From the Archives: A Review That Doesn’t Suck

Comedy Comedy
Reviews aren’t always topical. Written in 2010, it continues to hold its own as a solid read, even if it is art criticism. 

When Narcissus leapt into the waters, in a rash attempt to grasp his own unflappable image of youth, he united desire with death; that is, once he tried to secure pure beauty, he transformed it into something fleeting, susceptible to age and decay. The works in Justin Thomas Schaefer’s solo exhibition Comedy Comedy appeal to this loss, a requiem for a youth that was already old in the livery of spring [Midway Contemporary Art; January 23—March 13, 2010]. This is just one motif in the exhibition’s alchemy of opposites, a space filled with dark holes and bright lights, fresh flowers and cold chrome, where neo-Romantic attempts at authentic emotion brush up against the cool, disinterested presence of minimalist materials. Schaefer’s works—all but one of the twelve are title-less, not even untitled—are composed of unprecious and marginal things. However banal they may seem—cinder blocks, store-bought t-shirts, rolls of toilet paper, and so on—they have been made unfamiliar through alteration or aestheticized, often ornamented with Baroque details.

In the first gallery, cinder blocks have been piled atop each other in a half-hearted attempt at building a labyrinthine structure, a ziggurat to nowhere. Pale violet and gray hues have been stained onto the surface of these ruins. Contributing to the exhibition’s dreamlike atmosphere and the ambiguous, hazy aura of its objects, circular clothing racks filled tightly with black t-shirts and bright, blinding light bulbs have been suspended upside-down from the ceiling. Walls painted a dark, cerulean blue are sparsely populated, save for a single, framed drawing and freshly cut flowers that hover under sheets of Plexiglass. A slumped-over rag doll in a dunce cap drowsily fades into the shadows. And yet, in this sensuous reverie, everything is dying. Left to age and rot throughout the length of the exhibition, the framed flowers become a memento mori—at their peak, they are en route to death. Even the absurdly hanging t-shirts are signifiers of instability, of empty masculinity and its failures: these are cheap t-shirts, not fashionable v-necks or collared shirts that would otherwise signal a successful entry into adulthood or a white-collar workplace.

The arrangement of commercial objects that rot and float—objects given an almost supernatural agency—also appears in the recent works of Urs Fischer (a solitary croissant dangling from the gallery ceiling of the New Museum) and Tatiana Trouvé (who, to a more oppressive effect than Fischer’s absurdities, combines the vocabulary of Robert Morris’ cold steel with horror and S&M in The Antechamber). Imbuing ordinary objects with horror, dread, or some other spirit again relates to the myth of Narcissus.  Although not usually thought of as such, it is a myth of interminable sadness. Having perceived himself to be resolutely alone, Narcissus turned his object of desire inward, an act rooted in the horror of being unable to have another. The projection of unrequited desire is thus secured onto Schaefer’s inanimate, yet quite lively, collection of objects that remain critically distant and aloof—they are desired, but not owned.

Schaefer’s presentation—a collection of visual phenomena—makes language feel awkward and writing becomes an ill-formed means of transcendence from this space with no verbal guidelines, just visual cues. However, as in a dream, where one encounters bits and pieces that do not make sense on their own, visual analogues begin to appear among the individual works. For instance, the light bulbs dangling from inside the clothing racks refract a gorgeous, amorphous splatter onto the floor, a motif repeated in the painted marks on the cinder blocks, the ornate curvature of the palm fronds held behind Plexi, and the outline of a monstrous figure in the framed ink drawing. And yet, maybe these relationships, these meanings between objects, are mere phantoms, just the lies we tell ourselves to make sense of our surroundings.

Turning the corner to leave the first gallery, a reverse projection video plays in the doorway, preventing entry into the last room. In this looped video, Schaefer finally appears, hidden behind a clownish mask of white face paint and wearing prison stripes. He dances and pulls at his suspenders in awkward movements and, at one point, drags a metal rod as a prop. His only respite from this Sisyphean performance is a sad primping effort where he crouches down to tousle his hair. The artist-as-clown motif is heavy-handed, but in this exhibition, it’s an apt reminder of dwindling expectations. If this is a comedy, the artist’s joke delivers no respite.

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