumental style, is twisted up in each other

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and in Federico Castellon’s The Family (1946), a truer, aligned Roman-style profile jugate formation, in triplicate.

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Overwhelmingly, the collection, and modernism (and, then, even more so postmodernism, which I date as having ended in 1999), focused on the individual, and representation of the self as a solitary entity who could stand on his or her own (though I concede relation is implied in all agency strategies). But picturing the relationship of the self to others seemed a compromising burden to the modernist (Amero’s work tempts me to think it an expression of Latino familismo, a completely different value system from Anglo-American individualism, in which family is prioritized over individual, but it is hard to say). But jugate formations are quite a promising class of portraiture, with extensive use in movies, in helping artists, perhaps, move past the limits of individualism (it is possible that selfies are essentially jugate in form). In any case, my interest in the missing jugate self, the muted relationality of modern portraiture, prompted me as a device to present works in pairs. Moreover, evidence of jugation in the Albrights is also a device by which I can circle back to my first duo of portraits, the very odd couple of an Ivan Albright and a Lucio Fontana, there too is the alpha and omega of the exhibition, an old time attempt to have back the cult spirit of authentic realist portraiture back, and an entirely abstract way, divested of all apparent connection to that program, nonetheless circling round to exactly the same desire to capture the spirit in the self.

The picture of……refers to the condition of a portrait being a contested terrain between spirit in and representation of self in modern and contemporary art; the of…..implies that as the name and then the image of the sitter was erased, a number of indirect and open-ended strategies, ultimately derived from historical religious culture, were retained by artists to keep a memory of the image. But that of…. also implies that the journey to find a way to fully represent self in art is not yet over, that we may be on the verge of a new age of jugate-based relationalism, all of which means that, wherever you are, in modern, postmodern, or “contemporary” contemporary art (since 2001), you might be surprised to find a portrait of a person lurking underneath, and that contemporary art in a way, though it often appears to eschew portraiture, remains firmly committed to capturing the picture of….

Robert Mahoney covered the New York art scene for 20 years (active 1985-2005) as art reviewer for Arts, Flash Art, Artnet, Time Out New York and many other magazines. He curated Nomos: the new word art (1991); Value (1991); and Cultus (1994). From 1994 to 1999, he was the Public Relations Director of the Queens Museum of Art, New York. He taught for 15 years at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and is currently (2015) teaching a graduate seminar, Art and Agency, at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In Lincoln, he resides…a few blocks away from his older identical twin brother.


Rachel Harrison’s More News at Greene Naftali: art as roadkill in a chaotic America, June 18, 2016.

Rev,. July 28, 2016.

Note: again, this is a POV review, or a visual essay/thought piece on a work of contemporary art, not a review within the standard confines of editorial control

Rachel Harrison’s More News installation at Greene Naftali last month offers a good chance to try out agency theory on contemporary art installations, as it has elements to it which do not seem to be possibly understandable from either aesthetic, formalist or even neo-conceptualist terms. That is, there is no great aesthetic beauty in evidence, though Harrison’s drawings are not bad; there certainly is no formalism present, though it is also true that arrangement of space owes something to the legacy of formalism as filtered through minimalism, and then, the work is not about the cultural representation or migration of a certain type of image, now re-presented in artistic form, for that re-presentation vis a vis the original presentation in the culture, too emit some form of irony or sarcasm or whatever. No, these do not work, to chug the work to life. In fact, the only thing that grounds this work in reality, and in the reality of art, is a rather indirect glancing of it all by the institutional critique, as it is challenged and beleaguered by the state of chaos in politics in the USA today.

The grounding element of the show is in the back room, where you would not be forgiven for giving a quick look, then turning on one’s heel. But this backroom is the sanctum sanctorum of the affair, as it were, because the works shown were damaged in a prior museum showing, and Harrison’s intention is to make of them relics of that act of iconoclasm, and show them as damaged to the public. These works were hung in the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, when, at the time, a disgruntled former employee, entered into the holy of holies of art, and opened fire, to vent his rage at having this or that grievance. In the gunshot, some of Harrison’s works were damaged. As a result, Harrison decided that, ok, they were damaged, but, I suppose I will collect the insurance, but, also, in a weird sort of way, having been caught in the crossfire, here are authentic works of art that were actually in reality caught up in one of the great dramas of the current moment, that is, that gunshot has broken out as a primary means, in public space, to settle disputes, by people who feel powerless to exert themselves by any other means. The works were not seriously damaged, but each now carries a “more real” spot, an act of inadvertent, or roadkill iconoclasm, which connects them to the reality of the real in an actual way. That is, like elements of relic secreted in medieval icons, there are spots or holes in these drawings that, in fact, are more real, and more indexical, more connected to the real, than the art around them. For that, they are relics of a moment, and the moment is the anger of an employee, and these then are testaments to his grievance. Given the way they are arranged, with reverence, and lots of space; given that there is a Harrison construction placed in the space between the outer room, and this inner room, I am pretty sure that Harrison means for this space to be the cult space of the exhibition, the final destination, the last clue or link that pulls it all together. Since a bullet hole in a work of art does not have any meaning except in an agentic way, it is only by way of agency theory that this strange display can be understood. Here is a closeup of Valid like Salad (2012), which ironically shot Al Pacino, if as Scarface I cant tell

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and this was already mounted, crooked, on a suspect monument, suggesting ironic antimonument of the moment (crooked painting signals chaos)

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But, then, Harrison must have thought, how do I then represent the America which produced this crime against my art? How, in the space around these reliquaries of violence, this art as roadkill, representing all the roadkill and collateral damage of American life today, how do I create a space which gives meaning to this relic event and meaning? She did this by an old-fashioned gambit, separating the outer gallery, from the holy of holies, the front room, from the backroom (usually a site of contraband, or such). This spatialization of cult is so common and runs do deep in history as to not require commentary, but I have noticed that a number of artists have of late in recent years been resorting to it to give an intensifying logic to installations that otherwise don’t seem to have much ground anymore (I saw this, for example, in a major way, in Bjaarn Melgaard at Casey Kaplan in 2013). Harrison then took this further by representing the inner space as the art gallery, and the outer space as a larger “out there,” America as a whole, and how then to represent America as a whole, and her worries that the country is coming apart? She did this in a rather simple, brilliant way.

I have written before of the glass onion/lattice form of communication. It is a light sleep stage of hypnogagy which in waking life creates a dreamy vigilogogic space in which the mind by way of symbolic and simple cues, recreates by means of reverie, a kind of vision of the world, in a succinct way. Lattice formation art in my view started with processions and parades, with triumphs and the like, and then proceeded from there. But one of the key elements of lattice presentation is the effigy. An effigy is a traditional symbolic representation of an enemy or a bogey that the town seeks, as one might chase a scapegoat out, to carry through the town, to exorcise, and eventually burn it. It is a symbolic assassination and witch burning, even a symbolic lynching of some entity or bogey that it fears. While effigies can also represent positive figures, admired or remembered, the sharpest, rawest effigies tend to hew pretty close to the common phrase, “burn in effigy”. Harrison therefore decided to represent America today in its craziness and out of controlness, with everybody from all standpoints standing firm in their unblinking convictions, drawing hard lines between groups (a state of mind, of a retro essentialist sort, I call the lockdown), and then at the same time, for that, overriding the traditional channels of power and line-drawing, by crossing lines a lot of late; Harrison has chosen to represent this world of the new chaotic America in the figure of Donald Trump. Now, most of the time, most figurative art about Donald Trump is protest art, and all of it closely hewing to the conventions of political cartoons or posters and the like, and raw, crude, and not very creative, if visual, invective. For that, much of the spin cycle about Trump is mere surface chickenfighting between effigies, symbols clashing against symbols, effigies jousting with other effigies, most of the time missing the point. All of this would seem to be entirely “consumed” in the moment as political humor has become part of the ersatz way in which culture today consumes politics and then shits it out the other end in three days time, with no lasting effect (a pace of consumption accelerated by the shallowness of internet coverage, a 10 character twitter device no doubt on the horizon). While all of these artists scramble mightily to find the Shepard Fairey moment in the midst of all these vilifications of the monster, a simpler method took life in Mexico, when Mexicans, protesting Trump’s hardline statements about Mexican immigrants, and the need to build a wall, carried effigies of Trump in parade. And, of course, given the fact that Mexico has an indigenous tradition that grew out of effigies, that allows people at a party to buy in to a symbolic sacrifice or offering, or votive event, at a party or such, these effigies turned out to be strange expansions of pinatas. So, Harrison, intrigued, bought a bunch of Trump pinatas (my reading), and hung them around the gallery.

The fun part of this is that the arrangement is lattice, that is, spread out, and all over; and the units of meaning are blank faced and minimal, that is, they are simple, they are not vituperative or leading, they are just what they are, pinatas of Trump. For that, they remain effigies with a close relationship to the original, they also remain, if presented to art, very close, spatially, culturally, to the piñata itself, so that the means of address to these types of things is always kept in front of one’s eyes. If Harrison had gone too fuzzy, or got too arty, or done too much in the way of illustration, all that would have domesticated the objects in the world of art. But by keeping it simple, by not altering the found objects that much, then by spacing them in a way that was basic and real, their quality as effigy was retained, and, more importantly, one’s address of them, if only visually, kept in it the implication of a baseball bat, as these objects were meant to, made to be hit, hit hard, hit often, and split open, whence a splash of candy would reward you for your work.

The best thing about this installation is that it is orchestrated spatially, so that it bounces off the walls. That is, it is not situated here, or there, in the gallery, it is displayed everywhere, all over, vis a vis every single wall. The eye and the body wanders, and has to travel to the four corners of the whole space. Then too, there is an underlying logic of increasing violence, as the spacing of one’s earliest encounters are rather tame, then the spacings get more serious, and then they are all over the place

This is beautifully captured by photos in Contemporary Art Daily, which shows them face forward, as if hung

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then, back of that, only a head, another way to display effigies, especially in ancient Rome (at one point in the fourth century Roman Carthage, the town center was circled by EIGHT heads on poles of recently slain emperors or generals! By that point, mere 1st century delivery of heads to Caesar had been ritualized, so that when Constantius was killed in Gaul, his head was placed on a pole and paraded all the way to Rome(this from P Heather)).

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then there is as it were a tableaux made of pinatas, as if trying to say something separate

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there is then some disposal of some, and disposition of others, as what might really happen to pinatas, picked up in a parade, and, then, once done with, dumped

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then there are the wider shots of the whole parade setting, the use of the thing over time, the various uses of effigies

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and then from another angle, they even line up, and gain momentum in a kind of power walk, to parade, and promise mayhem, and emit worries, in the viewer that it is really taking off

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then we see that there is a broad array of them, and you have to zig zag through them, almost in a whack a mole way (in the putative whack space of the gallery)

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at last, the whole array

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and then a grounding, here Harrison I think representing “art” (the Duchamp rack trope) and grounding the viewing of them in the gallery (though I do not know exactly what this means) (the cement blocks do however suggest, with evidence of lines or strings all over the gallery (again, this is a musing based on a virtual viewing, not a review of a show I saw in person) suggest the possibility of a boobey trap Rube Goldberg effect in the gallery too)

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then everything does seem to end up going over the shoulder of the icon, back to a box in the background

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the box is sort of the center of the proceedings, but, again, I am not quite sure what it means

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but then we see that it is a characteristic Harrison device, a work of cardboard (and she has been doing a lot with this material of late) representing packaging, transience, pollution, but also material excess (my patronage of Amazon amazes me at the boxing that I receive, and then the boxes pile up into all but a Xmas tree of boxes, until I have to strip them down), this one however propped up by a Harrison assemblage leverage device

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and then we see that inside the box, is indeed packing popcorn, the snow of contemporary consumerism, the symbol, perhaps of wastage, and excess leading to wastage, and pollution, and then thrown out with the trash in the top of the pile of them (and I also relate this to Marlie Mul’s beautiful use of boxing in her show at Wilma Gold a while back), in a plastic bag, as if suffocating, or committing old school suicide, a picture of Trump, presented in a somewhat stuffed way, to represent the prototype, the cult figure, which all the effigies refer to, and to direct the proceedings to, not so much break the pinatas to let the candy splash out, that is, to accept life under a patronage system of a powerful paternalistic, but to focus on the batting, and the beating, and that it will all end up as even him getting beat down  and ending up in the trash (much like Mussolini, to whom Trump is so often compared to in a common meme, ended up hung from meathooks in a butcher shop) (the fact that upon closer look, see concrete anvil about small Trump figure in background, each set up is, in fact, a likely torture or killing, adds a rougher meaning to the final image, Trump undone by plastic bag suffocation)

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Thus, overall, this is an act of a symbolic ludic representation of the chaos of America’s current line-crossing chaotic state, like the country has become one big mad red cup party, splashed out 360 degrees on all the walls, bouncing off the walls (and for this it relates directly and immediately as THE installational gambit of the moment, Spring, 2016, to Jordan Wolfson’s mad red eyed demon mechanically yanked from wall to wall at Zwirner), involving you in the parading, and rioting, and shouting, and namecalling, and near violence of it all, always threatening violence, but suggesting patronage too (so it is an either or, which is the worst evil, which way will you choose, a nice fairy tale morale quality to this inbuilt irony), and then you come to at least Harrison’s view of it, that it will all end up in garbage time in America, with, hopefully, Trump himself disposed of on the ashheap of history (which in our day is a packing popcorn mountain).

This is a beautiful representation in a symbolic lattice form of the conflicted agentic motives of the moment: in the same presentation, by selection of a piñata, whose form kept things very close to life, you are asked to skate on the fine line between acknowledging the fear of those who vote for Trump because they think that outside forces are tearing the country apart, but, will, for that, reconstruct for America an apotropaic, warding off evil, fear-based country, its wagons circled against bogeys without, and setting upon scapegoats within, burning and beating their effigies, to get them out, all of this suggested, even as it keeps your eyes on the person Harrison believes is fomenting this fear; or there is the votive quality, the candy aspect of the piñata, a just as dangerous motive (in my view), the desire for gain, for booty, for spoils, for some profit from the patronage of a paternalistic system, and for that also to be gained from Trump (who essentially promises a secondhand Democracy with strong patrimonial networks handing out patronage jobs to those inside the loop, not unlike the late Roman Empire). And then for all that, on top, if you choose to just see as visual, it’s just a fun-serious fun riposte to Donald Trump, the effigy of the crazy man driving the country crazy at the moment.

But I did also want to suggest how this work only truly works because Harrison in the last 15 or so years has become much more adept at managing her installation space, and it is not only the spread out nature, but the different nature of addresses that one encounters as one weaves through things, that impresses, and inspires, and makes one feel, and feel its authenticity, and its conflicted and struggling agency. As a result of its bouncing off the walls nature, and since I was thinking of launching a Citizen Kane critique of a patronage president by using the example of Citizen Kane, this installation, how one walks through it, how, with a baseball bat imaginarily in the eye, one encounters it, and him, and his effigy, this reminded me a lot of the deeply conflicted rampage that Kane makes of Susan’s room, after she leaves him. Here too, he starts with a simple violation (and this could certainly be worked out with Burkert’s 19 step model of Greek sacrifice)

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he begins with what looks like relic keeping, or theft, he handles her suitcase, maybe to try to accommodate her, to have it sent on (I include FB paging here, to indicate this idea was generated there)

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but he cant do it, he loses his temper, now it is a weapon, launched, and a deep violation of the space, the beginning of his tantrum

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he begins to throw it all over, and his poses in this sequence remind me a lot of how the Trump pinatas were placed in Harrisons installation, facing every which way

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and here

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then as he passes, it is as if he wants to turn his passage into damage, he paws randomly, and errantly up at bedclothing, to tear if off with him, as he goes

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now he launches into full on destruction. He is in love, he loves her, every piece in the place, this is a shrine to her, but also maybe he is thinking, by letting her have this room, he let her separate herself from it, so it now becomes a symbolic desecration of her safe place, her personal space, and of her

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chairs are thrown, and Harrison may indeed have intended adjunct objects in the array to represent collateral objects that were tossed apart in the putative rampaging of the mad piñata beings thrown in America (I concede this reading suggests weird double meanings in terms of also commenting on how Trump has also been made into an effigy)

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of course, he attacks the art (it’s not a Pacino),and this links up the outer room of Harrison, to the inner, a metaphor made between Trump’s rampage in America, and the shooter’s in the museum, that shot her art, symbolic at this point of art, or, even, of Harrison, as it is in movies

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by the end, and this records the escalation of the chaos that Harrison I think deftly captured in the multiplication of the pinatas, and her photographer got perfectly in his or her depiction of the 360 spray of them, total out of control bezerkering, that is, he has gone from offended love, to missing her love, to hating her, to wanting to destroy her, to wanting to destroy this attack against him, to expunge and eras her from his record, to just out and out bezerker craze

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there is also a wonderful moment when he gets hung up with the shelves, and has to pull on them a few times, showing just how mad his determination is at this point, it is intentional, if out of control

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and a second try, reaching up, two handed

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and a third try, pushing it the other way

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finally, after another full 360 spin, comparable in my view to the wider shots of the Harrison installation the whole thing now is in shambles, the volcano is burning itself out, and the look of the place, if made use of as a template, finds another reason for Harrison’s minimalism in representing in the gallery the ravaged, and totally trashed state of the rampage

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but now, the really interesting thing, since Harrison’s photos also had a closeup, the rage at last dies down

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he stops, off camera, we feel him look around, and down, he sees an object, he picks it up

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it is hers, in her room, but it is appropriated by him, and it seems to represent something to him that is deep and calming, he takes it with him, his only trophy or relic from the rampage, a snow globe (Harrison’s Trump picture in the packing popcorn is inside a plastic bag) calming him down, we see him contemplate it

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and keep it, he walks away with it, it is of course this snow globe that was seen as one of the first objects of Xanadu, and was in his hand when he died, dropping it, uttering the world, Rosebud; and this snow globe too, that set the transition back in time to his idealized past in Colorado as a boy when he played with Rosebud, his sled, and then his childhood and his life was stolen away from him, so it has great meaning

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and then we see him stone face confront the world of his staff, which I guess is the whoosh, and then down he goes, down the wormhole, into the abyss eternal, his self having come apart, in one of the movie’s most famous shots

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but for me the better shot is after he has passed, the full on vision of the hell he has descended into, and this would seem to parallel the back gallery in the Harrison installation, a space left over from the break up and chaos of the country as represented in the outer gallery, where art is to serve only as relic-keeping for shootings, and more roadkill in American life, like anything else, down we go (can we look forward to there someday being a Museum of Shot Art? this is a start)

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I make no claim, of any sort, that Harrison had in mind this scene from Citizen Kane when she laid out the installation. But it did have about it a spatial logic that was the fullest possible expression, installation-wise (she called it a “situation,” and I am also thinking of other words to describe what’s going on in galleries today), of the broader point she was trying to make about the kind of America that resulted in the damage occurring in an art museum, even, as represented in the back room, where the specimens of roadkill are shown. As a result, too, of insight gained from the study of this film sequence, and its intense emotions and agencies (cult, rage, “invocation” (removal of its sacredness) of the holy place, like the Romans used to do), it is also made more apparent just how far from theclassic neoconceptual installational ethos Harrison has come, to move on fully and strongly into 21st century contemporary art, to encounter again in a magic/contagious way the cult space of a country filled with fear and loathing, and very possibly whooshing down that infinite abyss.